From Smiling’s Frail Shells is a playable thesis statement. It’s one that’s strongly stated, and no less so for being relatively common. To say there’s much subtlety involved would be to misunderstand what it is about the game that makes it worth playing.
The horizon of videogame thought is psychology. All major advancements in the form are encased in a theory of the brain. Artificial Intelligence and graphical fidelity are two sides of the same coin. We’re the vending machine: insert coin, get back a corresponding degree of recognition of the brain-patterns with which you are familiar. Metagamers and min-maxers think like the machine because they are trying to meet it halfway; PC irony-fascists and console warriors do the same. Jack Thompson called them a cause, Zimmerman claims they’re a century where “the lines will become increasingly blurred between game players and game designers.” He also calls them beautiful and specifically references their aesthetics; luckily this is in the gutter of the manifesto, where sentiment and melodrama overpower motive. Ebert said that art was authored; every hack cried that what better authorship is there than that which makes your neurons fire fast in response?
A note; a theory of the brain is a choice. It is not a theory of the mind. Frail Shells supports two possible readings, which happen to split cleanly along the lines of the ludonarrative. In one, it is about the loquacity of games, what they allow you to say, in the other about post-traumatic stress, the effects of undergoing and enacting violence seeping in to the moments where it is no longer present. The ludo is linguistic, a representation of actions boiled to mechanics that develops its irony as a function of the intervening brain. The narrative is that it’s an #altwargame.
It is in this context – which is to say the whole context of thinking about videogames as it exists – that the thesis statement exists. This is the context where a game that opens full Medal of Honor only to (medium) hard shift to domesticity and labor can function as a reasonable critique of the culture. It would be impossible to give a shit about the paucity of verbs in a shooting game were the concern the mind. In a culture where the concern is the brain, however, it is the only thing worth caring about.
There’s no shortage of games that call out the lack of verbs in shooting games, of course. Acid Wizard Studio’s After the Credits straight rips Contra sprites and sounds to make the same point; once the bros save the universe, what’s next?
The joke is the juxtaposition, of course; Contra Bill moves right and shoots, so how would he deal at a desk job? This is the common narrative element between Frail Shells and After the Credits; the heroic warrior gets a desk job. A nonspecific one, to be sure, but with heavy implications of something along the lines of data entry, although perhaps more lucrative. Mindless and repetitive, only unable to be completed by shooting.
If the joke is the juxtaposition, though, the fantasy is the non-transferability. A utopian reading of the “action games lacking verbs” genre goes like this:
Power relies on violence, but is not reducible to it. Those who enact violence are not, often, those who have power, only those who serve it. Nevertheless.
Those who enact violence – especially over a long period of time, doubly so in a focused campaign – are, when push comes to shove, those who find themselves in a position to engage with other aspects of power. They, almost inevitably, network with capitalists. Especially, again, when they are on a campaign like Contra Bill was.
The utopian fantasy of these stories is that violence itself is, ultimately, laughable, especially in the “power fantasy” style. It’s of no place because it only exists in a world without, say, PMCs. Contra Bill doesn’t work a desk job; he’s a “consultant.” The flip side of that is, of course, the utopian idea that these men have jobs at all. Veteran houselessness might be political capital, but it’s also real as shit.
There are deconstructions of other genre as well, of course. Shiro Games sort of subtitled their Evoland “A short story of adventure video games evolution,” which is to say it’s a pastiche of The Legend of Zelda games (up through Ocarina of Time) with a hearty amount of Final Fantasy VII mixed in, and one bit that riffs on Diablo. It started as a jam game, just like the other two here, but got expanded to a full thing; there’s even a sequel now, as of a couple days ago.
The early joke of Evoland is the same as of After the Credits; the first thing you do is move right to touch a treasure chest that allows you the ability to move left, then in 2D, and so on. Your name defaults to Clink, and once you move from action RPG to turn based you get a partner named Kaeris. She gets killed by Zephyros.
The full version kind of sucks. It is overlong, and the actual jokes are things like getting a “Diamond Necklace of Shiny Bling” which has the flavor text “[y]ou just became the first Gangsta Fantasy Hero.” The initial conceit wears out quickly, and the game never deigns to let up on it; the rhythms of the two canons it draws from can’t be established when they’re constantly being flipped between, so the exploration of a Zelda is missed just as much as the repetitious scope of a Final Fantasy. Even the collectibles – stars and cards for a Triple Triad clone – ultimately come up short.
It’s that final word in the pseudo-subtitle, the one that lends the prefix to the title, that makes the game so interesting and infuriating. Evoland can’t be a deconstruction, because it exists within the cultural context of games. Like a brain, it can only chronicle evolution.