:: Article

Desire To Have Children Has Disappeared From Your Inventory

By Giorgio Chiappa.

Austrian author Clemens J. Setz is wearing a Doom t-shirt in a 2017 video shot in a park in Müllheim, Germany where his first theatre play, Vereinte Nationen (“United Nations”) has just been staged at a local theatre festival. As he chatters about his effort to let somebody else (the director, in this case) have a go at his material for once, he gesticulates wildly, and as the camera zooms in on his hands, the Doom logo looms large in the viewer’s face, causing one to wonder how many theatre goers coming in from the festival might actually be able to recognize the reference. His bushy beard and his mumbled delivery only reinforce the impression that he’s a nerd in a world of nerds—as most literature buffs are, nerdiness being more defined by a general attitude than a definite object—he just comes from a province of nerdiness that is traditionally unexplored by most members of the literary establishment.

Literature has long digested pop culture’s musical manifestations, but everything pertaining to the realm of videogames and digital culture is still a bit of an iffy subject. For one thing, it’s hard to do justice to these phenomena on the page: your writing will always be lagging behind the actual medium you’re trying to simulate, a dull and possibly opportunistic rendition of what people experience in a more humdrum—or exciting—way in their day-to-day experience. Moreover, videogames are close enough to the still reviled borderlands of genre literature—fantasy, sci-fi, horror, adventure and whatnot—to engender an ingrained mistrust in the judgement of more puritanical critics (another thing about nerds: they’re a puritanical lot). A possible way to circumvent the problem is to write about the actual production of videogames—“industry” novels affording a gossipy fly-on-the-wall perspective that appeals both to the layman and the insider. Douglas Coupland (with Microserfs and JPod) has paved the way for this subset of novels. Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, known to most through its souped-up filmic rendition, is an example of yet another tendency: video games as narrative foil for a scientific dystopia.

In his short story “Kleine Braune Tiere” (“Small Brown Animals”), which appeared in the as yet untranslated 2011 collection Die Liebe zur Zeit des Mahlstädter Kindes, Setz goes for something completely different. He takes the Borges route, updated to the 21st century: he fabulates a tale about a non-existent artefact with nearly magical properties, an enigmatic videogame masterpiece that no one can play to completion, created by a suicidal genius. In a further Borgesian twist—similar to the way the Argentinian writer would counterfeit the treatise, the archaic forms of lore and knowledge—Setz has selected the much derided contemporary equivalent of these genres as a formal guise for his tale: the academic paper.

An odd mixture of literary and gamey preoccupations is present from the onset. We are immediately informed that Figures in a Landscape, the fictitious game in question, is part of the canon, or at least of a canon. Our narrator, who is supposedly an academic, positions the title in a lineage of ground-breaking literary masterpieces: “Ulysses for the modern novel, Gravity’s Rainbow for the postmodern novel, Infinite Jest for the postpostmodern novel, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth for the graphic novel”,  a roll call of good (and hip) taste into which Figures in a Landscape  smuggled—for the first time—the hitherto despised form of the videogame. We are thus projected into a world that entertains weirdly conservative ideas on culture yet appears to be genuinely fascinated by the oddness of videogames (as long as they can be filtered through well-established modes of reading and interpretation). The language is accessible and captivating, but the mindset is almost pedantically academic, as evidenced by the clear distinction of high-brow and low-brow, as well as by the received wisdom of a canon constructed through a (modernist) narrative  of progress through sudden and total outbursts of originality and newness. Even the idea of pinning a single subjectivity to the videogame as an artefact fits neatly into the toolbox of a well-tested criticism that finds comfort in being able to praise or condemn a single person for an artistic output:the accommodating presence of an author / auteur (whose death, pace Barthes, was not as irreversible as we thought) haunts the entire story and contributes to a myth that encompasses the creator as much as his work. We will find out, as the tale progresses, that what we are reading is just the latest addition to a large body of “secondary literature” that has alternatively focused on deciphering the game and proposing an hagiography of its eccentric and conveniently dead creator, British game designer and “universal poet” Marc David Regan (who, by the way, also spawned his own posthumous literary output in the way of poetry collections and journals; footnote fodder which is promptly ransacked by the usual troop of overzealous geeks and scholars, including our narrator).

