More than Entertainment: Unravel, Mass Effect and the Power of Games as Art

 

(This article has trigger warnings for discussion of mental illness, panic attacks, tourettes syndrome symptoms and causes, suicidal thoughts and ideation, mentions of PTSD, terrorism, abuse.)

I’ve always been only half interested in E3 coverage. Don’t get me wrong, I Get Hype when new games and projects are announced, but I don’t go out of my way to stream the press conferences. Most of the announcements find their way to me via my social media addiction of choice, Tumblr, and so I find I can spare myself the frustration of watching a bunch of white guys in suits try to explain to me what I want out of their newest videogame, platform, VR device, etc.

Not that every E3 presentation does that, but they have a pretty common formula at this point. So I don’t watch the press conferences, I wait for the coverage to pop up online, usually in gif or article form, with links to relevant trailers.

But this year I broke my usual habit for one particular announcement, which did pop up on my tumblr dash.

I’m talking about the announcement for Unravel.

I’ve always been a big fan of puzzle platformers, which is funny because I straight up suck at them. Seriously, you should see me, anything from trying to play Lode Runner when I was a kid on my parent’s old Apple computer, to more recent games like Limbo and Never Alone. I am quite possibly the worst at these games. But I keep coming back, because most of the time, they are CUTE as HECK and I am a sucker for things that are cute as heck.

neveralone

I’m a sucker for small fuzzy animals, like the fox in Never Alone.

 

So I saw a couple of gifs and screenshots of Unravel, and then I watched tumblr blow up over the creative director, Martin Sahlin, and how he was a beautiful cinnamon roll too precious for this world, too pure, who stole everyone’s hearts with his presentation. And so I watched the presentation.

I’ve posted the video below, but the basic gist is that after being introduced, Sahlin comes out and gives a slightly stumbling but extremely earnest explanation of how Unravel came to be, and what he hoped to convey to his audience, and this quote from the video resonated so strongly with me:

 

“I think that games are really powerful things. They have the ability to grab you and move you in a way that few other art forms can, and that gives us as game makers a certain responsibility I think. we should try to do more than just entertain.”

 

 

 

Sahlin’s presentation was simultaneously a heartfelt personal story and a serious call to action. He told a story about how this character, named Yarny, came to be, how the game was inspired by his family, and how the game really has a heart behind its creation and woven throughout the story. He also told the gaming community, and the gaming industry, that we all need to do more, because games are so much more than entertainment.

Which is, of course, right up my alley. I watched this video and I had a combination strong Affect response (which is academese for I cried) and a strong pedagogical response (academese for I yelled ‘THIS IS WHAT I’VE BEEN TALKING ABOUT IN MY THESIS YES GOOD 10/10 GOOD JOB HELL YES’ at my computer and scaring my cats). Sahlin’s words hit me harder than ever the moment he pulled his little model of Yarny out of his jacket and made him wave hello. Because games as art, games as culture, games as a point of responsibility, and games as personal experience, is not only exactly my jam, but what I’ve been trying to say ever since I started studying videogames.

Videogames have become so much more than mere entertainment, they have the power to move people, inspire people, and drive people in a more immersive environment than any other artistic text.

I could turn this article into another hardcore academic dissection, pull out scholars and make quotations, but what inspired this post was Martin Sahlin’s personal life experience with game design, family, and creation.

So I’m gonna talk about the other thing I took away from E3 this year, and the thing I am the most excited for, and why I’m most excited for it:

Mass Effect: Andromeda.

I came to the Mass Effect fandom relatively late in the game compared to most gamers. I knew very little about the franchise until the internet started exploding about the ending to Mass Effect 3 back in 2012. I won’t go into those details, because this post isn’t about the ending of Mass Effect 3 (my thoughts on that deserve a separate post, which I’ll probably never make because I’m one of the few people out there who didn’t completely hate the ending). The reaction to the ending made me want to play the game, but that was just one of a few significant motivations.

