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The Artist's Medium Is the Rules: The Games of Edmund McMillen

Ironically, the rules of McMillen's games are about creating situations in which players are confronted with their own foolish tendencies to follow the rules without thinking about them.

This post contains spoilers for Time Fcuk and for A.V.G.M..

At the conclusion of Edmund McMillen's Time Fcuk, having completed some thirty odd puzzles to get there, the player is instructed to take a pill in order to "end it." Doing so leads to one conclusion of the game in which the narrator declares that "You've learned nothing." This declaration is followed by a diatribe about the nature of following directions:

This wall of text means nothing, about as much as the basic rules that others set in place for you. The more you read the more you will follow any direction, regardless of the time spent doing so or eventual outcome. You are simply looking for answers. And even though you have been told there will be no answers here you continue to read. The path you are on will only lead to an end. This text will stop, the game will be concluded, and the curtain will eventually fall. We all follow. We all want instruction and comfort. We [are] all stuck in repetition because it's simply easier than taking a risk and just not reading the text before you. Please stop reading this, it means nothing... about as much as the basic rules others set in place for you.

Of course, there is a second possibility for concluding the game. That possibility requires that instead of taking the pill that you resolve the final level of the game in a slightly different manner than you have solved puzzles in the game before. All the levels prior to this one, which is called "Dead End," require you to reach a portal to escape the level. In "Dead End," the player can see a doppelganger of the game's protagonist, Steven, who is trapped in a dead end. Saving Steven (in essence, saving "yourself") leads to an ending in which the narrator of the game explains how he was given a box and a magic marker by his mother when a boy. He drew a world in the box that he found more interesting than the one outside of it. As a result, he kept asking for larger and larger boxes to create versions of the world and himself in.

This vision of freedom, the freedom to create what you want of the world and reorder it and rewrite its rules are, of course, in direct contrast to McMillen's other ending in which he chastises the player for following instructions. It also is, of course, in some sense a pretty good description of what McMillen himself does as an artist. He takes these little boxes called computers and draws his own vision of the world within them for us to see and play with. His worlds are interesting, full of boys with no skin (Super Meat Boy), weird and grotesque religious iconography (The Binding of Isaac), and shocking sexual imagery (Cunt).

McMillen's games are frequently about violating taboos or about confronting players with their own foolish tendencies to follow systems of rules. The Binding of Issac is a revision of the story of Abraham and his near sacrifice of his son to God. McMillen explains the title of Time Fcuk saying that "Time Fcuk is a play on how if one changes around the letters in a word even though it means nothing logically, we all still see it as something that it's not" and that "it's a game about perspective and viewing both sides of the story from afar." Perspective, and asking the player to shift perspectives from the obvious to other ways of seeing, is very much what The Binding of Isaac is all about. As noted, the game revises the story of Abraham, reconsidering its traditional interpretation as a story representing a man's complete commitment to his God to revealing it as a story about child abuse, abuse that comes directly as a result of "following directions."

McMillen's game A.V.G.M. satirizes our need as gamers to follow directions to the bitter end, requiring thousands of similar clicks and repetitions of the same trivial action to conclude the game, to "end it" (see my essay, "Gaming and Masturbating, Masturbating and Gaming" for more thoughts on A.V.G.M.'s mockery of games and their players). McMillen's messages are punk. He wishes to violate tradition, common assumptions, and the very idea of following conventions and rules and to encourage others to do so as well.

All of which makes the box that he has chosen to paint his worlds in, his medium, video games, that much more ironic a choice of medium to convey this message through, since games at the core are systems of rules. That McMillen's games are often thematically most concerned with ethics, however, is perhaps less surprising given the medium that he works in. What better place to play with the meaning of ethics or to change our perspective about them than within a system of rules?

McMillen has alluded to the idea that much of The Binding of Isaac and its critique of Judeo-Christian tradition is related to his own upbringing in a religious household, which may actually speak to why systems of rules seem an obvious way to paint a world and to present it to an audience. Religion and its ethical concerns, especially in the Judeo-Christian tradition, always brings up humanity's relationship to rules and laws, and artists exposed to this kind of intense concern with systems of governance and self governance often raise questions about how to be made free of rules. Consider Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, for instance, in which a young man initially adopts a philosophy that suggests to him his uniqueness as one who is "above the law" and hence free to act any way that he chooses, to violate or enact any action he deems appropriate (including murder). Consider also that novel's ending, in which Raskalnikov is now penitent for his past actions, but also finds a new way to escape the law, via the grace of a fellow sinner who visits him in prison. Often artists with a strong religious background, whether they have accepted it or ultimately rejected it, are those most likely to consider the meaning of rules.

Which brings us back to Time Fcuk whose message about the mindlessness of following rules is also bound by a system of rules itself. For the player to experience the message, the player must learn the rules of the game, which is what the first ten or so levels are about, as McMillen follows the gaming convention of providing tutorial levels that slowly add new systems to each level to introduce the player to the mechanics of the game in a progressive and clear way. Additionally, each of Time Fcuk's levels can only be completed in one way. This is not a puzzle game about alternate solutions. Perspective and changing perspective is built into the game, as the game requires players to press a button to perceive the "layers" of each level that can only be seen one layer at a time and traverse those alternate visions of the level's spaces. However, the rules that govern completion are not subject to the player's perspective or will. Levels are completed after proceeding to the level's portal in a way that can be deduced through its arrangement.

Thus, the ending in which the player takes the pill in some sense may be the "truest" ending, the ending that speaks most clearly to the situation of the player, not the artist. The artist has the opportunity to take on the role of governance, to impress his perspective on the player (as his other game's ending reveals, A.V.G.M. stands for "Abusive Video Game Manipulation" and a form of "manipulation" is what the video game developer does when he creates the borders and boundaries, the rules and the systems that will govern a play space).

Time Fcuk tells the story of a boy who meets his future self, a future self visiting him from only twenty minutes in the future. That self commands Steven (the player) to enter the box, the place in which the game takes place. This, of course, is the box that players always enter and re-enter when they play a game, not one in which they get to shade the world with visions of their own design, but one in which they repeat endlessly, over and over again, the same actions that they will again re-enact twenty minutes later, assuming they like the game well enough to play it again (which is exactly what happens at the close of Time Fcuk, when this same initial cutscene replays itself as you -- now "twenty minutes" into your own future force yourself back into the box).

McMillen's games are ones in which freedom and submission to rules are always in tension, but it is the rules themselves, his ability to build the box to house us in, that always determine the outcome for the player.

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