This focus on a single creative personality is strange, considering that the creation of most games requires the involvement of a gigantic specialised workforce. A seed of authorial intention can be detected in the figure of the game director, who, like his cinematic counterpart, gets to infuse his or her creative vision into the videogame project (but they only rise to fame if that creative vision is glaringly eccentric—take your Hideo Kojimas, your Suda51s, your Swery65s…). “Most game projects have a single lead” writes Kotaku’s Jason Schreier in his illuminating exposé on the game industry, Blood Sweat & Pixels, “Whether they call themselves “creative director” (…) or “executive producer” (…), the one thing they all have in common is that they always get the final call. In the case of creative conflicts and disagreements, the buck stops with that single guy or gal”. So there’s also a clear question of hierarchy and decision making that goes with being an “author” in the videogame world, not just the luxury (and the onus) of impressing your signature upon a product whose gestation is a complex and collective affair, often marred by exploitative and sketchy labour practices. Of course, you also have bedroom game designers, especially in the indie scene, who manage to churn out their artisanal creations in relative autonomy. But that—as the case of Stardew Valley’s creator Eric Barone (aka ConcernedApe) profiled in Schreier’s book illustrates—requires one to have a lot of free time (i.e. no day job) and sufficient financial resources (i.e. generous partners or families) at your command; and you will still need a solid external help with distribution and marketing, otherwise, given how flooded the market currently is, it’s highly unlikely anyone will notice your little gem of a game.

Setz’s fictional game designer is at least blessed with a providential set of assets (being the son a diplomat, scoring a writer’s residence in Berlin…) that afford him huge swathes of free time and the resources to go about creating his (admittedly janky and raw) game. Narratively, of course, it is much easier to talk about a single auteur than an entire team of people. It comes with a romantic advantage: the biography / work ratio will remain fairly consistently skewered towards the former for the whole duration of the short story—“Kleine braune Tiere” effectively mimics the form of the academic monographic essay, in which the creative output of a given individual is nestled in his own life story and a corpus of personal tastes, obsessions, things read and seen, places visited, and assorted paraphernalia. I won’t recount the details of Marc David Regan’s biography here. It should be registered, though, that the short story is very attentive to the way his life and work are not just debated in a scholarly context—the academic activity surrounding Regan is paralleled by the Internet discourse of chatrooms, forums, fan sites and YouTube videos. Some of these things dot the pages of “Kleine braune Tiere” with flurries of abbreviated, English-language netspeak that break with the German of the main text, reproducing a non-English speaking person’s experience of having to conduct a good chunk of their fandom conversations on English-speaking platforms. Indirectly, the short story is also a comment on fandom—on how a given creator and their output become the property of a wider audience who develop an intimate (and not entirely healthy) relationship to them. Here, with the creator having succumbed to an early death in mysterious circumstances, his fans are left alone with the conundrum of a disquieting unfinishedness which is all the more troubling because it is not inscribed into the artefact from the beginning. (Regan finished and released Figures in a Landscape while still alive, so we are not dealing with a posthumous work.)

But what does Figures in a Landscape look like, as a game? What does a videogame have to do in order to “outgrow” the confines of nerdy culture and be accepted as a “literary” masterpiece?  Is the game’s unsolvable final level grafted onto an RPG, a shoot-‘em-up, a walking simulator?

That’s one of the most intriguing aspects of “Kleine braune Tiere”: we do not actually find out much about the ins and outs of Figures in a Landscape’s gameplay. We only have isolated snaps, descriptions, pieces of dialogue. And that is the smartest solution the author could take. If you make your story about a supposedly ground-breaking piece of art that drastically impacted the fictional universe you are writing about, the last thing you want to do is actually show it to your reader or viewer. This is not just due—as mentioned earlier—to mere technical difficulties (you can’t play a digital videogame in prose, obviously); it also has to do with the narrative necessity of appropriately transmitting the aura of a made-up object or a phenomenon in a fictional universe, in a way that entices the reader without tarnishing the mystery. At the end of it all, you should be left longing for the object to exist—not glad that you don’t actually have to deal with it, or miffed  by something which does not live up to the great ambitions that—according to the narrative framing—it should fulfil. I am reminded of Kieślowski’s film Blue, where the unfinished symphony composed by the protagonist’s late husband was constantly discussed as an almost supernatural musical masterpiece; and how severely underwhelmed—and pissed off—I was when a snippet of that music was played towards the end of the film and it turned out to be “just okay”.

