Kanoguti’s Walking Mesmerize

Kanoguti's Walking Mesmerize

Words and artwork by Stephen Beirne. This piece is community funded. If you enjoyed this article, please support my writing by visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron. 

Kanoguti’s Walking is the quintessential walking simulator—sorry, phantom ride. The core conceit is you must oblige yourself to move through the length of a straight, linear corridor in search of meaning, granted through a number of less tangible avenues than is usual for a medium predicated on make-believe.

To this end, Walking slightly resembles titles like Sophie Houlden’s stripped-down The Linear RPG. It’s similar in that you walk a line in lieu of a corridor but differs by its message being more conspicuous to a wayward player. The Linear RPG flaunts the language of RPGs, but not their mechanics, to elicit what many read as a critique of the genre’s modern degradation. It stays aloof and above its kin while allowing the presence of structural similarities, seeming enough like an RPG to remind us of its generic subject matter without becoming it intricately.

Both videogames engineer their messages through reductionist sentiments; they have the luxury of drawing on oceans of precedent to form the basis of communally available metatextual foundation. While Sophie Houlden uses this embedded self-reflection to perform genre reference and (potential) satire, Kanoguti chooses instead to make the player the burgeoning subject matter.

Walking uses only two buttons in mutual exclusivity: one to move forward, and one to crane your neck around to look behind you. Releasing the latter button turns the camera back to its default direction, so you’ll never be able to spin on your heel and head off right the way you came. This initially jars against what we might expect from this sort of videogame: strict restrictions on our trajectory confine and repel, denying us the core appeal of wandering in Proteus or exploration in Bernband.

As a mechanic ‘looking back’ is a novelty, and as we adjust our mental model to fit these unexpected parameters, a curiosity. Why do I have the ability to look around if my path can’t be altered? Why would I want to re-examine the length of the corridor I’ve only just trod? What is ‘looking back’ for? It seems a thing-in-itself, the option to look back the way we came. Juxtaposed against the conventional ability to look around freely in games far and wide it’s ambiguously suggested as a statement, perhaps on all we take for granted, perhaps on the inexorable march of time.

There are a few motifs shared among Kanoguti’s videogames and software, many of which I can’t link directly but you can find here, that illustrate an interest in patterned structures. Sokoe Nobotte and Repeating Stories cycle us upward in space and forward in time before reversing to their origins in tumultuous climax. Evird3D speeds us down an eternal road to rack up a score; Watching fixes us in place while spying on a man creeping away and crashing towards us. Paradise MV hypnotises us with loops of geometry and music, while Re-SMP invites us to make our own loops.

Some of these thread what could be described as elements of horror to affect a sense of disruption inside their composition. Like Walking, Mortuary recalls more common systems of first-person perspective games while withholding the archetype as a whole: we can look freely at the boxed enclosure of a doll’s face but are unable to move, forcing us to writhe in witness as it melts to nothing. Although our powerlessness is important here, we are not stricken as passive due to all that we lack; rather, the act of looking, and our role as witness, is heightened to superluminal through our own raised self-consciousness.

While this runs counter to much conventional thought on the relationship between player and videogame, I should note that it works for Kanoguti because they swing us between the two states of sublime and superluminal by keying into the therapeutic nature of repetitious behaviour.

In allowing our minds to wander during a routine task, we grow self-suggestive and lull into a daze. Jolting us back into alert with a shock (a jump scare or unexpected twist) provokes us to become hyper self-aware[1]. We blush in realisation at our self-involvement—perception of ourselves as filtered through how we are seen by others. Trapped under another’s gaze, we’re reminded of being fundamentally perceptible creatures.

This is what Walking does extravagantly.

You play, anyway, and soon you grow accustomed to the hallway’s unpredictable and frightening nature. As your feet rhythmically beat out the steady crunch of a gravel path, the two-button layout maybe endears itself. Autonomy falls away behind you. You relinquish the old desire to turn and change directions, slowly mesmerized by the disturbing flow of music and imagery.

