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3:56 PM on 07.22.2012  

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!   read

6:45 PM on 07.21.2012  

Analysis: Against The Wall

This is an analysis for the game "Against The Wall" by Michael P. Consoli. Beware of Spoilers.

There's something very dismal about Against The Wall.

It's a sense of hopelessness, a dead emptiness in its environment that in truth, isn't apparent at first. It's sky is bright and saturated with clouds and its sun shines perpetually and its trees sway peacefully, yet these ideas don't become discredited by those elements, instead they're hidden deceivingly. And when I gave some more thought to the game for the sake of this analysis, I realized there are a lot of things Against the Wall hides under itself. There are so many suggestive elements, that all seem to hint at something greater within the context of its world. And today, we're going to talk about those elements.

So let's do that, shall we?

[b]Against The Wall (Alpha)
Michael P. Consoli
June 2012[/b]

The goal of this analysis is to understand as much as we can about Against The Wall. If we want to do that, then we're going to have to approach this differently than we would for more familiar art forms. We can't use the same methods of interpretation we've been using for other mediums; we have to develop our own system that corresponds to the nature of games, rather than film or literature, or fine art. If we don't, we won't get the information we need to make a proper conclusion.

So how are we going to do that?! Well, the first thing we'll do is start with the player. It's a good starting point, and can give us some useful information we can use to go into other topics. So let's start there, and see where it takes us.

Player Constructions

In order to understand the player constructions, the following question must be asked: who does the player embody in this game? Understanding the object we're projected onto, will help us understand the relationships and interactions that we as players have with other objects in the game world. So in this case, who do we embody in Against The Wall? We don't really know; the game doesn't tell us who we are or where we came from or the reason for our presence, so we have look beyond the basic plot details, and use our observations and intuition. Trust yourself, dammit!

What do we observe from the player at first glance?

The player can walk... Okay
The player can jump... Okay
The player can see... Okay
The player is holding a staff... Alright
And the player knows how to use the staff... Cool

Now the first three points may seem arbitrary--they're not. The player is capable of walking, so he's not paralysed or handicapped; he's fully physically capable. Not only that, he can walk very long distances. How long did you play Against The Wall? Two hours? Three hours? Whatever object we're projecting ourselves onto not only walks for this long, he's leaping over platforms for hours on end at extremely high altitudes, without a single sweat under his brow.*

So the player is athletic. And with the roll of a mouse, the player can see distances much further than our squinting eyes would be able to make out. So I guess he's like, Robocop athletic. Okay. But let's think about this some more. What happens when you fall in the game? Does he scream? Does he yell in pain when he hits the ground tens of feet under him? No. In fact, there are no sounds from the player in any situation in Against The Wall. He is either extremely emotionally resilient, not human because so far, he expresses no recognizable human traits, or he's just used to it. We're going to have to choose one of these to roll with if we one want a clearer picture. Because of his unnatural athletic traits and his reaction to his environment, I'd have to say that he is both inhuman and used to this environment.

And lastly, we know that he constantly carries some sort of staff. We can get into the pretty details of the staff itself later; right now, we just want to interpret the staff in terms of its relation with the player. Which means, our focus is the fact that he has the staff, the fact he knows how to use the staff, and what he's specifically using it for. What is he using it for? To manipulate his environment, i.e moving the blocks. What does that say about him? He not only excels in athletic ability, he also possesses the ability to manipulate his environment at will? This man is quite capable. Powerful even, when you think about it.

And the last point to make, is about what we as players are actually doing. We're climbing a wall. We don't know why he's climbing the wall; again, the stupid game doesn't tell us, so we need to understand the nature of what he's doing. For starters, the sole process of climbing an infinitely spanning wall is a) extremely repetitive and b) completely pointless (again, we're not told why he's climbing the wall, so we have assume there isn't a point until we have more information). A man with so much power, with the ability to control his environment at will, uses it to carry out such a pointless and repetitive task? Quite suspicious, if you ask me, but telling nonetheless.

