Princess Violet, a smart, kind, determined young woman, is imprisoned by the Lizard King. Rather than sit in the castle and wait for her rescuer, she decides to take matters into her own hands and escape! With the grace, intelligence, and leadership befitting a princess, she makes her way through the castle, meeting friends along the way who aid in her mission. Finally, she finds herself face to face with the Lizard King! Will she manage to defeat him? Or will evil triumph? This interactive text-based adventure subverts the typical problematic gender stereotypes of video games, introducing a damsel who’s perfectly capable of handling her own distress.
Besides its mind bending puzzles, most players praise TheWitness for its vivid, beautiful open world. With expansive bodies of water, lush greenery, and colorful flowers, the graphics of the game are breathtaking However, I argue that this world does more than simply look pretty; rather, it encourages players to contemplate the beauty, importance, and enormity of the natural world. I read the game as what scholar Alenda Y. Chang calls an “environmental text,” encouraging the player to work with the environment, appreciating its beauty and value without plundering it for resources.
In many video games, such as Minecraft, players are encouraged to treat the game’s environment as an infinite provider of usable resources. The actionable parts of the environment, Chang writes “are most often things a player can use immediately… acquire for later use… or destroy,” such as power-ups or supplies (60). Chang then proposes that “games are opportunities to create entirely new sets of relations outside of those based on dominance or manipulation” (60). This relation to the environment, one of collaboration and respect, is present in TheWitness. In my last play session, the solutions to the puzzles were imbedded in the natural environment, the trees in front of the puzzle boxes serving as clues to the puzzles’ answers. Hiding the solution to the puzzle in the environment serves two important functions. First, it requires the player truly to examine and appreciate the natural world. If the player is focused myopically on solving the puzzle without considering her environment, she will undoubtedly be stumped. Paradoxically, to solve the puzzle, the player must look at the world beyond the puzzle. Second, hiding the solution to the puzzle in the game’s environment models a way of working with nature that is not predicated on directly taking or using natural resources. Instead of taking from nature, the game encourages the player to learn from it, which is a pretty significant environmental message.
Additionally, The Witness encourages players to contemplate the vastness, power, and beauty of the natural world. In discussing the parser-based interactive fiction Adventure, Chang writes that the game encourages the player to consider “the sheer scale and complexity of its natural environment” (66). The Witness is much the same. Isolated on the island with no NPCs to distract her, the player’s focus is solely on the world around her. Even while sitting inside and looking at a screen, the enormous, beautiful world of TheWitness encourages players to consider the vastness and splendor of nature.
While a video game is no substitute for time spent outside, environmental texts such as The Witness nevertheless instruct players on the value of nature. Interacting with the environment without plundering it and considering the beauty of the open world, players of The Witness are met with timely themes of environmental respect and appreciation.
Alenda Y. Chang. “Games as Environmental Texts.” Qui Parle, vol. 19, no. 2, 2011, pp. 56–84.
Scholar Karen Collins provides a historical exploration of the history of arcade game audio in her article, “Game Sound in Mechanical Arcades: An Audio Archaeology.” Beginning in the 19th century and continuing to the present, she studies the role audio plays in furthering the enjoyment and novelty of carnival and arcade games. After reading this historical examination of arcade sounds, I concluded that Tsum Tsum draws heavily from a history of simple games with rich audio effects. In particular, the audio of Tsum Tsum is critical in enhancing immersion and in creating the sense of reward and accomplishment so commonly associated with casual games.
First, let’s examine the sounds of Tsum Tsum. I’ve included a video below of the game-play to give a sense of the audio effects of the game. As you can tell by watching it, the audio in Tsum Tsum is highly rewarding. Each Tsum makes a pleasant, popping sort of sound when you connect it to another, and for each chain of Tsums the player connects quickly, the pitch gets higher and higher, creating a sense of excitement. Using the power-ups from the character in the bottom left-hand corner (in this video, Anna from Frozen) also creates pleasant and exciting noises. Although it’s hard to tell because this player moves so quickly, the soundtrack also changes during the game’s “Fever Time,” becoming even faster and more upbeat. The game’s audio tracks overall are bright, fun, and pleasant, enhancing the enjoyment of playing the game.
