Monday, October 8, 2012

Evacuate the Dance Floor.

I've noticed that traffic to this site is noticeably up since I joined Google+. Relatively speaking. A 65% increase over "I think my mom reads it" is a substantive increase.

I feel a bit piqued, however, that it happened shortly before the least productive chunk of my life. There are lots of big, blank spaces over there on the Archives tab, but even when nothing ended up here, I scratched out my share of academic publications, journal entries, emails, grocery lists, death threats, slash fiction, and rock operas.

Lately, there has been nothing.

When there is no writing, unsurprisingly, there is little to no gaming. Casual games, so I've read, are ideal for this sort of situation, when time and attention are limited resources, but casual games suffer a peculiar weakness that is little remarked upon: when played in a state of severe depression, a hardcore game is still something like a game. Even if you know every beat, and are playing it entirely from the autonomic portion of your skillset, it still moves at your pace, and responds to your whims. Not a story per se, but more like a satisfying walk taken many times before, as Espen Aarseth once suggested to me. Genre conventions, sufficiently codified, can allow this experience even in "new" texts. Casual games, on the other hand, when played under sufficient duress, cease to feel like anything at all.

The more-than-casual stuff usually holds up. Which is why I found it quite surprising, shortly after helping Kratos to pull--not cut, but pull--the head of Phoebus from his body, that I found myself too depressed to continue playing God of War III. It became clear, at this point, that I had no choice but to dance.

As Jane McGonigal wrote in Reality is Broken, dancing is a) a reliable source of happiness, b) an extraordinary display of vulnerability, which is why our brains so often refuse to consider a) sufficient reason to do it. Personally, I am overweight, uncoordinated, and self-conscious about both my appearance and my taste in music. So naturally I try to find opportunities to dance in public when they present themselves. Same reason scared-to-death undergrad me joined a theater group that would soon have me (diegetically) jerking off onstage. Eventually you just run out of shame. If you're going to feel afraid anyway, it feels better to act in such a way that being afraid is more reasonable.

Which is the confusing part about Dance Central, for me: the utter shamelessness involved in playing it takes the experience far out of the realm of game-playing as I usually experience it. I suppose, by Jesper Juul's criteria, the mimetic interface would classify it as a casual game; perhaps I don't think of it as such only because playing it requires preparation (moving furniture out of the way, tranq'ing the cat) that I recognize as the precise opposite of "casual." As a vocal proponent of non-stupid theory, I ought to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Simple, intuitive interface, pleasant fiction, short time commitment,'s a convincing case. But it's a bit more than that, as the activity required/depicted isn't changed significantly by the game's feedback. In fact, what Dance Central actually does is apply the tools of fixation--game-like apparatuses--to a fundamental expression of the joy of being embodied.

God of War is many things, but at a narrative level, it's compelling because of bodies. Impossible, inexhaustible, superhuman bodies, and the ways to break them. At one level, it's fun because it's fun to be Kratos. (At another level, it's fun because the game constantly reminds you that you're not Kratos, which is the post I was trying to write when I opened up blogger.) Without emotion, there is no meaning, and without narrative, there is no goal. What is admirable, what is exciting, what is interesting about Kratos is about the experience of being embodied.

When you don't want to be in your body, or any body, it's difficult to enjoy...anything. It shouldn't be surprising that this includes action/adventure games. I find that Dance Central helps me circumvent this problem by making enjoyment of the body the game itself.

I can't wait to see what happens when Harmonix decides to do a game about fucking.

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