Post-Mortem

Posted by (twitter: @yr_property)
May 4th, 2014 5:54 am

I’ve had a fair number of questions about the story and message of my game, Beneath the Surface. Commentators seem to be unanimous in finding it “disturbing” or “dark” or “depressing” — which was absolutely one of my intentions — but only a few seemed to identify the messages behind the obscene gameplay. So I’m finally writing a post-mortem that will hopefully address these ambiguities and expand more generally upon the development process. (It also occurs to me, in a sick whimsical way, that the term “post-mortem” is particularly suited to a game this macabre. And with its near-genocidal content, the term may even need to be pluralised.)

[Spoilers ahead!]

Initial Intentions

When I first saw the theme I was relatively indifferent. My thinking was: “Well, this means a lot of underground and underwater games, plus several games that adopt the trite ‘look past appearances and understand what lies beneath the surface’ metaphor.” To some extent I was perhaps right, though games like Not All of Them Died and Abstraction subverted the theme in clever, unique ways.

Thus the issue was: what do I do? I had fully intended to enter in my first compo, but the theme did little for me. (How ironic it is, then, that I adopted the theme as my game title!) So instead I gave in to the obvious implications of the theme and brainstormed some horribly clichéd ideas, which loosely went as follows:

  • I could make a cave-crawl. A classic IF trope (oh yeah, I should’ve mentioned I tend to author in Twine) that is not-at-all overused…
  • What about North Korea? A good old-fashioned American v. commies scenario. (I’m actually quite interested and, dare I say, well-informed about North Korean history and politics, but for the purposes of this theme I wanted triteness not truth.)
  • So, a North Korean cave-crawl…? Okay, okay… I guess it could be a text-based shooter where the American fights the last remnants of the North Korean forces. Oh, yeah, and they’ve been driven underground. Erm… Beneath the surface of Mount Paektu will do. And so the game was born.

I know that seems strangely superficial and comedic compared to the final product, but that was what I had in about the first thirty minutes of seeing the theme.

I started writing the opening paragraph in a kind of hyped, propagandistic way. Then I hit the line: “Single handedly, you will crush the last remnants of a once-gargantuan army.” And it occurred to me that what I could do is highlight the absurdity of gamer power fantasy — what lies beneath the surface of an FPS, if you will. Finally I was getting excited about the theme.

I made it so that the overall structure would be of a standard shooter: the player is off to fight a bunch of enemies and then conclude by killing the boss (Kim Il Sung). But then I twisted it to become the ultimate power fantasy, where the enemies have already lost, where they are powerless in will and spirit against you, where you, the player, are unstoppable and all-powerful. Every player seemed to get this impression, which I’m really glad about.

Further Intentions

After a few hours of further thinking and development, I started devising some more themes. I find a lot of FPSs worrying and even grotesque, especially as a result of the community that surrounds them. Well, why is this?

  1. Vulgarity. Fantasy violence is fun, I admit. One of my favourite game series is Fallout, for instance, which arguably has some insanely over-the-top levels of violence. And this type of vulgarity doesn’t really bother me, because it is clearly fictional and lives within the parametres of the game. But what does bother and disgust me is the vulgarity that bleeds into the community that plays FPSs, especially when they’re online-focused. It becomes an arena of grotesquely inventive death (shooting people in the ass, teabagging them etc.) with cries of “I raped you!”
  2. Which links to the next criticism: masculinity. These FPS communities often seem to be marketplaces for males to supposedly prove themselves. Who can be the most masculine? And by this I mean — and they mean — who can be the most offensive, the most sexist, the most homophobic.
  3. Also, FPSs nearly always employ powerfulness. And this I think tells you something. We all enjoy this feeling, but I’m not sure I’m able to argue its an ethical feeling; I am, however, quite able to argue it’s worrying. Powerlessness is generally a better narrative device, so when powerfulness is used, it is normally used for the purposes of the player and not the game. Take Bioshock (if you haven’t played it be warned of spoilers). Its central theme is powerlessness: the PC’s loss of freedom and subservience to the will of another. To tell this story the massacre of hundreds of enemies by a mere human is hardly necessary, and indeed seems antithetical. But it’s included to make the player feel good. And this disturbs me. Is power fantasy that engrained in gamer culture that even a game about powerlessness has to allow the player an insane amount of power?

The Writing Process

About the “further intentions” section above… I put these into the game in two ways: a) through the various violent choices and b) through the “You feel [adjective].” sentences. For example, the sentence “You force open her mouth and shove the barrel of the gun down it” to some extent encompasses all three of the themes states above. But it clearly emphasises the second theme, and is therefore followed by the sentence “You feel masculine”, at which point I’d hope the point is clearly and effectively conveyed. (Though I’m not quite sure if that is the case. More on that later, though.) Those three-word sentences begin as cyclical links and are then restated on an individual basis for each appropriate “kill” or “wound”. I wanted to make the themes quite explicit, and this kind of murderous repetition (couldn’t resist the pun, sorry) seemed the effective way to do it.

