Analyzing Games the Aether Way

If you’ve read some of my older posts, you probably know that I just love to put too much thought to many of the games I play.  Explore the themes.  Read into the little features.  Even when the developers didn’t intend that to be there.  Especially when the developers didn’t intend that to be there.  You probably also know that I am an amazing human being, and every living human either desires me or desires to be me.  You wouldn’t think that would be related to my tendencies for over-analysis, but to be honest, I don’t know how I make my magic work, so it very well could be.

Maybe you want to be amazing just like me.  You shouldn’t.  You should want to be amazing in your own way.  But if that way involves analyzing video games and other creative works, maybe I can help you with that.  Let’s take a case study, and go over the sort of unconscious method I use to dig into the plots, the settings, the themes, the meanings, the hidden little features of things in a way that makes experiencing them so much more meaningful to me.

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To play along, I ask that you give Loved by Alex Ocias a go.  It’s a quick little platformer, minimalistic, not really heavy on the mind, but it has a lot of features that we’ll be able to apply the following lessons to.  So please, if you have 10 minutes to spare, give that a quick playthrough before continuing on with the rest of this post.

Anyways, let’s get going.  You want to analyze a game?  Here’s how I do it.

1: Understand Your Filters

We’re all on our own lives here.  Every single one of us has our own backgrounds, morals, beliefs, values, set of experiences, and whatnot.  Your family, your friends, your work, all of them will have their own, different cultures.  Every one of us has our own path through life, and have absorbed so many little unique bits into ourselves that make up a huge chunk of who we are today.  And that impacts the way we view our media.

Assuming most of us here are human adults, our brains don’t experience most things in a vacuum.  Rather, our brains will process stimulus by comparing it to what we’ve experienced in the past and basing it on that.  Our past experience color and change the way we have our current experiences.  We have lens.  Biases.  Filters.

Usually, this is not a bad thing.  These lens can become overpowering, to the point where you’re primed to see something based on almost no indication and you ignore the contrary and deeper points and you end up having big, dumb, easily refuted rants about the deeply offensive targeted political statements of Princess Tutu or something, but most of the time, they’re just a thing to be aware of.  They can be helpful to you, in fact, giving you an interesting and unique way of looking at the media you’re going through.  And these change with time as well, as we all go through life.  Our understanding of the world evolves, and with it, the way we enjoy our fiction.  To make the most use of them, however, you need to know what they are and where they’re coming from.  Knowing what you connect with and why, what’s going to make the most impact on you and how it gets there, is really the prime step in going for a deeper understanding.

So, in the case of Loved, it starts of strong with just its title.  For those of you who aren’t playing along, a) c’mon, seriously? and b) Loved is a simple platformer where the narrator is continuously putting you down and ordering you to do things which are commonly not in your best interest.  Obeying the narrator adds more details to the environment and gives the interactable objects distinct shapes, but leaves the world black and white.  Disobeying adds color to the world, but leaves things as indistinct squares.  There’s only two characters in the game, you and that narrator, and you’re given very little details on either.  Because of the title, you know it involves love of some sort, and it’s clearly an unbalanced sort of love, with the way the narrator treats you, but other than that, the specific impression of the relationship between the two, that all comes from you.  So who were they?  A romantic couple?  Parent and child?  Owner and pet?  The game gives little indication.  Your sense of their relationship is going to come from your filters.

  1. Keep your Mind Open

Much of the time, at least.  Unless if you’re one of those weirdos like me that picks up games you never heard of from one of Humble’s Bundles or GOG’s mystery bag sales (or I suppose if you have friends who introduce you to new things, but who has friends these days?), you’re going to know something about the experience going into it.  You’ll have been twigged off by some piece of marketing, you’ll have read an interesting feature online, you’ll have gone through the developer interviews where they talk on and on about what the best things about the game are.  There’s a reason that you’re choosing to go through it, and to get that reason, almost always you’ll have to know something about the game.

And that’s good, and normal, and all part of making healthy decisions of what to do with your time.  And that information’s going to be in your head, and there’s no getting around that.  Again, that’s fine.