Tsum-Tsum, as a casual game, has a fair amount in common with arcade games. The game is not narrative heavy, rounds are short, and the mechanics are relatively simple. Collins highlights the importance of audio in attracting players to arcade games and making them a rewarding experience, so it only makes sense that a casual, arcade-style game would follow the same pattern. Collins cites Dren McDonald, a freelance casual game sound designer, who explains that “If you’re doing a game, say, like a Bejeweled type of game, everything in that game is to reward you and make you feel like you’re really accomplishing something.” Tsum Tsum certainly follows this philosophy. Just like with the arcade games Collins studied, the simple gameplay is accompanied by a rich audio landscape, making the play experience highly rewarding. Additionally, Collins identifies that as early as the 1930s, designers used sound effects to enhance a game’s immersive qualities. Tsum Tsum’s audio definitely accomplishes this goal. Like Jamie Madigan identifies, a good match between the visual and audio components of a game makes the play experience more immersive. Hearing the popping sound as the player connects the bubble-like Tsums on her screen makes a more complete and immersive sensory experience.
While casual mobile games are a relatively new technological development, Karen Collins proves that rich sound design has been a component of arcade and carnival games since their inception. Tsum Tsum is descended from this tradition of immersive, stimulating audio in simple games. The delightful popping sounds and upbeat soundtrack of Tsum Tsum are but one instance in over 100 years of deliberately rewarding game sound design.
As I’ve mentioned in previous logs, Rusty Lake: Roots, is an indie point-and-click horror puzzle game following the extraordinarily dysfunctional Vanderbloom family. In searching for scholarship on these types of games, I came up pretty empty-handed. Low-budget puzzle games without a wide audience reach tend to be neglected from mainstream scholarship, so instead, I did some reading on Rusty Lake: Roots’s better known cousin—the survival horror genre. While reading an analysis of survival horror, I was struck by how this game often opposed the conventions of the genre in everything from mechanics to themes. In my analysis, survival horror draws most heavily from horror films, while Rusty Lake: Roots takes its inspiration far more from horror literature.
Scholar Ewan Kirkland, in “Survival Horrality: Analysis of a Videogame Genre,” examines the morality of survival horror, and draws two conclusions: firstly, that than violence in survival horror is “largely done to, rather than perpetrated by, the protagonist,” and secondly, that the games often “enact a more conservative process of familial reconciliation.” Rusty Lake: Roots meets neither of these criteria. As for the violence done to the protagonist, the gamedoesn’t have one, let alone a playable character. The player interacts with the game world, solving puzzles and furthering the plot, without acting as any specific character. This lack of playable character thus precludes any violence being done to them. Rather, the violence in the game—suicides, dismemberments, murders, and the like—all happen to the playable characters as a result of the player solving the puzzles. Emma’s suicide, for instance, is the final step in one of the game’s levels, and there is nothing, besides refusing to play the level, that the player can do to prevent it. The player is unwittingly implicated in the horror of the game, simply solving a puzzle only for the solution to yield horrific results. Secondly, the plot of Rusty Lake: Roots is far from a process of familial reconciliation; rather, the story revolves around the collapse of a family. The dysfunctional Vanderblooms frequently try to kill one another, and the story chronicles how this family devolves further into violence and madness as generations progress.
Big-budget survival horror games strike me as more cinematic, while Rusty Lake: Roots is far more literary. Survival horror games can rely on jump scares, follow one protagonist, and are capable of cinema-worthy graphics. Rusty Lake: Roots, as a far lower-budget game, relies instead on the conventions of horror literature. Without the capability of jump-scares or stunning graphics, the game must craft its horror through a compelling narrative, a constant sense of unease, and disturbing plot points. In short, Rusty Lake: Roots could be classified not as survival horror, but psychological horror.
I’ve sung the praises of Rusty Lake: Roots in my previous logs, but I am again struck with how expertly the narrative is crafted. The collapse of the Vanderbloom family is terrifying and compelling, a sprawling family drama told in vivid micro narratives. While the game lacks any zombies or monsters to kill, the game, like horror literature, manages to frighten and disturb solely through the power of storytelling.
Kirkland, Ewan. “Survival Horrality: Analysis of a Videogame Genre (1).” The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies no. 10 (Oct 30, 2011): 22-3
Henry Jenkins, in “Game Design as Narrative Architecture,” considers the relationship between games and story. He examines the tension in the scholarly community between those who wish to privilege the mechanics of games in their studies, the Ludologists, and those who focus on the storytelling aspect, the Narratologists. Jenkins proposes a middle ground, one that asserts that many games tell stories while acknowledging that they tell them in ways unique to the medium. Rusty Lake: Roots, is a highly narrative driven game, and I believe it departs from Jenkins’s characterization of typical video game storytelling in its clearly linear and unchangeable narrative progression. In doing so, however, it may limit the freedom and exploration players come to associate with games.
