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Zolani13 avatar 3:56 PM on 07.22.2012  (server time)
Dys4ia: A Study of Metaphor

I recently played Dis4ia, a flash game developed by Anna Anthropy.

It tells the story of a woman who goes through a sex change (specifically hormone replacement therapy), and details the social and personal struggles she goes through and eventually overcomes through C64 like imagery and interaction.

Unlike the abstract, scattered messaging of Against The Wall, Dys4ia's artistic goals are very clear. There are no scattered hints to a clearer picture; the clearer picture, the depiction of sex reassignment therapy, is straightforward and clearly illustrated. So I don't think it would be valuable to go over its main ideas. Rather, I realized Dys4ia is the right opportunity for us to discuss what it means for a game to be metaphorical. We're going to try to understand and define this idea in a deeper context, and see how we can learn to use it to one's artistic advantage.

So let's do that.

Literary Theory vs. Game Theory

There are many ideas in literary theory, specifically literary devices, that can't be clearly defined in terms of games. Imagery, for example, is the formation of mental images through a text, but in video games, every frame consists of some kind of scenery, only everything in the frame is illustrated simultaneously. (I won't get into specifics about what does and doesn't constitute as a mental image). Amplification is when a writer adds more detail to a sentence to increase its worth and understandability, to strengthen a point, but games consist of much more than text. What counts as amplification in a video game, other than a piece of dialogue or a textbox that hovers over an object? What can constitute as supplementary detail to a pre-existing element in a game environment?

The point is that for many literary devices to work, they need to be skewed and reformatted to fit in the context of games, but the beauty of the metaphor is that it can be translated easily between various mediums. For metaphors are simply comparisons, and comparison is one of art's strongest weapons, regardless of medium.

So how does Dys4ia use metaphor?

The effective simplicity of metaphor reflects Dys4ia's execution of its ideas. The game depicts its situations and events by translating them into video game settings, and portrays the elements involved as the game objects they represent. It's surprisingly straightforward.

Anna's uncertainty and anxiety regarding her body is represented through a tetris piece that can't properly fit through a wall. The aggravation of her breasts during hormone therapy is translated through a pair of breasts dodging obstacles as it floats upwards. The harmful words of naysayers berating her and denying her goals are represented by projectiles which a shield that you control needs to avoid. And the beauty of it is that it makes so much sense! Anna as a shield, words as dangerous projectiles, a body as a tetris piece, trying to properly fit-in with its environment? Dys4ia's use of metaphor is straightforward and effective, and we as players instatntly understand what it's telling us. That's the power of comparison.

So what's the best way to use metaphor in a game?

I'd like to avoid stating what is or isn't the best way to do anything, rather I'll tell you what I've found metaphors to be good at.

Dys4ia shows us that the use of explicit metaphor can bring across points and ideas that we understand instantly. Translating a situation into a game environment allows us to interact with the ideas shown on screen, which at least in my experience, facilitates the players comprehension of its messages. Mashing the down key to get a shirt on was frustrating, and brought relation with the character's feeling. Trying to fit through a wall as a deformed tetris piece gave me an understanding of how it feels to be uncomfortable in one's own body, to feel weird and improper as one's physical self. Comparison through interaction, or metaphor in games, brings clear and easy comprehension. It also keeps us engaged, without falling into common traps involved with the explicit expression of ideas.

What comparison through interaction doesn't do well, is expressing a large amount of multi-layered ideas in one place. The reason is that, technically, everything in a game is a metaphor. Anything in a game can be compared to something else, therefore, pumping too many important metaphors in one place would be too many ideas all seeking attention; I feel like it would drown the game.

Dys4ia works because there are only a few important metaphors in each scene. The scene with the shield has three important metaphors. The scene with the eyes has two important metaphors. I know which ideas to focus my attention to, and every scene is able to create a clear, effective picture because of its economical use of metaphors. So yeah, try not to don't use too many.

Wow, Metaphors are pretty cool!

I know, right?!

Metaphors in games are cool because we get them instantly. They're cool because they're clearly presented. They're engaging and interactive, and they're fun to play with and understand. They relate to us, because they know how to get us to relate to them.

Dys4ia gets this. It gets how to use comparison and interaction, and because of that its messages and ideas are interesting, valuable, and memorable. It also prompted me to reaseach transgenderism, so that's a plus.

Did this get you thinking? What do you think of metaphor and other devices? What kind of ideas do you have? Let me know in the comments, or tweet them to me @Fengxii (two 'i's). Also, see more of my things at Take Care!

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