Just…. set it aside.  Put it on the shelf.  You can come back to it later.  But particularly the first time you’re going through a work, you want to be making your own impressions of it as much as you can.  And all those things you know already?  The thing that interested you in the work, that brought you to it in the first place?  They’re someone else’s idea, someone else’s interpretation of the work, and you want to build your own.  Even if the original info comes straight from the author.  Especially if it came straight from the author.

Listen.  Generally, human tendency is to come to a decision on something as fast as possible, then, rather than using new information to inform their decision, simply pick out the information that reinforces that snap judgment and ignore the rest.  That will not serve you here.  That way of thinking is the enemy.  And you want to avoid it as best you can.  What sort of mental tricks you have to do that, that’s going to depend on you.  Just make sure you keep things properly compartmentalized.  You don’t want your mind closed before you’ve had a chance to go through this thing.

And that includes during the experience itself.  Pay attention to the impressions you’re getting as your mind is making them.  Let them grow and develop.  If your thoughts are the same at the end as they were near the beginning, either the game is shallow as all hell, or you’re losing things somewhere along the process.  Pay attention.  Revisit your ideas.  Let them grow and flourish with new stimulus.  And make sure they’re doing so.

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In the case of Loved, the narrator, abusive as he/she was, wasn’t always so, were they?  They were ordering you to do things that are helpful for you in the beginning, and if you go disobedient, they actually seem to grow in respect, of sorts, for you at the end.  If you stick with just the prevailing impression of them, that information doesn’t fit, and may be discarded.  Taken into account, though, the narrator may be a more complicated figure than originally credited.

  1. Pay Attention to the Details

When you’re attempting to get into things a bit deeper, the big waves of the plot, the strongest features of the setting, the broad strokes of the characterization, all the big grand obvious bits?  While obviously important, those are only the foundation of what the work has to offer. To build off of it, it’s all about the details.

Once again, that tendency humans have of quickly coming to a conclusion then only searching out the info that lines up with it rears its ugly head.  It is very easy to find yourself an idea you like, get enamored with it, and let that consume your perceptions to the exclusion of all else.  The impression you get form the broad story beats can swallow up the direction the specific little details might be able to lead you in.  And that’s something to avoid.

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There’s generally two thing I like to keep an eye out for at a ground level.  The first is repeated ideas and concepts.  Little features that reinforce some sort of central theme.  The most interesting are the ones that show different permutations of an idea, but still have a central thread between them.  The second are things that seem a contradiction, going wildly different then a concept that’s been previously established.  Although it may immediately seem as being out of character or a bit of a plot problem, really give it some thought.  People are complex.  Real life is complex.  And those complexities are beautiful.  When that translates to our media, those little complexities go a long way towards really deepening the subject.  You’ll probably want to see at least a little bit of internal consistency with the rules of this world, else it just seems shlock writing, but due keep an eye out for the beats that seem to go against the grain, for those can be the most revealing.

With Loved, the narrator is abusive in some way, that much is clear.  Yet, in the beginning, they order you to do things that are helpful to you.  And if you disobey, the game gets more dangerous.  Hazards are indistinct, platforms are hard to distinguish, every thing devolves into a distracting mess of color.  In some ways, the narrator’s orders, horrible though they seem, actually help you.  Even though the narrator clearly isn’t a great person.  Where does that leave things?

  1. Embrace your Conclusions

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After all that, you’ve come to an idea, right?  Got some sense of themes, hidden characterizations, the little subtleties of the plot movements that aren’t obvious on first glance?  Good.  Own that.

Even if that runs against what other people say about it, their analyses, what not.  Like I said earlier, everyone runs this stuff through their own filters, our own personalities, are own ways of experiencing.  Nobody else can experience this for you.  They can share their experiences, as best they can, but that will never give you the same run as going through it for yourself.  And all these things you feel, everything that resonated with you, those are perfectly valid.  Even if noone else agrees with them.  Even if they’re stupid and you have no idea what you’re talking about.  It doesn’t matter.  What you get out of it is what you get, and that experience is very real to you, no matter what others might say about it.