Rusty Lake: Roots, is an epic family drama, spanning across generations. Each level contains its own narrative, telling the story of a key moment in the family’s history. These stories range from birth to death, marriage to betrayal, conspiracy to rescue. Jenkins characterizes traditional video game storytelling as episodic. He explains that “Each episode…can become compelling on its own terms without contributing significantly to the plot development and often, the episodes could have been reordered without significantly impacting our experiences as a whole (7). Rusty Lake: Roots somewhat defies this description of video games. The narrative of the game, while occurring in individual episodes, has a clear arc and could not easily be reordered without losing a great deal of coherence. For example, in one early episode, Albert throws Emma’s baby into a well. In a subsequent level, Emma hangs herself due to the heartbreak of losing her child. Several levels later, the player finds herself in that well helping the now-grown child, Frank, to escape. In another level, Frank kills Albert. This sub-plot is but one of several narratives that follow a more traditional literary plot structure.
This clear narrative structure is due in large part to the family tree structure by which the game is organized. After each level, the player returns to the tree and a branch grows, displaying a new level to play that quite literally stems from the previous one. The narratives, therefore, follow a clear chain of cause-and-effect, as I identified earlier with the Frank narrative. While this structured approach to storytelling allows for a fascinating, easy-to-follow narrative, it certainly constrains players’ freedom. Jenkins identifies this concern, explaining that too much plotting can detract from the exploratory nature of games. Rusty Lake: Roots falls into this trap. Players can solve the puzzle on each level, but ultimately have little to no control over the outcome of the narrative. The choices the player makes have no impact on the story, which may be frustrating to players who prefer freedom within a game world.
Rusty Lake: Roots is not a traditional game. Everything, from its graphics (stylized two dimensional drawings), to its mechanics (simple pointing and clicking), to its structure (a clear narrative progression with little player agency), departs from the usual big-budget video game conventions. However, as an indie game, Rusty Lake: Roots is able to take risks and experiment with storytelling. The result is a rich, sprawling story worthy of a Gothic novel enacted in a video game.
Jamie Madigan puzzles through what makes video games immersive in his aptly-titled blog post, “The Psychology of Immersion in Video Games.” He concludes that richness and consistency in game worlds are necessary for a truly immersive experience. As I played The Witness, I was struck by how immersed I became in the game. I lost my sense of time as I became wrapped up in the vexing puzzles and beautiful landscape. In examining The Witness through Madigan’s lens, I concluded that its multiple channels of sensory information, cognitively demanding environment, and lack of incongruous visual cues were the strongest elements contributing to its immersion.
The multiple channels of sensory information make the game’s beautiful visual landscape come to life. As the player character walks, grass or dirt crunches underfoot. When by a sea or river, the player hears the sounds of waves or rushing water. The visual landscape is already highly detailed, but the auditory aspect really enhances the immersion of the game. The total lack of incongruous visual cues also works in favor of the game. The game world is totally un-mediated by HUDs, scores, text, or anything else capable of breaking the immersive spell. The game is simply the player, the landscape, and the puzzles, making getting lost in the world of the game almost effortless.
Where I believe the game becomes its most immersive, however, is in the cognitive demands of its puzzles. While the puzzles are simple in nature (they’re all essentially mazes with a few extra rules now and then), they require a great deal of focus and brainpower. Solving a single puzzle can take over five minutes and demands the full attention of the player. In solving these puzzles, I found myself losing track of time and my other responsibilities. While the visual landscape certainly contributed to the immersion, the puzzles were the key element in getting the player lost in the game.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, The Witness is not a typical console game. It doesn’t require fast reflexes or hand-eye coordination. Its environment, although eerily empty, is pretty and peaceful. Yet despite not meeting typical video game criteria, The Witness’s demanding puzzles and rich sensory environment create a game as compelling and immersive as a first person shooter.
In reading “What is Casual?,” Jesper Juul’s chapter outlining the typical characteristics of casual game design, I was struck by how perfectly Tsum Tsum fit into all the stereotyped expectations of casual games. Juul identifies five components of casual game design: positive fictions, usability, interruptibility, lenient punishment, and juiciness. Tsum Tsum, as I will explain, displays every one of these characteristics.
First, let’s examine the positive fiction. Casual games, Jull explains, are usually set in pleasant environments and have positive storylines. While a hardcore game may center around killing zombies, escaping an evil laboratory, or fighting a war, casual games are more likely to have much more positive fictions, such as exploring new worlds or finding buried treasure. Tsum Tsum has a very positive fiction. The game’s premise is that the tsum toys have all fallen off the shelves in the Disney store, and the player has to help arrange them in time for the shop’s opening. This premise involves helping solve a benign problem, cute toys, and a company that markets itself as the “happiest place on earth.” It’s difficult to conceive of a more positive, pleasant storyline.
