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Person to Person: Reading People Through Video Games

That Dragon, Cancer (Numinous Games, 2016)

What if you could analyze a work and glean information about a flesh and blood person? What if you could know someone through a piece of art?

What can you learn about a person through a screen? What can you learn about a creator through their work?

Three recent narrative-driven games -- Cibele, That Dragon, Cancer, and The Beginner’s Guide -- take three different approaches to the relationship between player and creator. All three are short, independently produced, and deeply personal, all three possess a strong authorial voice and purport to be nonfictional (The Beginner’s Guide complicates that notion, but we’ll get to that), and all three provide different takes on what it means to know someone.

Of the trio, Cibele most overtly focuses on the mediating presence of the computer screen. You begin by watching a short video of writer and designer Nina Freeman playing a fictionalized, 19-year-old version of herself. She stares at her computer, and the game cuts to an interactive desktop. You, the player, roleplay Nina. You double click her folders, read her poetry, peruse her pictures, and check her messaging apps. Your screen becomes her screen. You become Nina.

But you aren’t Nina obviously. You’re you, sitting at your laptop playing as someone who’s sitting at her laptop. Many critics have written about the creepiness of looking through Nina’s digital ephemera, and this sense of voyeurism is heightened by the fact that many of the artifacts are drawn from Freeman’s real life. There’s a picture of her as a middle schooler with braces, as a high schooler, and as a small child with her mom. In the same way that in-game Nina occupies a strange no man’s land between fiction and reality, the player develops a strange relationship with this player character, both in control and not.

You can control Nina’s avatar (the eponymous Cibele) in the game-within-a-game Valtimeri, clicking on enemies when they appear and whittling down their health. You can’t, however, control Nina’s conversations with her co-op buddy Blake. You can’t tell her that this guy is 23 and probably unemployed and kind of sexist and has serious self-loathing issues. You can’t tell her to not fall in love with him, to not meet up with him, to not set herself up for heartbreak. She does; she did. Before the credits roll, there’s an enigmatic note that says that first love can be confusing and painful, “but I’m glad I had mine with you”. It’s attributed to Nina. It doesn’t specify which one.

Freeman has spoken in interviews about the distinction between Nina the character and Nina the person: “I wouldn’t make a game about an experience that I don’t have critical distance from,” she said. “I need to be able to step back and look at this story as if it were a story, and treat myself more like a character within that story than my actual self” (Dominic Preston, "Interview: Nina Freemann of Cibele - Part One", Existential Gamer, 19 January 2016).

Despite its rawness and confessional nature, Cibele is a game with a certain measure of authorial distance. It feels like Freeman is considering an event in her life from a matured vantage point. She’s removed from the pain of her breakup and presents this personal event to the player with minimal commentary. Our own G. Christopher Williams argued that Cibele’s lack of self-analysis is evidence of its immaturity, and while that’s a valid read of the game, I also think that the game’s dispassionate tone is deliberate ("Exhibitionism and the Video Game Confessional: Nina Freeman's Cibele", 2 December 2015). Freeman is several years removed from the events of Cibele, and the game that she created is a reflection of that removal. When she developed her game, her pain was several years old

What happens if the pain occurs during the the development of a game? In 2010, one-year-old Joel Green was diagnosed with brain cancer. In 2012, his parents Ryan and Amy began working on That Dragon, Cancer, a game that would chronicle their experience of raising a terminally ill child. Joel died in 2014.

The game was released this year. It feels like playing through a memorial. The pain is so present and raw and real that it can feel overwhelming. Throughout the game, you hop between different perspectives -- one minute, you’re controlling a duck on a pond, and the next, you’re throwing pieces of bread to that duck -- acting as silent witness to the Greens' joy and suffering. While Cibele allows the player to identify as Nina without fully becoming her, That Dragon, Cancer emphasizes the player’s distinctiveness from the game. You flit from POV to POV, watching a tragedy unfold.

In a strange way, playing the game, I felt like I knew the Greens. There are passages in That Dragon, Cancer that are lifted directly from Amy Green’s blog while Joel was still alive, heartbreaking monologues about her confidence that God would perform a miracle. There are messages from Kickstarter backers whose lives were affected by cancer. There’s a scene towards the end where you stand at a table and light candles, and each candle triggers audio of a prayer -- audio taken from Joel’s last night on earth, when the Greens invited friends and church members to their home for a prayer meeting.

I never played a game that felt so transparent, a game that unabashedly bared its soul to the player. Writing is easy, as the cliche goes, just open a vein and bleed. That Dragon, Cancer bleeds, and it is messy and ugly and beautiful.

* * *

But what do I know? I don’t know Nina Freeman. I don’t know the Greens. I played their games and witnessed their stories, but I don’t know them. They chose to create art that exposed parts of themselves for the world to see. Their art is powerful and deeply personal, but that’s all it is: art.

If there is a moral to The Beginner’s Guide, it’s that you cannot equate the artist with their art. The game is narrated by writer and designer Davey Wreden. He made the The Stanley Parable, he says in the intro. He’s going to talk about his friend Coda and the games that Coda made from 2008 to 2011. If you have any questions, feel free to shoot him an email.

Davey then takes the player through Coda’s games, interpreting them and altering their scripting to make them easier to play. Despite its straightforward opening, in which Davey directly addresses the player, it becomes clear that The Beginner’s Guide is a work of fiction. If Cibele and That Dragon, Cancer are documentary games, The Beginner’s Guide is a mockumentary. It presents its very fictional story as nonfiction, and it was so successful that many players (I’ll admit that I was one) initially took its narrative at face value.

Coda’s (fictional) games are weird. There’s an early one, for example, in which you can only move backwards and another in which you complete an endless cycle of household chores. Davey chatters on, presenting Coda’s games as clues to Coda’s psyche. He believes that he knows who Coda is by closely examining Coda’s work.

He doesn’t, of course. Davey’s analysis of Coda’s games says more about him than his friend. Davey is anxious and depressed, hounded by a debilitating lack of self-worth. He hates himself; he needs to escape himself; he plays Coda’s games and interprets them obsessively in an attempt to distract himself from himself, but he can’t. Coda’s games aren’t portals to better understanding another person. They’re mirrors, and Davey is caught between them, fleeing and running towards his own repulsed reflections.

* * *

I have trouble with people. They can be hostile and strange and unknowable. Getting to know someone requires vulnerability on my part, which is often terrifying. It’s easier to play a game like Cibele or That Dragon, Cancer or The Beginner’s Guide, games that are vulnerable to varying degrees. I can feel like I know these creators without having them know me, which is especially helpful when I’m not entirely sure that I know me.

Once, a friend recommended me a short story. “A Romantic Weekend” by Mary Gaitskill. She said that she saw herself and her ex in the protagonist and antagonist. It’s about an anxious, submissive woman who spends a weekend with a cold, masochistic man. They go out for dinner. They argue. They have emotionally confusing sex. In the end, they think things could work out between them.

I visited my professor in her office hours. We talked about textuality and interpretation. Almost anything is a text that can be read, she said. A book, a billboard, a Katy Perry music video, anything. Once the text is out in the open, it is no longer the author’s. The text belongs to audience, and it is shaped as much by the reader’s personal experiences as it is by the author’s. The text and the reader create meaning in tandem; meaning doesn’t exist without one or the other.

Okay, I said, but what if you could read a text in light of the person who recommended that text or created that text? Texts are alive, sure, but what if you could analyze a work and glean information about a flesh and blood person? What if you could know someone through a piece of art?

She sighed. Well, she said, now you’re talking about reading people. And that’s something entirely different.

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