Dead in front of you, the flash of a white face stops your tracks. Trick of the mind? The walls themselves flutter through a ménage of now-familiar wallpaper—wisping clouds, human outlines—such that you’d drifted beneath the lip of consciousness. That brief white flick could have been the brow of a cloud, could have been a disappearing texture, could have been, could have been…

You resume on your path, now recalling the other thing allowed of you. A good hard look behind confirms nothing to be seen. Uncertainty in your vision seeds paranoia, turning back to glance across your shoulder every few feet now. The repeated stopping and starting achieves little except to impede progress, so you peter out that behaviour to make good your travel down the corridor. But the seed sits heavy in the pit of your gut, and every couple of minutes you remember to look back the way you came.

A monster is facing you. Impossibly tall, its head brushes the ceiling; its arms gradually end in long, curved claws stretching down below its waist; a small face cracked by a playful smile. It stands still, dormant, patiently watching.

You’re afraid to blink, afraid to move, until you decide, it seems, the monster is content just to survey for now. But still you can’t move because you’re facing the wrong way. As you unfreeze the muscles in your neck, you calm yourself into a course of action. It plays with you; do you play back and test the waters? See how you can affect its presence. See if you can exert some control.

You release the button and slam it again to catch the monster in an act. It’s gone. Nothing there now but the empty space of the corridor and the impenetrable curtain of shadow beyond. But it was there, you know with absolute certainty. You didn’t imagine this one. And it’s still there, inside the gloom. Haunting you. Stalking you. The daydream is shredded. Under its gaze you’re irrevocably changed.

 


 

[1] In the language of phenomenology, ‘pre-reflective self-consciousness.’ Calling it by this name is akin to using a ouiji board to summon the ghost of Wank Academia, so I’ve relegated this trivia to a footnote.

Advertisements

Ye olde interactivity paradigm

 

Ye olde interactivity paradigm

In ye olden times (circa 2008) one of the favourite pastimes occupying game critics was to establish truisms about what made the medium of videogames unique in order to divine which god to whom they would dedicate their prayers. The needle most often fell on ‘interactivity’, so this became the conceptual linchpin around which they based entire paradigms. After all, no text of any other medium necessitates audience interactivity for it to proceed, they said.

From this two rules were established. You’ve the one above—since interactivity is exclusive to videogames, it naturally follows that it’s the medium’s strength. Games ought to play into this facet in order to properly explore the power and potential of what it means to be a videogame, and games that don’t do this do not recognize their own primacy.

The second rule comes more literally from their original logic: ‘interactivity’ refers to pressing a button in a game to make stuff happen, and because this is games’ major proclivity, through common usage interactivity came to mean this and only this. The beauty of equivocating it that way is it converges design lingo with critical lingo and gives practitioners of both discipline a mutually preconceived ground for talking about games. It also empowers fans and critics to romanticize the medium and embellish it with the pride of claiming a mystical exclusivity over a form of expression.

I say rules—nobody etched them in stone, as far as I know, unless maybe there was one GDC behind closed doors… But they’re quite commonly held beliefs from which a prominent ideological battleship has been launched to float around the culture issuing declarations of value and shooting down insurgents. Hence there’s been a big crisis in recent years of what constitutes a game, with ‘insufficiently interactive’ games deemed counter to the medium and so are culturally disregarded as not actually games.

Also hence that almost sinister design ethos that says the player’s actions must affect substantial, tangible rewards if they are to carry any legitimate value. Karma that ups your ability to shoot the heads off baddies, interpersonal relationships founded on unlocking cool new powers rather than on respect and companionship, moral decisions manifestly reflected by a difference in how the entire city decides to treats you. These kinds of solipsistic and selfish narrative implications being symptoms of an over-infatuation with an input-to-output feedback dynamic which spells out the entirety of ‘player interaction’.

To see how this paradigm looks in motion when applied to a videogame, let’s use Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney as an example. Unluckily for Phoenix Wright in this case, these games take the form of visual novels, so they largely play out with characters talking to the protagonist and the protagonist talking back with little direction on behalf of the player. Visual novels sometimes get flak for this fact, called ‘not-games’ and all that. The player does have a little bit of input insofar as they need to keep pressing a button for dialogue to play out, but this is often considered an inadequate measure of interactivity by folks of the above frame of mind. You don’t actively affect anything in the game’s state other than what was inevitably going to happen1, so this interaction supposedly carries little by way of value.