I also wrote it with the intention of it becoming more grotesque as you play. The first kill is arguably the least abhorrent; but the final massacre is disgusting — and it felt that way to write, believe me. This feeds into the twist mentioned earlier, where it is setup to be the ultimate power fantasy with wholly powerless enemies. But it also provides, like in many games, a momentum of power, whereby the player becomes more and more powerful and aggressive as they play.

Take the first death (if you choose to shoot him):

“The bullet tears through his chest, and his body falls limply to the ground.”

This is bog-standard description of a guy getting shot; it’s a very dry depiction of the physics of most violent videogames. But then take this later death:

“You force the girl to turn round so that she’s facing her parents. Then you press the gun against the back of her head. She’s crying.”

I wanted to explore the logical extremes of the various themes. The most powerless of people are often considered to be children, and the kill method is most definitely “grotesquely inventive” (to self-satisfyingly quote myself). So by this point, I wanted the themes to be a lot more explicit and emotive, hopefully to such a point that the player considers stopping. And, of course, the only way to stop is by closing the game.

For those who didn’t close the game, you will have come across the final line, “You have won.” It is supposed to be self-evidently ironic — a kind of grotesque final statement that hopefully makes the player reflect on the tone and messages of the game.

Looking back, I’m pretty happy with the prose. If I’d had some more time, I would probably have embellished a few lines. But I have my limits, and at this point in time I’m not really capable of some of the prose produced by the people I admire. Like, there’s no way I’d just come up with “moths cluster at opaque windows, nibbling on tarnished light” (Their Angelical Understanding, Porpentine).

The Technical Process

As mentioned earlier, I used Twine, which I had used once before for a MiniLD. For obvious reasons, I changed the hyperlink colour to red — and, believe it or not, choosing the right shade of red took about an hour. It was a painful experience. And I used two suitable fonts I found on Google Fonts, then enlarged them for readability.

(Just as a side-note: I wish more Twine games would do away for the default size-12, ugly-looking font and just spend a short-time making it more readable. For me at least, as a player, it can make all the difference.)

On a more programming-relevant note (not that I would ever have the audacity to call myself a programmer), I included a timer extension, cyclical links, a typerwriter effect and HTML5 sound macros — all of which are and have been available freely over at Glorious Trainwrecks.

Otherwise, this wasn’t a particularly time-consuming or burdensome phase. I didn’t even have to track variables this time round — although, in retrospect, doing so might have made the Twine map a bit neater.

The Music

The theme tune you hear at the beginning was created straight after I had written the game’s opening paragraph. I just sat down on my guitar and made up what sounded like a typically North Korean melody, then wrote it into Sibelius 6. Quickly, I wrote an electric piano and drum part; then I repeated the melody, adding a brass synthesiser and electric guitar. It needed to start and end somewhere, however, so I included a two-bar, crescendoing, diminished-chord introduction. And I included a descending 7/4 power-chord pattern at the end, obviously referencing this LD’s theme. All in all, it was a simple process, as was importing it into Cubase and sorting out the sounds.

Then much later on in the development, I wrote a piano variation of this theme to loop during the final section of the game. The piano variation follows the melody of the theme, though it has been fragmented and the harmony was altered. Originally I had created a separate theme for the piano (which you can find in soundtrack bundle here), but I thought a variation of the original theme would be more effective — mainly because the transition in music could therefore accompany the “momentum of power” described earlier, making the power-fantasy seem even more tragic and disturbed.

The Reaction

So, they were all my intentions and processes. But have the ideas worked? Well, kind of. As I said, nearly all people found it “dark” and “disturbing”, but few seemed to go beneath the surface reading (sorry, another ghastly pun). That’s not meant in any condescending way; it’s my job as an author to convey certain messages, and if people didn’t identify them then it’s quite likely to be my fault. But, obviously, it’s hard to tell from relatively short comments what people where thinking exactly, and they may well have been grossed out by the irony of the power-fantasy even though they didn’t say so explicit. In fact, I feel I can confidently infer from many people’s comments that the power inequality disgusted them. The same would probably apply to the elements of vulgarity.

But no-one seemed to notice the critique of masculinity in games and gamer culture (which, considering part of the description is “Violence, hyper-masculinity and North Korea”, I must say surprised me). And indeed no one seemed to identify the wider critique of gamer — particurlarly FPS — culture as a whole.

Please don’t misunderstand, all the feedback was useful, generous and often insightful. But, as far as I know, no one has yet picked up on all the messages I intended to convey.

There are a lot of comments that hit various marks, though:

Textual description of what you do triggers quite some different feelings than just shooting a bunch of people in a FPS.” — KayZ

Brilliant and painfull to play, and there’s an important message in there about the glorification of violence.” — Linus Lindberg

Haha the text-only Fps 😀 makes the actual Fps seem a bit absurd.” — Spotline

I felt so weird as the story kept going” — baboum

Did any of us really win?” — Dominator_101

So obviously many people got many different messages, and I suppose I’ll just have to settle with a piece like this being  largely interpretive. Though I kind of like that too.

Thanks to all who played it.

–Snoother

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