With that, we go back to our question: who does the player embody in Against The Wall? We seem to embody someone who demonstrates extreme physical ability, who lacks recognizable human traits, both physically and mentally, and is capable of manipulating his environment at his will (I feel like that's important), specifically a wall, and endlessly carries out a repetitive task for no specific reason. With that, there are some important questions you should be thinking to yourself as we move on:

Is there actually a reason he's climbing the wall? (It's possible that he does it for no reason at all)
Does he know that the wall doesn't end?
Does he care that the wall doesn't end? (These will help us understand motivation)
Is his athleticism natural or developed?
And if developed, how did he develop that athleticism, and why?
All that, just from a glance! And we're just getting started. Now that we have a clearer picture of who we embody, we're going to see how he interacts with his environment.

The Environment Constructions

What makes Against The Wall so interesting is that its so empty, yet there's such a large variety of objects placed inexplicably. At first, my plan was to go through each object, and explore them individually, the same way one would go through particular symbols and objects in literature--I soon realized this wouldn't be effective. Objects in Against The Wall give more important information when they're interpreted in relation to each other, because they exist in relation to each other. Not only that, nearly every object exists in relation only to one particular object: The Wall.

Every object in Against The Wall revolves around the wall. Trees grow from the wall, windmills are built on the wall, and civilizations have developed around the wall. The wall is king; its the base in which this entire world is built, allowing the growth (and supposed death) of societies and supporting life in the process. I mean, trees are growing on the wall, for craps sake. But isn't that an odd dissonance? Walls are usually symbols of hindrance and prevention, yet here, it seems to do the exact opposite. Why? Why a wall?

I can answer that question with another question: Is it really a wall? This is getting weird, I know, but stay with me for a second. You see, there are only two lifeforms we see in Against The Wall: you, and the trees. That's it. Now the trees live on the wall. They seem to attach to the wall quite easily, for starters, and they fly about its various areas of this wall with ease. But you don't live on the wall, you live adjacent to the wall. You have to climb the wall, for hours, before you reach anywhere significant. Can you imagine?

But this isn't just you. Whoever built the windmill and the town above it, also must have lived the way you did, since their structures are also adjacent to the wall (you wouldn't be able to stand in the town otherwise). So it can't just be you trying to live in this harsh environment, it must have been them as well, which strengthens the theory that those people and you are the same 'people'. We know that this world is harsh and difficult to live in; could it be that you're the last one left? An entire civilization, unable to survive on the barren wasteland of the wall? Could that also explain his athleticism and emotional resilience? The possibility he's lived here for so long that the parts of his body needed to traverse his environment developed to their current state? I think it does, and I think we're getting somewhere.

Against The Wall must be portraying survival. This is a barren wasteland dominated by an omnipresent wall. Food is virtually non-existent. Travelling to the nearest places takes hours, is physically taxing and extremely dangerous. It's not surprising people died and its not surprising that civilization failed to develop here. This environment can't support the kind of life they needed. It just so happens that you were able to stay alive.

Alright, so what does this all mean?

What I see in Against The Wall is a society struggling to survive in a world that wasn't built for them. It seems sort of bizarre at first, but we can make some important comparisons. For starters, their struggle doesn't seem that different than our struggle as a species to survive in our own harsh environments. We build towns in North America and Asia and Europe because we can survive there, but there's a reason why there's no city in the middle of Antarctica: it doesn't support the kind of life we need. Antarctica is no different from the Wall. And that's how I relate Against The Wall to the real world. It's a reflection of the struggle humans must endure to survive in their environment.

One final-ish thing worth noting is the staff. Now that we've figured out what's going on, it seems to make sense that the staff was built by the same people who use it. I wouldn't be surprised if there were more staffs when the others were around. It must be just another tool they used to survive, along with the elevator and other things.

And as my final words, I just want to say that Against The Wall is a fantastic game. It's just so much fun.

If you have any other ideas, tweet to me @Fengxi with your own conclusions of the game, or just comment. And follow Michael P. Consoli on Twitter and donate to his game, if you can. He deserves the love.


-Zolani   read

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