So, rewind time. Back to 2012. Also known as the second-worst year of my life (the worst was probably 2004 or 2005). I was 24, and I rang in that year on the back of a trip to the hospital for a stress-induced anxiety attack that set off major full-body convulsions. I couldn’t sleep, I could barely breathe, they pumped me full of ativan and sent me home and after three straight days of not being able to sleep because I was twitching so violently and so often.

Ever stayed up for three straight days? Even when you want to do it, it’s pretty miserable.

I saw a neurologist and got a prescription for anticonvulsants. I went to five different doctors in as many days, had my blood drawn so many times my arm was nothing but bruise, got an EKG, an EEG, an MRI, every acronym you could think of, so they could figure out what was wrong with me. Even with insurance, and even with the help of my parents, this hospital adventure drained my savings accounts. In layman’s terms, it wrecked my shit.

The best part of all of that was that, once they figured out it wasn’t a heart problem or a brain tumor, they told me they couldn’t get me in to see the neurologist again until April.

They told me this in January.

So I had to wait three months to get a diagnosis of my condition (American Health Care, everyone), which hadn’t gone away, even with the medication to help me sleep. Still hasn’t. And by the time I saw the neurologist again, I’d done enough research that his diagnosis confirmed what I already knew.

I had Tourette’s Syndrome.

So, to add that to the other laundry list of my conditions, I had gone my whole life undiagnosed with Tourettes (Because normally you get that diagnosis when you’re a little kid or right around puberty), I had PTSD from two separate events, one being an abusive relationship, the other a terrorist attack, depression with suicidal ideation, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, instances of dissociation, and yeah, I was kind of a mess in 2012.

If you do a little cursory research into Tourettes, you’ll find out two interesting things right off the bat. The first is that not all people with Tourettes curse all the time. It’s a specific tic called coprolalia, and I do not have it. My vocal tic is more of a coughing, squeaking thing most of the time, so, that swearing thing is a generalization.

The second interesting thing is that there’s no cure. It’s a neurodivergence, a way my brain processes, which still hasn’t been fully researched but many experts attribute to a lack of dopamine in the brain and a misfiring of neurons that leads to twitching, or tics. Things can help the tics, lessen them and help you ride out the worst of the waxing period (a length of time where the tics get worse), but you’ve got it for life.

Nothing sucks like being 24 and finding out you have an incurable neurological disorder.

And here’s the funny thing, which is where we get back to the original point of this post, is that I found a unique thing to help calm my tics.

Playing videogames.

I replayed almost every game in my steam library during those first few months of 2012. The Portal games especially seemed to help, most likely because I was moving, solving problems, and actively engaging multiple parts of my brain in order to play. Once I finished those, I needed something more, a new franchise to throw myself into.

And that was about the time Mass Effect 3 kicked up a controversy cloud. And I heard all about it. And decided to find out what all the fuss was about.

I played through the first Mass Effect game in less than 14 hours the first time around. In rapid succession. I took a long weekend at work and played for two straight days, only stopping for meals and a few hours of sleep, because my curiosity quickly turned into love.

Yeah, I fell head over heels in love with this game.

It took me a couple of months to play through all three games sufficiently, but a large part of that was that I started taking my time the further into the series I got. I wanted to know more about all of the characters, the options, my choices, the stories being presented to me, and the choices my Shepard avatar would make.

It was more than an addiction, more than an obsession. My love for Mass Effect became a way of life. I’d go to work, while listening to the Mass Effect soundtrack. I’d watch youtube videos of walkthroughs on my lunch break, read FAQs to find easter eggs I’d missed, and as soon as I got home I’d hop right back on my computer to play some more.

I fell in love with being Commander Shepard, with the idea of fighting against all odds to save the galaxy, to help friends and family, to make difficult decisions that were not unlike my own life, only on a grander scale. I loved coming home from my awful day job (this was long before grad school) and just losing myself in this world of aliens and complex moral choices and squadmate humor, of being a badass who wasn’t afraid to risk her life to save everyone.

 

femshep_red

Yes I played femshep. Femshep is best shep regardless of my gender identity.

 

When I played through Mass Effect 3 for the first time, I cried a lot. I cried at the beginning, I cried during various character deaths, I cried through the entire end sequence, and I let myself cry. I let myself feel, because for months and months I’d been trying to fight my own inner war, trying to come to terms with a survivable yet utterly intolerable disorder and how it was affecting and changing every aspect of my life. Which it did. I was constantly trying to find a good balance of medications that didn’t wreck my mental or physical health. I’d randomly overheat and pass out, spend days feeling suicidal, have a major tic fit while trying to be on the phone at work (and being on the phone was bad enough, my phone anxiety is SO high), have to cancel plans because I was so exhausted.

And that’s not even mentioning the sleep. I haven’t had a restful night’s sleep that wasn’t somehow chemically induced since December 26th of 2011. True story.

I saw a lot of myself in Shepard’s fight, and Shepard’s life. I played the games over and over again. Made friends, fell in love, fought until I could barely stand up, and ultimately did everything I could to save the galaxy.

Shepard became my motivation, my inspiration. I’d have a stickynote up in my cube that just said ‘if commander shepard can save the galaxy, you can answer the phone.’ I bought t-shirts and posters. I threw the game at all my friends. I wrote 26,000 words of fanfiction based on my main Shepard, Kara, and her adventures.

And it gave me something to live for. This story, these characters, all of their struggles, resonated with me and my life, gave me an outlet. I channelled all my frustration and rage at the real world into the game, using that energy to fight a greater fictional battle, to be a hero for a cause when I had little power over anything outside of the Normandy.

So, when I say that Mass Effect saved my life, I’m not exaggerating. If I had not discovered that game, played through that game, discovered the incredible characters and stories they had to tell? I wouldn’t be here today.

So it’s three years later. I’m on a stable regime of medications. I still play Mass Effect and have clocked probably a collective 500 plus hours on all three games (I have it for the PC and the XBox), I have a Mass Effect tattoo on my left wrist (my best friend has one too: mine is the renegade symbol and hers is the paragon symbol), and plan on getting another one. Or more.

And E3 announces Mass Effect: Andromeda. The news drops while I’m hanging out at home with my roommates, one of whom is my best friend. The same friend who loves Mass Effect as much as I do. We watched the Andromeda trailer together, and we both cried because we were so excited, so thrilled that there would be more Mass Effect coming our way.

I felt so overwhelmed with emotion just from watching a two minute trailer, and I’m sure I’ll have reactions like that again and again as they release more content.

I’m a lover of media, obviously. I have a Master’s Degree in English with a focus in New Media. Films, television shows, games, all of them have a strong emotional effect on me. I’m a writer of fiction too, and I know the power that stories have. I know how important they are.

That’s why what Martin Sahlin said at the Unravel press conference is so important. That’s why I use videogames in the classroom. Games have a power to share stories with players that is so immersive, so strong, and so intense, that the messages they convey become all the more important because of their affective ability. While some take this to theoretical negative extremes, such as the now mostly dead debate about videogames and violence, the study of the positive extremes shows us that if games are responsible about what they convey through their immersive ability, they can give us experiences that help us learn, help us understand, and help us cope.

That’s what Unravel is aiming for by telling a story from the heart. That’s what Mass Effect did for me when I was at a horribly low point in my life. That’s what games have done for my students, and games have a strong impact on my students’ lives. When I did my thesis research, every single student in the class had experienced videogames at the very least from a second-hand perspective, by watching a friend or a child play those games.

Videogames are everywhere in 21st century culture and you don’t have to be a capital-G Gamer to enjoy games any more. Games are integrated into learning, games are studied in academic contexts, they’re adapted and ported and celebrated, critiqued and reviewed, and they bring to us this idea of the importance of Meaningful Play. And Play doesn’t have to be blatantly educational to be meaningful.

There’s a concept that’s big in rhet comp right now: knowledge transfer. It’s the idea that students in freshman composition will get something useful out of learning to write at the college level because the skills they learn will transfer from the writing classroom into their daily lives. Critical thinking skills, making coherent and well-reasoned arguments, and being able to analyze everything as a text are useful all across academics and industry, and I see a lot of this transfer principle in videogames.

I’m teaching a section of Comp II that starts next week and the theme of the class will touch on a number of subgenres, including apocalyptic settings. One of the games I want my students to demo is Fallout 3, because the game does not just tell a story, it lets you experience a story, which gives students the chance to really understand what’s at stake when they talk about the difficult decisions one may have to make in an apocalyptic setting. Beyond that, the skills a player picks up in videogames transfer in surprising ways. Mass Effect’s morality system has straight up improved my ability to relate to other people. I had my students play Left 4 Dead last year and it helped them understand the benefit of working together in a group.

Videogames are immersive. Videogames are entertainment, but their ability to express concepts at such a deep level is what requires the responsibility Martin Sahlin was talking about. It’s taking the power of narrative and kicking it up to the next level. Since games have this ability to imbue a sense of heightened reality, it’s important to be aware of the impact those worlds can have on players.

That means games are already more than entertainment, are already art, and the best first step we as gamers and as makers of games can take is to be aware of this and be responsible for our content. We need to consider the critical impact of the stories we tell beyond simply creating a pleasing aesthetic and a fun story. Games are integral to 21st century culture, and games are being made with more of a mind towards creating a text that teaches and inspires and affects the players who engage with it.

How do we do that though?

I think we got the answer to that when Martin Sahlin pulled out his model of Yarny at E3. I think I explained that when I told the story of how Mass Effect saved my life.

 

yarny

Seriously, EA will make a killing if they merchandise these suckers, hashtag capitalism.

 

Like Sahlin said, it’s important that the games we make and games we play have a heart. They have the power to change lives. Even save lives. As we consider games, make games, and play games, it’s important to be aware of the personal stories that create a relatable experience, the hearts that went into creating and playing those games. Games are always inevitably connected to human experience – the creator of the game’s experience, and then the player’s experience, all combined together to create something impactful and important.

For games to be more than entertainment, they need that heart, that personal touch, to truly move us to be inspired or to be analytical. That’s how they stop being ‘just’ entertainment, and become something more.

That’s how a work becomes Art.

Advertisements

One thought on “More than Entertainment: Unravel, Mass Effect and the Power of Games as Art

  1. A friend linked me this article after I told him it wasn’t an exaggeration that Bucky Barnes and Captain America saved my life. I got diagnosed with colon cancer in january 2014 after going to the ER with stomach pain. Less than two days later I’d had my colon removed. I’m still not dealing with this all that well but when I was really messed up was when I started chemo in March 2014. The Winter Soldier came out in April, I immersed myself in the Captain America fandom. I bought comicbooks, I read fanfiction, I spent all my money on going to see that movie over and over and over again. I saw a kindred spirit in Bucky Barnes. I felt like I could relate to so many of his struggles. I spent so much time last year thinking about suicide and one of the reasons I didn’t ever follow through with any of my thoughts was stupid wonderful broken James Barnes. His metal arm became my ileostomy. I read page after page after page of Bucky recovery fic. Bucky’s anger and frustration at what Hydra had taken from him mirrored my own feelings. I never gave up because Bucky never gave up. I haven’t done it yet, but I’m going to get the Winter Soldier’s red star tattooed on my left shoulder because I need something permanent to stay with me and help me remember I’m stronger than all my health problems and still alive in spite of everything that has happened to me.

    I just needed to share my story and say I get it so so so much. Comicbooks and movies aren’t video games but they have had a massive impact on me nevertheless.

    I’m delusionally sleep deprived so I hope this made some sense.

    Thanks for sharing how important ME has been for you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s