As the various court cases develop, the modes of available interactions expand and switch depending on the scenario. While investigating a crime scene, the player can prod the screen to get Phoenix to examine that spot. There’s little else going on here other than the opportunity to trigger more dialogue and maybe expand Phoenix’s case for the defendant. If you click on a ladder, for instance, Phoenix will always say “it’s a ladder,” and your partner will always respond “actually, it’s a stepladder.” You don’t get to control Phoenix to say “it’s a stepladder” and nip your friend’s smartarse response in the bud. There’s little deviation and the player’s participation could be ungenerously considered perfunctory. In these scenarios you can also move, question witnesses and show them evidence, which all amount to navigating menus and selecting the correct option.

Since the game is totally linear, you can skirt through the whole length of it by pressing the right buttons in the right sequence. This satisfies the criteria of ‘interaction’ as described above, but you know, I can help but think that paradigm falls short at describing most players’ experience with the Ace Attorney games.

The short of it is, this understanding of interactivity is kind of a load of bollocks, isn’t it. Maybe now, highly esteemed critics and designers are gnashing their teeth at my brevity and roughly-built strawmen. Sorry folks. I’m being brief and rough because if I got properly started I could talk forever. But I’m not actually writing this to refute the old gods, bee in my bonnet though they may be.2 Instead I’m here to say something about interactivity to make it useful to me in my writing, to demystify and restore it to wonderful normality.

So you’ve got this old thought-framework of what interactivity means and the actual forms it takes via mechanics and systemic relationships. Interactivity to mean this and only this, however, is limiting in its description of a player’s (or an audience’s) relationship with a videogame (or a medium). For one thing, it really doesn’t encompass the player into the virtual sphere of meaning-making as a person or a soul—it’s only really concerned with what their fingers and thumbs do to engage with the virtual gameworld.

But meaning is made from the player’s eyes and ears, too, and from their brain and their mind, and from the life they’ve led and from their relationship with the world around them. I’ve sometimes seen a few circular diagrams embracing the relationship between the player and the game, and in them the player is typically represented by a person rather than a disembodied set of fingers and thumbs, so this idea shouldn’t be too radical. In general, many societies have kind of moved away from the belief that people are just soulless organic machines, autonomously roaming through fields and supermarkets ingesting food and attending whatever business is most pressing. So to slot that consideration of the soul into the topic at hand, I think phenomenology might be a useful way to go about looking at this relationship.

Phenomenology is a philosophical framework concerning the formation and nature of experience—in other words, it suggests a way with which we interact with the world. Rather than being mindless robots who go about blandly doing whatever, people perceive the world (through their senses, thoughts, memories, etc.) as composite of little parcels of meanings infused with that person’s subjectivity.

For example, you might look out your window right now and see the world around you, but you don’t perceive it objectively as it actually exists outside of the realm of your human consciousness. Perhaps there’s a bird in a tree tweeting melodically, and if that catches your attention, you might have missed noticing a plane flying overhead or the squirrel perched one branch over. Or perhaps the bird is instead tweeting obnoxiously—perhaps, even, that bird took a dump on you yesterday, and you hate that bird, with its smug little face. Whatever it is you perceive, you only perceive some things and you consider them a certain way depending on… well, on you.

Which is not to say, “All meaning is subjective, therefore no meaning or interpretation has communal value.” Meaning is also bestowed upon you by society and by culture. If you grow up being taught a certain thing, such as to view and extract meaning in a certain way, chances are you’ve internalized that practise and have come to demonstrate it entirely naturally. The little stick figures on bathroom doors are a good example: we’re taught from a young age that this stick figure represents men, and when that stick figure is on the front of a door it usually means only men can go in there, and it also usually means the room behind that door is a bathroom. Another less universal example is the word “phenomenology”—if you’ve studied or read a bit of philosophy, when you saw the word printed out three paragraphs above, it might have meant to you “a philosophical framework concerning the formation of experiences and consciousness.” But if you’re not familiar with the word, it probably seemed just a nonsensical jumble of letters, almost comical in its wankiness.

