For some minutes he had been watching the Tower of Art […] As is the case with many things that are totally familiar, he hadn’t really looked at it for years.
Guards! Guards! (Terry Pratchett, 1989)
The first game by Daniel “Managore” Linssen I played was his metroidvania birdsong (2014). The game’s main appeal, in at least two ways, is its camera. The first way is the clearest: the viewport encompasses the whole game space and magnifies the player character’s immediate surroundings, producing an effect that is both disconcerting and very attractive. The game window, then, works as a conventional window and also as a very detailed minimap of the game world.
It doesn’t seem like a good idea on a marketing level, since the player has access to all the game content from the beginning. Everything she can play through is already in front of her, so birdsong spoils the surprise that, as a game, it should rely on. However, it can also be understood as a kind of promise: the world design will be interesting enough that it’ll be worth playing through, even after having already seen everything there is to play. It also helps that the visual distortion is strong enough for the shapes of many spaces to remain a mystery.
The second way in which the camera is birdsong’s main appeal doesn’t permeate the whole experience, but happens instead as a final surprise in a precise moment. On the last minutes of the game, when the player has fully accepted that the whole explorable space is contained inside the window, she has to jump over the leftmost wall of the terrain and fall beneath the map.
In games this event tends to kill the player character or have the camera follow them to a secret zone, but birdsong does something different: the player character (a raven) lands on the bottom border of the window and walks over it. If the game is in fullscreen mode, the raven walks over the monitor frame. The effect is disconcerting yet satisfying. In the words of letsplayer Jaime Gracious:
Whaaa… Oh my god! You can be at the bottom, it doesn’t die! My primitive gaming mind thought I would die if I touched the bottom, but no, this is how you get it. That’s so fucking cool!
Linssen knows we’re conditioned to ignore the borders of the games we play, and he uses this conditioning to land his work’s final stunt. It’s a frequent device in his works and one worth examining, both for its expressive potential and for what we may learn about the things we ignore in spite of daily contact.
A small yet frequent problem in modern life is being away from home and not remembering if we locked the door on our way out, or if we turned the heat off, or if we took off the clothes from the balcony (Google said it would rain). A mnemonic device is following these mundane actions we want to remember with some unusual ones. Locking the door and doing a little dance afterwards, for example, or making a strange noise. “Yes, I locked the door. I remember doing the little dance afterwards.”
Locking the door, turning off the heat, they’re things so common that they become the background noise in our lives. We do them in autopilot and forget they’re even there. The purpose of the little dance, says the internet, is linking a trivial event to a different, memorable one. The purpose of art, said Shklovsky, is expressing aspects of the world that we’re used to in new and convoluted ways, so we can see them as if for the first time, so we trip over their articulation and become unable to run by them without looking. This is called ostranenie or defamiliarization.
A work of art can defamiliarize any item of everyday life. Curiously enough, art is also part of everyday life, so a work can reflexively defamiliarize aspects of itself and the discipline it belongs to. Videogames, like any other art form, are crowded with common pieces we learn to manipulate and ignore at the same time.
Some of these pieces are more ideological and pierce through the discipline by mere historical accident. The ending of Metroid (Nintendo, 1986) uses reflexive ostranenie in full by revealing its player character to be a woman: the player can be simply surprised with the curious revelation, but he can also inquire into the origin of his surprise and find out the truly curious thing is that most games tacitly agree on having male protagonists.
In birdsong, instead, and through all of Linssen’s work, we find our attention redirected toward pervasive elements that are more inherent to the medium, that seem more neutral, and that we ignore in equal measure, as is the case with the rectangular border that tends to exist between the content of a game and whatever is on the other side of it.
In Reap (2015), for example, the camera follows the player character and displays a tiny portion of the world, in a traditional manner, but its shape is that of a circle that expands and contracts according to the game’s internal clock.
The device takes us back to the use of shaped canvas or irregular frames in painting, with two key differences:
- videogames lack a history of non-rectangular canvases inspired by interactions with architecture, and
- painting has not had historically the capacity to adjust the shape and size of its canvases in real time.
Because of medium limitations, of course, the game still exists within a rectangular window, and some information is displayed outside the circle, but Reap still leads to interesting questions. What relation is there between the visual border of a videogame and its program’s viewport? Are they the same thing? Are they different things but they always coincide in shape and size?
