Nicholas O'Brien The Last Survey

Too Powerful to be Merely Entertainment: Video Games and the Work of Nicholas O’Brien

Video game designer Nicholas O’Brien creates and curates in a medium starving for critical conversation.

The Last Survey
Nicholas O'Brien
Red Deer
7 August 2020

Fifty years after the introduction of the first commercial video game console, the Magnavox Odyssey, video games have reached a critical moment. Today they are the topic of exhibits, academic research, and even used to treat trauma. As Emma Westecott, researcher and video game industry veteran, proclaimed in “The Zero Game Manifesto” (2005), games are “too powerful to be regarded as merely entertainment.” Video game designers are increasingly striving to create games that enlighten. This, at times, foregrounds their “fun” factor. Yet, let’s not conflate them as edutainment, which are products that mainly focus on education and providing practical training to players.

Game designer Nicholas O’Brien is emblematic of this movement. He seeks to create interactive works that are more than “merely entertainment”. His best-known game is the experimental visual novel, The Last Survey (2019). For O’Brien, also an educator, writer, and curator, video game design isn’t the only way that he is pushing games beyond their general milieu. His most recent exhibit with The Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, Voluntary Attempts to Overcome Necessary Obstacles, which ran from September 23 to October 29, 2022, highlights how games are constantly “creating and supporting conversations about politics, society, history, and identity in nuanced, poetic, and critical ways.”

Game designers like O’Brien have begun to consider the importance of being “cultural producers”. He is adamant that he creates cultural artifacts – his work incorporates the heavy themes of climate change and social justice and is aimed at a broad audience.

The Last Survey

The Last Survey is a visual novel (or Essay Game as described by O’Brien) where the player inhabits the mind of a scientist tasked to deliver a survey report to a mining company executive in Brazil. This is a timely topic as the extractive practices in Brazil made global headlines in recent years.

Even within the genre of the visual novel, The Last Survey boasts minimalist visuals. Shades of black and white are the only colors present. Nevertheless, over 1,500 hand-drawn drawings comprised of digital, graphite, and charcoal arts make up the game’s visual presentation. The ambient music and the words make for an eerie experience. All these elements converge to present a multimedia manifestation of a “world eating itself”.

The music and sound design by Lewis Kopenhafer are a high point in the experience. The music increases in intensity as one plays. It makes one read faster by increasing the tempo. The gameplay, a visual-audio experience, creates the gravitas of a situation that, at first glance, could be easily dismissed as just one of the thousands of meetings in an office environment. Fortunately for the player but unfortunately for the game world, this meeting will potentially decide the fate of this industry and the planet. The imagery that is conveyed on the screen lingers in the mind of the player long after finishing The Last Survey.

The game is short and can be completed in under an hour. It explores the human psyche under distress when faced with overwhelming and unsavory truths. The simple choices one makes in the game can have global implications. Still, when one gets to positions where the choices are so impactful, we rely on cognitive dissonance or science and technology to wash our hands from the stain left by our questionable yet profitable actions. In the case of The Last Survey, the choice is the depletion of natural resources to the point of exhaustion.

Simply having players learn from playing has a finality that makes O’Brien uneasy. He wants to make games that, through exposure, widen understanding. He succeeds in The Last Survey by presenting scenarios that are not “overly dogmatic”. O’Brien’s games are not the last word on a subject. Instead, they are empathetic to what is happening in our world. They allow the player to reconsider their stakes within oppressive systems. For O’Brien, this is a difficult but worthwhile endeavor.

Voluntary Attempts to Overcome Necessary Obstacles

O’Brien’s passion for the medium of video games is evident in his work as a curator and his most recent exhibit. During our conversation, O’Brien referred to philosopher Bernard Suits’ definition of a game: “a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” O’Brien removed the “un” from unnecessary for the exhibit’s title because he believes that games can be an attempt to overcome necessary obstacles or prejudice (e.g., classism, bigotry, and lack of understanding).

Games can be a fantastic medium to create scenarios that allow us to broaden our perspectives. This is the thesis of the exhibition. O’Brien cites Escape from Woomera (2003), a game made as a modification of  Half-Life’s (1998) game engine GoldSRC, as an emblem of the medium achieving through presentation and creating interactions that players understand the plight of individuals. Escape from Woomera is an adventure game about a refugee, Mustafa, who is stuck in the Woomera Immigration Reception and Processing Centre and denied asylum and thus decides to escape. The game was designed by a group of activists, journalists, and game designers. By the end of Escape from Woomera, the player comes away understanding Mustafa’s predicament and decisions.

The exhibit Voluntary Attempts to Overcome Necessary Obstacles and games like Escape from Woomera are avenues that allow players to reconsider complex topics. Games can be a means of documenting even non-fiction stories.

Over the Horizon

O’Brien has many influences. Among these is the New York City artists collective Babycastles, whose mission is “fostering and amplifying diverse voices in videogame culture”. O’Brien says he’s been a “fan” and has followed the project since they were in the underground performance space Silent Barn in Buschwick, Brooklyn. He has moved on from being simply an admirer of Babycastles’ work to being an active supporter by directly contributing to their cause and initiatives. Recently, he participated in one of their Academy Workshops, helping people learn to use the open-source game engine Godot.

After finishing his work on Voluntary Attempts to Overcome Necessary Obstacles and publishing the exhibit’s catalog, O’Brien shifted gears back to game design. He is currently working on two big game projects. The first is an autobiographical “stone skipping simulator” about becoming a father during the pandemic. He will be working on the game in early 2023 while on residency at The Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, New York.

His second project will be on the Bonus Army, a group of World War I veterans and their families that protested and camped in Anacostia Flats, Washington, DC, to demand bonus pay from the United States government. The game will be told through the perspective of Sewilla LaMar and her journey home after the tragic event.

O’Brien has a proclivity for making relevant projects that explore important events in our history, either American civil disobedience and state violence or our continuing exploitation of the planet and ourselves. The echoes of these events reverberate today. O’Brien quotes Mark Twain, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes”, to refer to the events in Anacostia and how they rhyme with our modern world. Video game designers like O’Brien create and curate works in a medium starving for critical conversation. They are delivering, and we are all the better for it.

Works Cited

Escape from Woomera. 2003.

Half-Life. 1998.

The Last Survey. 2019.

Voluntary Attempts to Overcome Necessary Obstacles. Curated by Nicholas O’Brien. 2022.

Westecott, Emma. “The Zero Game Manifesto”. 2005.