So as you go about the world experiencing things, your experience is characterized by the fleeting whims and deep-seated mental predispositions of your personhood. And particular experiences are described by your perception of a phenomenon of an object with all the embedded meanings therein, and not by an objective perception of the object as it “actually” is, whatever that might suggest.

Within this framework, the part of the act of perceiving that grants phenomenon their meaning and character is called intentionality. I’ve written about it more fully elsewhere but to be quick here, intentionality means the power of a mind to be about something. All thoughts have something as their subject—you can’t have a thought that isn’t about anything without reverting to thoughtlessness.

In essence, intentionality is our ability to engage with the world on a conscious level, to derive meaning and value from it. Through this manner, we cognitively interact with the things around us and inside us. If this interaction were viewed as an input, the resulting meaning of a mental phenomenon would be the corresponding output. The very way we experience the world is founded on this interaction, in how we extend our minds outwards towards the world and bring phenomena and their meanings to life. So of course, we go through the same process when we play a videogame.

Because to be honest, you don’t put your brain on autopilot and communicate with the gameworld solely through your thumbs. At least, most of the time you don’t. You often need to engage with the gameworld in order to figure out what it wants you to do, which requires a degree of cognitive interaction. You further engage with it when it throws something clever at you or when a particularly striking scene elicits an emotional response deep within your heart. You engage with it when it bores you, and when it provides you with another fetch quest, and when a character tells a joke, and when the fluidity of your character’s movement feels just right. For as long as the game continues to exist in your living room, you and it form a participatory relationship simply through your mental involvement.

Let’s revisit Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. When you investigate a crime scene and then go about defending your client’s innocence, what you are doing is constructing a mental image of the crime in your mind and testing it against the evidence and testimonies presented in court. The actual court battle is like solving a narrative puzzle. All the info you gathered during your investigation is stored within this image and forms the pieces you wield to advance objections and dodge the prosecutor’s traps. As the trial progresses and you learn more about the case, some of the evidence in your inventory may take on a new meaning that you’ll need to consider in order to get to the bottom of the case.

So while it’s true that you survive each trial by scrolling through menus and pressing a button on the appropriate option, your impactful interactions with the game largely reside away from button presses and changing internal game states. What you engage with as a player is the narrative, completely linear and indifferent to your button inputs as it is. When a piece of evidence presents meaning, it is in how it fits into the current narrative context and the way it relates with your mental model. The entire game is completely void of meaning and value if you choose to disregard this realm of interaction.

As with every medium, the audience actualizes a videogame through perception and creation of meaning. This is fundamental to the experience; it is not unique to videogames, and it is not discounted as interaction just because it doesn’t involve the push of a button. Or at least, it shouldn’t be discounted as interaction.

Unfortunately, I find it is awfully difficult to discuss interaction in videogames down the line of perception and personal engagement without stalling at the hurdle of interactivity as used colloquially in games criticism. So here’s what I’m going to try to do. I’m going to try to move away from the application of interactivity to almost exclusively mean ‘press button to make stuff happen’ by giving a name to this old critical/design model. I’ll call it ‘squinteractivity’, because it only makes sense if you squint really hard. Also I suppose because it offers only a very narrow perspective.

The branching-off from this older paradigm towards one which better encompasses the player as an active human soul can be referenced as ‘splinteractivity’. I’m dreadful, I know.

And what will I call ‘interactivity’ to mean the way an audience engages with a text as a cognitive participant? I’m going to call that ‘interactivity’, as it should have always been.

 

1. This might seem out of left field but a fair few people levied the same complaint against The Walking Dead, describing the entire experience as meaningless because story branches tended to link back up sooner or later.
2. Incidentally, media predicated on mechanical interaction include: board games, sports, phone-in radio shows, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, table quizzes, pantomime, karaoke, QR codes, dress fashion, Sunday mass, scratch cards, the bulletin board at your local Tesco, telephones, buffets, cooking and baking, Crufts, pop-up books, the Punchestown Races, and so on.


 

This piece was community funded. If you liked this article, please consider supporting my writing by visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron.