It can be concluded that the circle is not the border between Reap and its exterior, but between its main window and an extradiegetic information window. The game itself does have a conventional border, but the the circular window exists, and its impact in the game’s experience can’t be minimized.
Alternatively, in Sandstorm (2015) the camera is also conventional save for the fact that it constantly changes in angle, rotating not the program’s rectangle but the player’s frame of reference. The effect has narrative implications, giving the player her character’s dizziness and discomfort, but also gameplay ones, since the main challenge is finding her way day after day from the carriage to the camel (or giant beetle or dinosaur) and from the camel to the carriage.
Besides showing us interesting things, videogames can provide us a space for manipulating them. The next step in this avenue of exploration, then, is a videogame window drawing our attention not just because of its irregular behavior, but also because the game asks us to interact with it.
In windowframe (2016), like in birdsong, the game’s borders are solid walls for the character, who in this case can both walk on plain surfaces and jump off vertical ones. The difference is now the player can manipulate the location, shape and size of the window, indirectly through character movement and directly by shooting and dragging stakes.
Though the game has a fallback mode that sacrifices some of the technical virtuosity in order to get along with the operating system, it’s possible to play several levels, mostly at the beginning, getting used to a disconcerting window that moves around our desktop following our character with our wallpaper in the background.
The work of Linssen is full of subversions of design habits, but when it comes to playing with game borders, HopSlide (2014) is the only remaining crucial example. Where windowframe messes with the separation between a game and its exterior, HopSlide plays with the separation between a game, its exterior, and another game.
HopSlide presents itself, in part, as two different games: Hop, a platformer, and Slide, a sliding block puzzle. It’s not long before it reveals itself to be a single game made out of two executables which the player needs to open at the same time, and which interact in many ways. The most obvious one is the spacial distribution of the levels, that evokes the mechanics from At a Distance (Terry Cavanagh, 2011): by moving blocks in Slide the player creates different connections between areas in Hop.
HopSlide’s inventive is hard to describe interestingly since it doesn’t, like previous cases, rely on a simple global mechanic. Each of the six letters the player has to get in order to win uses a different kind of interaction between the games and the windows containing them, so the only possible description would be a verbose enumeration of every step required to reach the ending.
Just like the previous games, HopSlide demystifies the containing frame, exposes it as just another game element, strips it from its traditional privileges, drags it kicking and screaming from its usual hiding spot in the player’s peripheral vision. Its offensive strategy is perhaps more blunt: where birdsong or windowframe choose a specific angle and take their shot, every puzzle in HopSlide seems to hit from a different place.
A new light
The point of defamiliarization, and according to Shklovsky of art in general, is that we look at everyday things more closely and under a new light.
In traditional third-person games, what used to be a camera following the player character everywhere is now also a window whose borders run away from him so he never reaches a limit, so the player can’t take notice of the edges of the game beyond which there are other products that might welcome her attention.
In first-person games, we can see now, the window is attached to our avatar’s head like an attention-thirsty box, closely watching every turn of their neck, using a game to block their direct line of vision to whatever might be behind it.
If the game is a VR experience, God help us, the screen is attached to our head, in less than metaphorical terms, also closely watching every turn of our neck, and taking each attempt at looking away as an invitation to show us new aspects of its world. In certain circumstances this can even be pleasant. The screens’ shape is probably rectangular, yet they’re located so close to our face that now our eyes are what shows us but a tiny portion of the world, a portion in the exact shape of our field of view.
Turning the player’s attention toward a game’s border is a more irreverent gesture than it might look like at first. Pointing out a border is pointing outwards, in the direction of the world that is not part of the game. It represents an anti-navelgazing attitude pushing against inherited marketing wisdom and the self-sufficient spirit of the formalist design that Linssen is part of. However, there are few things more formalistic than experimenting with the exterior shape of a work.
Other games might make us look somewhere else for pieces of an advertising campaign trying to turn our attention back to the game, but Linssen’s work tends to do something different. It makes us look at the border because looking at it is intellectually stimulating, because it’s full of design wealth that remains underexplored. It makes us look outward because it’s confident, whether that’s justified or not will depend on the player, that what’s inside is too interesting to ignore completely.