Even the creator.  In Loved, Alex Ocias has been pretty clear about wanting to leave everything up for interpretation, but you’ll see a lot of other authors out there talking about what the work means or what the true impact of it should be.  And to be sure, that’s not something to discard out of hand.  But the true judge of a work is the person experiencing it.  And again, whatever you experience, that is the most pure form to you.  Creators’ interpretations are only one possible interpretation of the work itself, and are generally based more in what they intended the work to be than what it was executed to be.  The true measure of a work is how it lands with the audience, and that is really up to you to determine.

  1. Don’t be Rigid About your Conclusions

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Yeah, as I mentioned above, your experience, whatever it is, is 100% valid to you.  If you feel it, it’s more real than what anyone else can tell you about it, because any work of art is defined by how its interpreted, and that comes down to an individual level.

But the ability to share and compare our interpretations of something is really a beautiful thing.  I know, I know.  People are weird.  Sometimes they’re really weird.  And except for me, nobody can match your intellect.  Still, you would be doing yourself a disservice if you held to you initial interpretation so tightly that you never let it grow.  It’s nearly impossible to notice everything about a work, and there’s going to be some stuff that doesn’t resonate with you immediately, but when broken down through someone else’s lens, can turn out to be quite meaningful to you.  It’s worth it to take those into account.  Let that build, grow, and thrive.

Lots of people seem to immediately latch on to Loved being a story about romantic partners in an abusive relationship.  I tend to see more troubled parenting in the game than that, with the way it starts by guiding around the obvious hazards and towards the helpful facets, before sliding down the deep end, then returning to demanding perfection.  Yet the two concepts can relate to each other, and seeing others experiences, sharing those lenses, can flesh it out.

Although when I look at it through the romantic lens, I end up interpreting it as a partially consensual bdsm relationship, so… yeah.  That happens sometimes.  Up to you if you really want to open yourself up to that, I guess.

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5 responses to “Analyzing Games the Aether Way

  1. I have to say I like your methods.

    I think people throw around the word biased as though it’s a bad thing when it’s not necessarily the case. I think the problem is that some people, journalists usually, take it a step too far and dogmatically insist their opinions are absolute truths.

    A friend who introduces you to new things? Guess that means I’m the equivalent of the eighties alternative rock fan (back when alternative rock meant completely invisible to the mainstream). But anyway, part of the reason I insist on actually finishing a game before reviewing it is to avoid writing a review based on snap judgements. I find snap judgements are easier to avoid acting upon if you let the experience settle for long enough.

    The devil is certainly in the details – it doesn’t matter what medium you’re talking about. Even with films, which I find easier to review, I really do like pointing out the easily missed aspects.

    And I really like your last two points; have conviction about your opinions, but be flexible about bouncing ideas off of others. I think the problem a lot of professional critics have is that the conversation only goes one way – they profess their opinions and the audience is just meant to nod in agreement. I think that’s why they tend to blow their stack whenever the audience doesn’t share their conclusion (well, that and I would argue they lack conviction in the first place). People like that have a difficult time growing. I have to admit I’ve gone back on a few conclusions entirely because I’m always considering what my readers have to say.

    I have to admit I’ve never heard of Loved, but I have sampled a few Armor Games works, and I find their output to be very creative – especially the This is the Only Level series.

    • Thanks! I’m rather fond of it myself.

      You can definitely take biases way too far. And we definitely see that in the games industry. Remembering myself back in the console wars makes me cringe a bit. And it’s especially harmful with reviewers, as you point out, who a) are going to be looking for different things than the consumer, by virtue of the times and environments and quantities they have to play games in and b) have an interest in their opinions being taken as infallable fact. I stepped away from them a while back, and it doesn’t seem like my purchasing habits have suffered for it.

      I wonder how becoming a professional critic might change the way you think about your opinions. Having both your livelihood and likely your perceived value wrapped up in that seems like it would twist things. Possibly why they go off the deep end like that. In their minds, people have to take them seriously, and they have to convince them that they’re right, else they’re no good at their jobs.

    • Oh, and I probably should mention too, you did totally come to mind when I wrote that ‘friend that introduces you to new things’ line. I had no knowledge of Oneshot before you got that to me, yet that was a game that was completely in line with what I go for. So thanks again for that!

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