Intentionality

At Dawn and intentionality

In the first part of Justin Keverne’s analysis of Thief, he brings up the concept of ‘intentionality’ to break down the systems at play and examine how they fit into the player’s experience of the game. The explanation he gives is nice and neat—he says intentionality is your ability as a player to formulate plans and execute them. It’s kind of a two-part characteristic where first you need to understand the mechanical language of the game and then through these mechanics rearrange whatever in-game components in an intended way to produce a desired result.

Keverne gets the term intentionality from the design lectures and articles of Clint Hocking, who in turn inherited it from Doug Church. Church suggested the principal of intention in an endeavour to supply designers with tools for communicating the ideas of their field, with the hope that by stimulating discussion designers could go about developing their ideas and their techniques and not just sit around all day stumped by half-formed indescribable thoughts.

It was in this spirit that Hocking elaborated on intentionality (in Design Materials on the sidebar, or for a direct link to the zipped files, click here), which is to say, as jargon for designers to talk about design with other designers. Not that jargon is a bad thing—it’s useful exactly for this purpose. And it only obfuscates so long as it’s left unexplained or lives outside the general lexicon.

As it happens, ‘intentionality’ also exists as jargon within the philosophical world, predating Church and Hocking by almost 150 years. Though originally appearing in Scholastic thinking, it was really the Austrian psychologist Franz Brentano who in the 19th century shone a light on the concept of intentionality in reference to the workings of the human mind. Later, Edmund Husserl took to Brentano’s groundwork and established the school of phenomenology—the philosophical study of the structures of experience and consciousness.

To be brief, phenomenology suggests that we don’t experience the world in an objective way, but rather our perceptions are loaded with preconceived notions and emotions and judgements and meanings that characterise the experience one way or another. Whenever we look out and perceive the world, we interpret it, which is to say the objects we see are automatically and immediately run through filters embedded in our minds. It is through this process that our perceptions are in any way sensible to us, since they carry meaning innately.

For example, for someone who has in the past been traumatised by drowning, they might perceive the sea as a terrifying body of water or a boat as a vessel that puts their life at risk. They don’t set their eyes on the sea, recognise it, understand it, process it, and then afterwards load upon it all sorts of scary connotations. Or even, if that’s what their brain ‘actually’ does on a neurochemical level, that’s not how they experience it as a living, breathing human being. Instead their experience is intimately one of terror, just as their perception of the boat is as an object of danger. But while some people view the sea with foreboding horror, others might view it with wonder and excitement for discovery of what it contains. It’s not that the sea is inherently this or that, rather that their perception of it is inclined this or that way depending on the complex whims of their mind.

In this manner, we view the world through mental phenomena rather than how it ‘actually, objectively is’. When we interact with the world around us through our senses and our outward expressions, we’re interacting with phenomena—words containing meaning, physical gestures that represent friendliness or hostility, noises that sound pleasant or grating. The notion of embedded meaning is probably already familiar to you via the relationship between form and content, or that of aesthetics and politics, or any number of alternatives. It’s got some fairly broad applications; phenomenology is just that as relates to the structuring of mental perceptions.

Let’s apply this framework in relation to At Dawn, by Darius Kazemi. It’s a simple enough game: you control a character as the sun comes up behind them. The left button moves them left and the right button moves them right, but when they meet the middle of the screen they move no farther right than that, giving the impression that the camera pans to the right alongside them. As you walk the sun slowly comes up over the horizon and emblazons the sky until your character is enveloped in its radiance. It’s a beautifully meditative game, even long after the music has petered out and you stroll on in silence.

I’m able to describe the game this way because my perception of it automatically interprets it in such a way as to be intelligible to me. Truth be told, there is no actual sunrise occurring in At Dawn, just a bunch of squares on-screen that keep changing colour. The figure I control, with all its jagged corners, doesn’t realistically represent a human character, and their ‘walking’ is really just three different frames one after another, which is not what it looks like when people actually walk. There’s nothing inherently meditative about viewing a bunch of animated frames in front of flashing coloured boxes while a tune plays.