Second, we’ll consider the game’s interruptibility and usability. Rounds of Tsum Tsum are only a minute long, and there’s no penalty for quitting mid-game. The player doesn’t have to reach a save point and never risks losing more than a minute’s worth of play. Clearly, the game is highly interruptible, perfect for playing while waiting in line at the supermarket or riding the bus. Juul defines usability by the intuitiveness of the controls. In short, what the player does with her body should translate in obvious ways to the actions in the game. In Tsum Tsum, the player uses her finger on a touch screen, connecting similar tsums. The movement of the finger correlates precisely to actions in the game world. The game, therefore, is highly usable.
Third, the lenient punishment and juiciness. In Tsum Tsum, getting a negative outcome is nearly impossible. The player can only accrue points. Performing poorly in a round of the game simply results in a lower score, but even a low score enhances the player’s overall stats. The game does have a limited number of free plays per day, but after running out of turns, the player merely has to wait twenty-four hours before playing again. The game’s lenient punishment is countered by its extreme juiciness. While very few negative outcomes occur if a player performs poorly, very positive ones occur when she performs well. I wrote about this juiciness in a previous post, so I won’t repeat everything here, but suffice it to say that Tsum Tsum rewards the player with all sorts of lights and sounds for a positive performance.
After reading Juul’s chapter, I was left to conclude that Tsum Tsum is the quintessential casual game. Juicy, pleasant, and very easy to use, the game meets all of Juul’s criteria for casual games. However, as Juul identifies, the simple nature of the game and the intuitiveness of the controls don’t correlate directly with easiness. The pattern recognition and quick reflexes Tsum Tsum requires take time and effort to develop, like the skills for any other game. Although being very bad at Tsum Tsum is difficult, so is being especially good at it.
The Witness, a highly-rated console and PC game, involves exploring a beautiful open world and solving the puzzles placed throughout the environment. The Witness is a seemingly peaceful, relaxed game, contrary to typical console experiences. In my ninety minutes of play time so far, there have been no timed puzzles, no running and jumping, and nothing involving much hand-eye coordination. The game is simply a series of maze-like puzzles. Yet The Witness manages to produce an eerie, unsettling feeling despite its beautiful visuals and peaceful atmosphere.
The lack of traditional gaming mechanics, such as shooting or running, is an unusual choice for a video game. While the landscape is lovely to look at, The Witness lacks the juiciness of traditional console games – nothing explodes, the environment is not hyper-stimulating, and the music is quiet and peaceful. In my preliminary research, reviewers have given The Witness high praise, suggesting that there is a market for non-combat oriented games. Puzzles are typically associated with casual games, such as Bejeweled or Tetris. Yet The Witness proves that consumers are open to the idea of console puzzle games. Requiring more brain power than reflexes, The Witness’s unique format suggests that gamers are not always looking for a run-and-shoottype of experience. Rather, many can enjoy puzzle games that involve no combat or similar high-intensity experiences.
The Witness is visually beautiful, an expansive world filled with Japanese-styled architecture, lush grass, cherry blossom trees, and bodies of water. Yet something about the world is not quite right. While pretty and peaceful, the world of the game is completely devoid of people. There are buildings, bridges, and other signs of life, but no inhabitants. The Witness reminds me of the pilot episode of The Twilight Zone, “Where is Everybody?” The protagonist of the episode finds himself in a town that appears to have once been inhabited, but is now completely empty, and he soon devolves into complete panic. That episode, and this game, speak to a universal truth – that humans tend to find isolation very unsettling. The farther the player gets into the game without seeing any people, the more frightening this seemingly beautiful world becomes. The lack of running, jumping, and shooting I previously noted makes the world eerily quiet. While I’m enjoying the puzzles of The Witness, solving the mystery of this empty world is what really motivates me to keep playing. The game proves that any landscape, no matter how beautiful and tranquil, can quickly become sinister when the player is isolated.
Rusty Lake: Roots in an escape-the-room puzzle game telling the story of the Vanderbloom family in 1860. Dysfunctional to the extreme, this family is brimming with murder, suicide, cult-like rituals, sacrifice, and strange experiments. What interests me the most about Rust Lake: Roots, however, is its use of surrealist horror.