What we do find out about the game is puzzling and weird to say the least. It’s best to let the short story speak for itself here by quoting the description of one of the game levels, The Protectory for Barely Comprehensible Children:

“In this episode, John Brel (the obese protagonist of the game, purported to be a “stalker”; remark of author) must fight against his own wish to have children. A bar at the top of the screen serves to illustrate his enormous desire—the column just hangs there, a reddish hue of yellow, and his gaze constantly fixates on one of the many children who populate the streets of Figures. In order to cure this increasingly worsening coordination disorder, the player must go to a sinister protectory at the edge of town (otherwise he risks a complete freeze of all movements from level 7 upwards). In front of the building there’s a big tree upon which many children have been hanged (the soundtrack to this level is—adequately enough—a minimalist MIDI rendition of the nightmarish protest song “Strange Fruit”, made famous by Billie Holiday’s interpretation). The protectory is replete with children laying in huge cots, their limbs weirdly contorted, while nurses wearing bicorne hats roam the corridors like apparitions. Touching the children will cause the “child desire” parameter to decrease. If you smear the children with a brown ointment (a tricky game of skill with the mouse), pick them up from the cradle or—as they lay sleeping—fill up their beds with sands you collected from the sandpit in the garden, the “child desire” will be completely removed from the inventory.” (my translation)

I singled out this excerpt because it aptly illustrates certain characteristics of the game that recur in the few other descriptions of it that occur in the short story. One thing is evident: the gameplay does not seem to add up to any genre. Is Figures in a Landscape supposed to be a sort of Dark Souls on benzodiazepine, the difficulty arising not from the deadliness of its combat, but from the sheer undecipherability of its mechanics and aesthetics? Something akin to the love-it-or-hate-it Russian game Pathologic, where no one tells you what to do and you mostly try to find creative ways to stave off death and failure in a hostile environment? The passage, delivered in a footnote, reads like an excerpt from a walkthrough to the game, taking us by the hand and showing us how to deal with gameplay elements and challenges in order to progress. Except none of these elements or challenges make any sense: the all-familiar technicalities of gameplay (stats, bars, parameters, inventories) and the gamey necessity of having to constantly overcome a set of arbitrary tasks are exposed here in their nakedness, and almost revolt against the player’s willingness to grasp them and master them. They are reduced to gestural allusions of what they should stand for. In other passages describing the game, nonsensical dialogue choices will result in the apparition of symbols and icons on the screen that have no apparent relation to what is going on; almost a parody of the UI of a game pin pointing the player to a new event, skill or object that requires attention, except the icons only point to their own absurdity.

Figures in a Landscape seems to fit into a legacy of games that openly refuse to function smoothly as games, like the notorious Takeshi Kitano-branded kusoge (lit. “crap game”, a Japanese word indicating the videogame equivalent of a b-movie) Takeshi’s Challenge, posing as a side scroller, but manifestly not giving a shit whether you beat up a Yakuza, crash to your death in a Pacific island, or kill your family—all of these actions are possible and all are equally disjointed from purpose and meaning. Yet it takes this legacy to an almost modernist peak of experimentation with form and connotation. Videogames have been going through a protracted phase of postmodernist complacency for years and years now: the medium has a short history, but it is already eating itself. I often think of Jeremy J. Beadle’s wonderful book Will Pop Eat Itself? (1993), about pop music in the wake of the sampler:

To be truthful, pop has been eating itself ever since it began. The sampler was just a new way, a more up-front, apparently Dadaist way to do this. ‘Pop will eat itself because it can’, an NME review once said. True in a way, but, more than this, pop will eat itself because it must. Popular culture, like all culture, feeds on itself endlessly and having eaten itself, produces not waste but another dish for the paying consumer.

These words will sound hauntingly familiar to players: videogames are constantly sampling their own history. How many titles do we see that still look (and feel) as they had been produced for the golden age of the SNES and Sega Genesis? How many reissues and ports are released seasonally? Not that nothing experimental or weird gets produced at all—it’s just that games feel more risk-averse now than ever. They went straight to post-modernism, seeming to skip their modernist phase: a moment of wild experimentation with form in itself, self-reflexiveness unchecked by smart-aleck irony, resistance to use or interpretation, no quotation marks in sight. Figures in a Landscape—imperfect, unfinishable, and maybe nearly unplayable—hints exactly at such a possibility.

However, I am also aware how such a narrative might sound teleological, failing to take into account that each medium tends to have its own preoccupations and historical turns. Figures in a Landscape as a fictional object seems more interesting for the potentialities it hints at than for the game itself. Don’t get me wrong—if a title like that ever existed, I would surely buy it on day one. But I don’t know if I would enjoy it. I don’t know, to be frank, if a game like that would be much fun. And fun is the key word. We have learned to love the great modernists so much—because they fascinate us, because they weird us out, because they are catnip to our critical senses as readers—that we often give them a license to bore us to no end. A “functional” medium like the video game—released on a crowded market, designed for short-term impact, meant to entertain the user—can afford only so much experimental leeway before being sanctioned (rightfully?) by players and critics alike.

Ian Bogost, since his first book, Unit Operations, is one of the few contrarian voices in criticism and game design pleading for the industry to overcome its dependency on the fun factor. While Bogost’s call definitely sounds enticing and justified, I am a bit concerned by the possible puritanical tangents that reasoning could take (perpetuating the idolatry of “difficulty” or “engagement” as the universal marker of artistic value) and nonplussed by some of the examples that he gives—like the Star Wars Galaxies game where you have to sit on a star ship for minutes at a stretch to reach a new planet, which for Bogost is a recondite reference to the drudgery of commuting by car in Southern California, where the bulk of the North-American tech industry operates. That’s all very well, but it seems that Bogost reads what is clearly a gameplay flaw as an aesthetically articulate statement—and that is a very risky path (not to detract from Bogost’s other work, which is indeed illuminating and instrumental to new and engaging forms of game criticism and design). He even chastises the idea of an alternative ‘fun’ that contemplates aesthetic enjoyment and political critique, because—in his view—that still means that “videogame-based expression” remains “enslaved to it (fun, that is)”.

These concerns came back to me while watching our author—Clemens J. Setz—play Doom II on a German TV program about writers and the videogame they love. He admits being a bit rusty. He used to play games obsessively as a teenager but had to abandon them for a longer period due to health issues, something that eventually brought him to literature (as a palliative to fill the void the absence of videogames had left). Yet—controller in hand—he seems to slide comfortably back into his old gamer habits, and soon he’s navigating the levels fairly confidently. He points the gun to his fellow player, the host of the program: “Don’t you also feel this longing to shoot one another, even if it would be completely senseless?”. He later remarks, while fragging away, that videogames, Doom II being one of them, heavily influenced his aesthetics and world-building, especially in terms of the dialectics between normality and weirdness. “You start out and everything looks normal, and then there’s just one thing that’s off, one thing that’s different. It’s the humans (in the game)—they don’t scream with a human voice; they sound like camels”. Figures in a Landscape, in the short story, has the superficial normality of videogame routine, but when you look closely, nothing makes sense; everything is unhinged. If the medium of the videogame has to evolve, that is the precious balance that it should try to strike. And Bogost was almost right on the mark, but it’s not fun that games need to relinquish as such. Rather, we need to find a new fun in them—more like the fun of reading the modernists—tinged with boredom and surprise and, perhaps, more creativity. The fun, that is, of dismantling things. One of the main beauties of Figures in a Landscape as the centrepiece of “Kleine Braune Tiere” is the effort to sidestep its unfinishedness by data mining, cheating, and speculating

But games need to remain fun—the market can be healthily despised, but not entirely disregarded; there need to be ways to challenge the not-so­-catholic tastes of the common player (to adapt a Woolfian expression) without belittling or disregarding a legitimate desire for a bit of entertainment. There is—and there could be—great artistic value in fun, and inspiring fun for the player in any way is an art in and of itself and should be appreciated as such. Watching a man like Setz as he plays his beloved childhood game (and lists off his favourite glitches—glitches tending to be an important feature in most of his writings), or reading his wild fabulations about a game yet to exist, offers beautiful hints at what videogame-expression can be, and what imaginative potential it has for literature at large: fully-armed men screaming like camels, desire as a game play feature, icons that command interactions and yet resist our interpretations as players, as avatars stuck in strange rooms and providentially unstuck by a swathe of passionate players and interpreters.

All of it sounds like great fun to me.


Giorgio Chiappa is a writer and PhD student living in Berlin, Germany. His work has appeared on the Italian gaming magazine Ludica and on Queen Mob’s Teahouse.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, September 25th, 2019.