Were I a robot whose cognitive powers were limited to collating visual and auditory information, this data-orientated summary would be the extent of my appreciation of the game. But because I’m a human, because I see the world a certain way and I suppose because I’ve been fairly accustomed to recognising and interpreting pixel art and because sunrises carry a certain soft, spiritual meaning in my culture and because listening to this music while thinking of perpetually walking as the sun comes up puts me in a certain frame of mind, my perception of At Dawn is irreversibly laden will all sorts of intentionality that characterises my experience of it like so. It’s visually a very pretty game, but it’s also quite beautiful.

At Dawn's sunrise

Developing on the ideas of Brentano, Husserl used the concept of intentionality to describe the nature of perception as always being directed towards something, like an object or a meaning. Within game design, intentionality is typically used to refer to a player’s intention in the colloquial sense of the word, whereas in phenomenology intentionality needn’t be conscious, as if you’re deliberately tossing all this baggage onto this wonderful or horrible thing you’re seeing. Rather, Husserl’s intentionality means the focusing of the mind on a phenomenon and how that conjures up whatever meaning it has to you. Intentionality is a characteristic of thoughts and perceptions, they have intentionality, just as through our mental processes we have intentionality, we possess it.

To elaborate more on this, there’s the analogy of a piece of string under tension. If you grab one end of an unfettered string and give it a tug, the string will flap loosely down to the floor. But if you tether one end of the string onto an object and then pull the other end, the string will tense up through the force of your effort and its anchoring to the object. In the same way as the tension exists between your hand and the string’s anchor and connects you to the object through the laws of physics, so do thoughts and perceptions only exist when tethered from your mind to an object by some meaning. You can’t have a ‘loose’ thought like you can have a loose string, since all thoughts are intrinsically about something. To be thinking necessarily implies to be thinking about something.

Going from this, phenomenology derives its name from an understanding that whatever we perceive is best described as a mental phenomenon rather than ‘an actual object’, since often we honest-to-god perceive things that don’t actually, objectively exist, like when you hear a serial killer scraping at your bedroom window that was actually a tree branch being shaken by the wind, or seeing an old friend across the street who turns out to have been a total stranger, or basically everything inside the virtual world of a videogame.

Phenomenology isn’t unheard of in the world of games criticism and design analysis, but I’m not sure if Hocking was aware of its philosophical context when coining ‘intentionality’ as a design concept. On the surface there’s some similarity between his use of it and its phenomenological meaning: Hocking’s intentionality is founded on the player’s intentions reaching out towards the game and altering its states, kind of like how Husserl’s intentionality sees the perceiving mind reaching out and characterising ‘external’ phenomenon. Hocking’s version is much more concerned with the root of the word—intentions—with deliberations and deliberate acting out of plans or desires. Quips of physics, like how a car tumbles any which way when you speed it over a ramp, don’t represent his intentionality. Husserl on the other hand is less concerned with intent as something that comes decisively and more with its aspect of cognitive directedness.

But dig a little deeper and more glaring differences begin to show. Hocking is only interested in intentionality to mean the space allowed by mechanics and systems for the player to express with intent—it’s explicitly a player’s digital input and the resulting feedback that constitutes his vision of player expression.

In his 2006 GDC lecture, he distinguished between ‘low order’ and ‘high order intentional play’. An example of low order intentional play is in Donkey Kong, when a barrel is hurdling your way, you press a button with the intent to jump over it. This is fairly in line with how Church used intention to reference the reliability of various states and actions in Mario 64, like when you press the jump button you know how fast and how far you’ll jump, so jumping becomes a measure of intentional expression.

Hocking went on to describe what he means by high-order intentional play with anecdotes from Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, Grand Theft Auto and Deus Ex—games well known for their chunky systems. His examples largely amount to a call for a general increase in emergent gameplay. He wants richer systems with more niggly bits, so more things can happen, so the player can play about with more creativity and fulfilled intent, and he sees high order intentional play as a route to this:

I’m talking about the kind of play where the player at least has the capability to become an active and creative participant in the unfolding of an emotionally meaningful experience.

High Order Intentional play affords players the opportunity to express themselves in human ways in an interactive space. As differentiated from Low Order Intentional Play which allows the player to achieve his intent at a mechanical level.