I’m a lover of most things horror (the glaring exceptions being torture porn and anything with large spiders). But spooky and scary generally delight me. What makes Rusty Lake: Roots so unsettling is that it just doesn’t make sense. The website TV Tropes explains that surrealist horror is “not just nightmare-inducing, it’s nightmarish in a literal way, by being surreal, disjointed, dreamlike, and filled with bizarre imagery, usually saying goodbye to all logic and sanity in the process.”
Rusty Lake: Roots definitely fits the bill. Some levels are more frightening than others, certainly, but the whole game feels like an incomprehensible nightmare. There’s a recurring shadowy figure shaped like a large man with a bird’s head. In a birthing scene, you give one baby a bottle of blood, and it drinks it happily. Albert, one of the main characters, is frequently depicted wearing strange, frightening masks that can sometimes control the weather. In an otherwise romantic scene, James proposes to Mary with a message written in Mary’s blood.
What interests me most about this surrealist horror is its use in a puzzle game. Puzzles are about figuring things out, finding clues and solving problems. In Rusty Lake: Roots, solving the puzzle often only brings about more puzzling results. Mr. Crow, as the bird-man is called, will often appear at the very end of a level. In one level, the final step to the puzzle involves cutting out a corpse’s tongue and putting it in a jar, but you never know why. The player solves the puzzle and figures something out only to be greeted with something incomprehensible. I think this mismatch between the mechanics of the game and the theme is a really powerful choice. Contrary to our usual experience, solving the puzzle often results in more questions than answers, enhancing the game’s surreal, bizzarre atmosphere.
Tsum Tsums, for the unacquainted, are plush toys of any of characters from Disney’s three main properties (Disney, Marvel, and Lucas Films). Originally Japanese, they’re round and very cute. And, like most things in the modern world, they have an accompanying app.
The game, simply called Tsum Tsum, is of a simple, familiar design. Tsum Tsum icons appear in a jumble on your screen, and with your finger, you connect chains of three or more similar Tsums to clear them. The more Tsums you clear, the higher your score. In short, a very simple way to kill a few minutes.
In my initial exploration of Tsum Tsum, two main elements of the game stuck out to me: 1. Its remarkably juicy interface and 2. Its obviously gendered demographic.
First, an overview of just how juicy Tsum Tsum is. “Juiciness,” as Jesper Juul writes, describes the visual and auditory rewards produced by a game. The more exciting, pleasurable things there are to see and hear, the juicier a game is. Tsum Tsum is one of the juiciest games I’ve ever played; it’s a veritable smorgasbord of lights and sounds. Every time you clear a row of Tsums, they burst with satisfying pops. Fun, exciting music plays in the background during your play sessions. When you clear enough Tsums quickly enough to achieve “Fever Time,” lights flash all around the border of your screen and music even more exciting and fun than the standard soundtrack plays. With all these enjoyable lights and sounds, Tsum Tsum really activates the reward centers of your brain, making you justify just one more minute-long game. Juul writes that extreme juiciness is a common feature of casual games such as Tsum Tsum. They bring a great deal of pleasure for relatively little time and energy invested. The juiciness of this game is the most striking element to me. The game design itself is very simple. The concept is hardly original. But the sheer juiciness makes it near-addicting to play.
The second element of Tsum Tsum that really struck me is its clearly gendered demographic. Young women are not the target demographic of most conventional console games, but they certainly are of Tsum Tsum. Using Disney characters is one obvious clue, as grown men are generally a bit more reluctant to admit to enjoying Lady and the Tramp and Tangled. The “Ready… Go!” at the beginning of each game is spoken in a high-pitched Minnie Mouse-soundingvoice. I noted this largely in contrast to a sister game I used to have, Marvel Tsum Tsum. While Disney Tsum Tsum’s interface is light blue, Marvel Tsum Tsum’s was near black. The Minnie Mouse voice of the Disney game was a low, robotic one in the Marvel version. In the Marvel game, you can battle villains, but there’s no fighting in the Disney version. And of course, the characters for Marvel were superheroes, not princesses and talking animals.
Those obvious assumptions about which gender would be drawn to which property interested me. I’m a young, feminine woman who would’ve preferred the Marvel game to the Disney one (the Marvel one appears to have been deleted from the App Store, so I settled for my second choice). I think this gendered marketing is potentially a pitfall of many video games. Assuming women won’t be interested in superheroes (or fighting zombies or slaying orcs) and therefore not endeavoring to market to women, perhaps by failing to include female playable characters, seems to me to be a big oversight. I’m not advocating for totally gender neutral things (I like cute games!), but rather suggesting that assuming the gaming market falls into such strict binaries may not be the best business model.