It’s Not About Power, Silly, It’s About Power


I came across an article today that tries to refute the idea that videogames are about power fantasies. Here’s a quote:

Perhaps games aren’t really about power, they’re actually more about agency – the idea that we can have any sort of influence and control over what happens to us, and the world around us.

The problem here is that influence and control over ourselves and the world around us is power. It doesn’t matter if that power is fantastical or mundane. Whether it’s military killing machines or being able to stand up and walk, we’re talking power.

The article does not distinguish between power and “agency”, rather it distinguishes two aesthetics that power often assumes. One is explicit, the other implicit. The explicit power, the fantastical one, involves things such as flying like Superman, mass murder without consequences, conquering nations, that sort of thing. This explicit power, when it appears in videogames, is often a bit campy, a bit over-the-top. It is a very useful fiction, however, because it helps us conceal the other form of power. It is a power simultaneously boring and impossibly horrific: the passive power of a person or group already at the top. When you’re a part of that passive power, you often don’t notice it’s there. Another quote:

Games, then, aren’t about power as much as they are about just having one fricking place where the system does what it says it will…

A world where things “just work” without hassle is very much a power fantasy, of human control via individual and infrastructure. That we pull stuff out of the earth and burn it to power the devices we use, that is power. That we shape the landscape to suit our needs, cutting down forests, building roads, that is power. That we can hold a toy in our hands produced by this massive machine, and simply accept it has a purpose it’s “supposed” to fulfill—that we are so sure it has been built for us that we feel justified in getting angry at it—this is power.

When read from this deeper understanding of power, the article unwittingly makes the opposite argument, that videogames are inherently power fantasies. That the very interface with which we interact with videogames is itself a power fantasy:

So game machines are specifically built to present us with symbols of control – buttons, touchpads, interfaces – it’s just that here, the symbols really do work.

The controller is built for us, with the express purpose of doing what we tell it to do. Sounds a bit like power to me.

There are so many events that lead up to us holding that controller, though. Who pulls stuff out of the ground so we can power these toys? Who works at the factories that build these things? What animals are displaced or killed by these acts? We are so powerful as a species that the majority of us in the industrialized world do not have to think about this, or care. We can choose to forget the entire human industrial machine that makes these products, and then claim these products aren’t about power. That is passive power. That is power already claimed. Power taken for granted so thoroughly we’ve forgotten it. But the things we do within that bubble are only possible because that power is in place and has been for centuries.

In Videogame Land we take that passive power and call it “agency”. It sounds a lot nicer, after all, and makes you feel a lot better about yourself. It makes power feel innately good. It makes it easier to just do stuff without questioning whether you should or not.

The point here isn’t that we should feel guilty, or some weak “we are the world” sentiment, or a Luddite call to arms. The point is that you cannot remove power from the equation, you can only disguise it. Power is a factor at every scale, from microbes to nuclear bombs. There is no cutoff point where power stops mattering. This applies across the board, not just to videogames.

Rather than questioning if videogames are a power fantasy, we need to ask ourselves better questions. What kind of power do these fantasies evoke? What power might they conceal? How do we use these fantasies in a social context? What impacts of these fantasies do we refuse to acknowledge?

If there’s a statement to make about the allure of the typical videogame power fantasy, it is how we use it to uphold our industrial fantasy of powerlessness. There is a reason the demographic that most violently clings to the over-the-top, explicit videogame power fantasy is a group that already holds the most power. It’s a simultaneous refutation of existing power, and a way to feed the desire for more. It’s having your cake and refusing to pay for it. Or even, getting angry when you are asked to pay for it. After all, the whole world was built just for you, wasn’t it?

Finding New Narratives for Multiplayer

A lot of people say that mechanics and narrative don’t mix. When I watch deathmatch games these days, however, what I see are mechanics without context. I got that feeling watching this alpha gameplay of Descent Underground, a game I backed on Kickstarter. I don’t mean to say it looks like a bad game or that I think deathmatch is dumb now. Far from it. The game looks rad. I love deathmatch, especially free-for-all in Unreal Tournament, my all-time favorite.

But after playing so many games the past couple weeks that layer meaning on what you do, deathmatch feels different. It’s cheesy to do cross-media metaphors, but really, it’s like watching a silent film after a week full of talkies.

What I find interesting is that I didn’t have this feeling playing Portal 2 co-op, which I played to the end for the first time recently as well. I thought maybe the context for Portal 2’s co-op gameplay for me was “player 2 is my girlfriend”, but I’ve played it before with friends (only for a few levels) and it still had that unique feeling to it. Like there was added meaning to the things we did. Maybe the meaning, then—in an art critique sense—in these mechanics-heavy multiplayer games is inextricably tied to that moment, to those people playing, and how the game pushes them to interact with each other. And if that is the case, we still have a lot of games saying the exact same thing, because they invoke the same personal interactions. Kill, capture the flag, protect the base, heal, tank, DPS.

Portal 2 Co-op Screenshot
One of you is responsible for stopping you both from plunging to your deaths. The other has to block a conveyor belt of turrets. This goes far beyond “shoot the zombies and run.”

Portal 2 co-op, for me, feels fundamentally different than any other game’s co-op. It creates situations that require you to place your partner in danger, like the “trust fall” exercise where you fall backward and someone catches you from behind. It does this in several different ways throughout the campaign. It also puts you in situations where it’s highly likely that both players will bumble about, unsure of what they’re doing. One player will have a random idea, say “Why not, let’s try it?”, and then the second player will get inspiration from that shot in the dark. These elements of the game create a dialog between the hearts and minds of both players. I haven’t experienced that feeling anywhere else, to that degree. The multiplayer experience here is intimate. I don’t think this is inherent to co-op. I think it comes down to how the game makes people interact.

It leaves me wondering, what other multiplayer experiences can we craft? What new feelings can we evoke? If the “narrative” of a multiplayer game is the interaction you foster between the players, we’re in desperate need of some new stories.

Let the Right Game In

My game Confessional is going to appear in an exhibition at Babycastles, a space in New York billed as “a collective … dedicated to building platforms for diversity in video games culture at every level”. It’s a really cool place and I wish I had the money to fly over to NY and check it out. I’m pleasantly surprised by the game’s inclusion. I assumed Confessional would be a game people glossed over and forgot about.

It’s a weird game, after all. You sit in front of a virtual computer that has a short writing prompt. From there, you just type.

Confessional screenshot

People either love the game, or hate it. The ones who love it, generally, let themselves type things and forget they’re in a game. The ones who hate it want action. Most games engage with you expecting a layer of separation between game and reality. It’s a fiction you step into that is separate from the rest of your life. I wanted to break that barrier. The rest of this blog post outlines how I planned the game to work in an ideal situation. You might want to play the game before reading any further.

I give you a lot of time to write, in the hopes you’ll break into real feelings. Maybe you’ll start typing silly things, or surface-level thoughts, waiting for the “game” to happen. After a couple more minutes, if you keep writing, you’ll forget you’re in a game and type your actual raw feelings onto the virtual screen.

Then, there’s a knock at the door. You have your guts spilled onto a virtual screen and now the game has come rushing back to greet you. Barrier between game and reality cracked. But if you have your guts on the screen, you might panic a little. This is where you reach a “gamey” contrivance: Press TAB to bring up the privacy screen, which is a fake DOS command line. Once you do that, the door opens, and your mom pokes in to see what you’re up to. You see her shadow, and your shadow. You appear much smaller. This is child you. But the writing prompt talks about the past, and if you typed your guts out, you wrote about your past. Two different time periods overlap. This first time, you’re safe. Symbolic virtual mom goes away. Secrets protected.

Then you can keep typing. This time you’re more likely to expect an interruption again, but you know how to handle it. You keep typing. Mom knocks again. She pops in a second time and goes away. You might feel pretty confident about your secret-keeping skills. Maybe you’ve got a reflex for the TAB key now. And you can keep typing again.

Then she shows up a third time, unannounced. No knocking. You have a brief moment to press TAB, or you leave your guts visible on the screen. This is where the game really enters your world. You’ve spilled out whatever secrets you’ve kept locked up, and symbolic virtual mom sees it. She says she forgives you. She picks you up and holds you.

That’s the ideal experience. A lot of players got there, and they thanked me for it. Some were brought to tears. Some felt catharsis even though they just typed out the lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody. Other players wondered where the hell the game was supposed to be. And that’s cool, too. The confessional booth isn’t for everybody, and it doesn’t work the same for everybody. But sometimes, you need to make whatever is locked up inside you real. I think it’s pretty cool you can do that with a game.

You can also read this slightly more pretentious post I wrote about the game shortly after making it.

Ludo Gets Angry

This is Ludo.


He’s a big lug who is surprisingly sweet. He doesn’t usually understand what’s going on. He does know his games, though. After all, he’s named after them! “Ludo” means “play” in Greek or Roman or something like that, and it’s all very serious business for academics. They constantly argue as to what purpose Ludo plays in life.

Normally Ludo doesn’t care what academics have to say about him. The words they use are too big for poor Ludo. He’s been around a long time—since the dawn of mankind, possibly even before—and his brain is a bit rattled. To make matters worse, he has a new home now. Sure, he knows his games, but he’s only lived in Videogame Land for a few decades. You might think, “Big deal, right? The economy stinks and people move all the time now when they get a new job. That’s just life.” The problem for Ludo, though, is that Videogame Land is a bit confusing.

Videogame Land

It’s basically a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. The thing about Videogame Land is, no matter how many choices you make, you fundamentally end up accomplishing nothing. Choice is pretty much an illusion for as long as you run around in that maze. Your only real choice is to exit the maze, or yell at the game designer.

The Game Designer
Pictured: The designer. The balls are a metaphor for crunch time.

Ludo isn’t the only one who was forced into an awkward relocation to Videogame Land. There’s also this chick named Sar—I mean, Narrative.

Her name in this blog post is Narrative, and you’re just going to have to deal with it.

While Ludo and Narrative had a bit of a struggle when they first met (you have seen the movie, right?), they’ve gotten along just fine ever since.

Narrative Friend

What bugs Ludo, though, is that people keep writing TMZ articles about how he and Narrative had a big argument and hate each other now or something. Or that they were never friends to begin with!

This makes Ludo angry.

Ludo is stuck in that maze (he doesn’t have a license and public transit is terrible), but he has some friends on the outside writing words of support for him and Narrative. Which he appreciates. Thanks a lot guys. He told me to tell you that.

Ludo does his thing regardless of what the academics say. Sometimes he and Narrative get along, sometimes they walk down the same path for completely different reasons. Sometimes they’re at opposite ends of Videogame Land playing Marco Polo, and sucking at it. That’s what happens when you live in a big-ass labyrinth.

The whole time, Mr. Game Designer is having a blast. (That guy and his sweatpants, I swear.) While the game designer enjoys himself no matter how well Ludo and Narrative get along, sometimes the audience isn’t so happy.

Remember, game designers: Goblins don’t have to be your audience.

Some members of the audience think it’s more fun when Ludo and Narrative have no clue what the hell the other is doing. They think the experience is too boring when Ludo and Narrative get along. Where’s the grinding? The boss fights? The active reload?

Other members of the audience hate it when Ludo and Narrative aren’t joined at the hip. They say the experience is—forgive me, please—disjointed. What’s the point of Videogame Land if your besties never get to hang out at their favorite coffee shop?

But let me tell you a secret about relationships: Sometimes you can’t get enough of your best friend, and other times you just wanna do some stuff on your own. Maybe you’d be ok with a few texts from Narrative, or a brief wrestle with Ludo, but then you need some ME time, amirite? Girls’ night out! It’s time for a visual novel! Or boys’ night out! (I do not know what boys do when they get together, but I have written several fanfics about it, with intense mechanical gameplay and lots of grinding.)

All these experiences are valid. They exist in their own categories. They even have their own names, when we’re talking about actual besties and not a bizarre extended metaphor involving muppets.

We should treat these different relationships between Ludo and Narrative the same way. We should give them names. We should think of them as categories of game, rather than measures of success or failure. I don’t know what we should call those categories. All I know is that I don’t want the names to include “ludo” or “narrative”. Gamey-shootey-with-a-splash-of-story games? Tightly-interwoven-meaning-of-what-you-do-and-what-the-text-says games?

Whatever we call them, they’re all good, man. Game designers can use Ludo and Narrative in their games however they want. If we accept them as tools (the ludonarrative stuff, not the designers), and think about the subject from a different angle, we might even birth a new genre.

New Genre
“In my new game, you have a special power called Magic Jump.” “It reminds me of this other game.” “What game?” “The game with the power.”

Trigger Dev Log: The Last Stretch

We’re approaching the end of Trigger’s development. Almost all the art is completed and the soundtrack is ready. All that remains is a final polish run on the writing and some final testing. This has turned out to be a gorgeous game, and something quite different from your typical visual novel. I feel like we have something very special here, and I can’t wait to show it to the world.

Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, I’ve been able to pay my artist a fair rate for his work. That’s becoming a rare thing these days, especially with contracted art, and it’s a shame. While we came up a bit short for our musician, we decided upon a common arrangement for small enthusiast projects like this: Our musician keeps all revenue from soundtrack sales and rights to the recording. Since I wrote the original music I keep the rights to the original compositions themselves.

I cannot state enough the importance of paying your artists. I have a lot to say on this which I’ll probably save for its own post. But for now: Pay your artists.

Also, if you’re doing a Kickstarter campaign: Start small if you don’t have a long and illustrious track record. The math might work out at $40,000 for a reasonable campaign amount, but that doesn’t matter if nobody knows who you are. This’ll be an upcoming blog post of its own, too.

I hope you enjoy Trigger when it’s released, and I hope it touches you the way it has our testers.

Sunshine Dev Log: Managing Complexity

I have a bunch of problems to solve all at once with Sunshine. This is when it’s especially important to break things down into the simplest pieces possible. I have little fake computers with GUI interfaces and simple filesystems, which you can access through the GUI or via terminal. These computers can be connected to smart devices, such as light switches, door locks, and cameras. There’s a few problems with this setup:

  1. All GUI rendering is done through one camera with a UI canvas, which means I can only update one screen at a time.
  2. I’m rendering out single images instead of using a RenderTexture at the moment, and this means camera feeds have to operate at a much slower framerate.
  3. Camera feeds and other dynamic displays stop updating when you step away from a screen.
  4. Since I’m only using realtime lights (bake times in Unity 5 are astronomical at the moment), I have to carefully manage what lights are active and casting shadows. This is currently based on player position, which means it breaks when viewing camera feeds far away from the player.

I need to dramatically decrease complexity while increasing flexibility here. A simple solution is to make every device sit in a static “sleep” mode until you activate it. Whichever screen you activate is updated with a RenderTexture, so it can update in realtime. When you leave the screen, you put it back in sleep mode, so the screen goes away. This way only one screen is ever active at a time. This makes problem one a non-issue, and makes it easier to fix problems two and three. There will be situations where NPCs access screens, but in those moments the screen contents can be faked or updated with static images like in the current method.

These changes create some interesting gameplay ramifications as a side-effect, the details of which I won’t get into. Trust me though, they’re really cool.

The fourth problem, getting my light management to play nice with remote cameras, will take a bit more work. It’s possible I could drop shadow quality in the camera feed. I might have to drop shadows altogether, as shadows are a bigger problem than number of lights when using deferred rendering. I can possibly make camera feeds “noisy” to cover up the lower detail and add to the atmosphere. Then I have to figure out the best way to “wake up” lights and other things under LOD control.

Also, it looks super pretty when all the screens cast light:

Sunshine Devlog Screencap

Because more realtime light sources! That’s just what this game needs.

I’ll make it all work, I swear.

Bare Bones

I have decided to separate my game dev presence online from my writing work. What you see here are the barest of bones for a dedicated games site. I will post dev logs here, news about my games, and thoughts about game development. My other site,, will continue to house my non-games writing and my ongoing personal blog about my experiences as a trans trauma survivor.

I don’t have a dedicated web designer and don’t have the money to shell out for a pro site, so I will create this site the same way I did my first one: Cobbling it together over time.

In the meantime, you can read my old writing about games and tech here, and see my old catalog of games here.