Now, like I said earlier, Hocking uses intentionality in the context of a discussion on design between designers, so his language and his goals are centred on magnifying the relevance of designers to the subject at hand. They’re his target audience. Glancing over the fact that Hocking’s examples only illustrate ways players can express themselves in human ways by making explosions happen, his version of intentionality amounts to a game’s room for play, where a gameworld is stuffed will toys for the player to interact with and that will react back, so they can deliberately create a narrative through these interactions. Low order is mechanical, high order is systemic.

The problem congeals when Hocking latches his intentionality onto applications of interactivity, citing interactivity as being unique to the medium of games in ways inaccessible to television and movies. That old yarn. In this fashion, intentionality is a mode for creativity and expression through action explicitly, distancing itself from phenomenology’s intentionality as expression through being. In the past I’ve made (hilarious) snarky comments about how many designers carry on like if it’s not happening to the player or by the player then they’ll cease to exist, so if you’re a returning reader you might be familiar with my thoughts on that. Just this moment, however, I’m interested in the various forms of expression omitted by an intentionality overly concerned with interaction-as-activity and what that limits designers to.

Phenomenology and game deisgn

When a player interacts with a game, they engage it with their minds in a way that transcends ‘press button, receive banana’ feedback loops. The principal root of ‘intention’ in Hocking’s intentionality recognises this, since it’s contingent on the player having created a mental model of the gameworld that they can access outside of actually pressing physical buttons to interact with the ‘real’ gameworld. If I have the intention to make Mario jump yea high, it’s only because I understand Mario jumping yea high is a possible state I can achieve because I expect the gameworld to be persistent. The formation of my intent is predicated on my comprehension of the gameworld and what it allows of me. On the other hand, I could also misinterpret the world and intend something impossible in Mario 64, like pressing a button to try to shout out “Agro” and call over my horse. In either case I act with intention, although the intention of the latter example is left unfulfilled.

But I also interact with a game with intention when I ‘do’ absolutely nothing as far as the game is mechanically concerned, such as in the act of waiting—an intended, directed expression that falls outside the boundaries of an active mechanical interaction. While your character remains idle, your intent through deliberately striking that position could be any number of things: you might be waiting for a nice car to drive by, you might be waiting for the sun to rise or set, you might be eavesdropping on a conversation, you might be hiding, you might be biding your time, you might be loitering, you might be contemplating the beauty of life. What characterizes the idle position as any of these things is the player’s mind—returning to the piece of string analogy, meaning extends outwards from our thoughts and perceptions like a tension linking towards a mental phenomenon.

The same is true of all in-game actions and existences.

Mechanical interactions might define the distance and opportunity of a jumping action but it is cognitive interaction that grants it meaning. That’s the domain of narrative design, but Hocking’s intentionality is oddly coy about discussing narrative aside from ‘emergent narrative’, referencing a sequence of systemic events rather than parcels of meaning. At Dawn’s mechanical interactions are limited to moving left and right, so it wouldn’t appear to offer much in the way of his intentionality. Outside of those confines, however, it flows with narrative interactions defined through judgements and emotions ever-present in life, rendering it meaningful and intelligible.

For instance, when the music fades and you’re left walking with still more sun to come up, the silence of the game fills with the sounds around you, the sounds of your room and the outside, they become the game’s chorus. All the ambient noises of the world that you didn’t really notice five minutes ago now suddenly blare, but in a peaceful way, as if in your stride. The meditation of walking across a sunset blends in the world around you, so long as you’ve the time and the mind for it, roping in your present being and encompassing it in the game’s serene bliss. It’s not a thing of pressing a button to be an active, participating creator, and yet that model of intentionality lacks the relationship between being and meaning that At Dawn bathes you in.

Likewise, a systems-orientated intentionality offers little opportunity for reading into Boletaria as a historical setting, or for framing the power dynamics of an interrogation room’s composition, or juxtaposing cool sleek aestheticism with politics of mind control. It’s only a small slice of what’s going on when we interact with a game, even if you put aside the fact that it’s stymied by kind of archaic models of player interpretation and expression. For a model of cognitive interaction and meaning closer to sentient experience, think Husserl’s intentionality.


 

This piece was community funded. If you liked this article, please consider supporting my writing by visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron.