Wicked Game

You’ll never know what video-game characters suffer

Den vänstra handens stig, an upcoming game from designer M. James Short, consists of a single, unbroken side-on camera angle of a pale figure traversing a hostile wilderness. The figure wants to get to the top of a distant mountain, but until it nears its destination ― a four-to-five hour ordeal ― the player will have no idea why. The figure dies again and again on its journey. It falls into pits, staggers along on broken limbs, and clambers over ledges. After each failure, it respawns: on a technical level, the figure’s adaptive AI slightly recalibrates the actions that led to a given death in hopes of avoiding the same fate, but to the player none of this is visible.

What sets Den vänstra handens stig (Swedish for “the left hand path,” a branch of esotericism) apart from the innumerable other pixel art platformers on Steam is that it features only one input. The only thing the player can do is ask the character to give up, via a single button press. Short has designed a custom controller: a wooden box with a single arcade button at the center of an engraved runic design. The button has a needle that will prick your finger and let your blood trickle into the runes. Pressing the button, Short tells me, “asks the AI to give up. It’ll forget everything it learned and start back at the beginning.”

Den vänstra handens stig asks you to identify with suffering, but it does not condescend to suggest that you understand suffering

The figure dies, and it does not respawn. The entire laborious journey starts again. There are no collectibles, no combat system, no upgrades, and no side quests.That is the extent of your agency in this world. It is far less agency, in terms of sheer quantity of options, than even interaction-light exploration games like Gone Home or Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture: there you can choose where to look in a space, and what to examine. Den vänstra handens stig simply progresses, unless the player says stop.

Conventional wisdom around video games states that the more reactive and responsive a world is to players, the more involving it becomes. Den vänstra handens stig trades back-of-the-box variety for a ruthlessly clear vision: one that allows players the space to contemplate the ideas in the game without the incessant distraction of playing it. Open-world and role-playing games frequently let players design and name a character — a convention with its roots in tabletop RPGs — and kowtow to players’ decisions throughout the game with a plethora of differing (though often only slightly differing) endings: the aim being to make players feel like this is their story. Den vänstra handens stig is not the player’s story; or if it is, they play the role of death: lurking in the shadows until they extend a single withered finger and end the story.

The modern video game drowns the player in 40-hour epics bloated with identikit side quests and childish moral dilemmas, but among the experimental underground of alt-games, work that zeroes in on a single idea, feeling, or mechanic is more common. Irish animator David OReilly’s two video game projects, Mountain and the newly released Everything, ask little more of the player than her patience. Everything is a game about embodying every possible thing in the universe, from the subatomic level all the way up to the cosmic. It’s common for games to boast about their impressive length; Everything cheekily claims to contain “one million+ years” of gameplay.

Gameplay, in this case, is a term being stretched to its limits. You can direct Everything, zipping from rock to bear to tree as you wish, or you can let the game bounce around the universe of its own accord; either way the game is less about things to do and more about things to see, like a piece of new media art. At the AV Club, Clayton Purdom pinpointed Everything’s autoplay as a potential solution for games that “struggle to pair their ideas with their interactive elements.” Stripping out interactivity entirely is almost a challenge to the player; can they invest in a work that doesn’t let them in?

There are games that alienate and challenge players without stripping out agency altogether. 2005’s Pathologic, by Ice-Pick Games, is a bizarre, grotty adventure game that asks players to survive 12 days in a plague-ridden town. Ice-Pick’s 2008 follow-up, The Void, pushes further into the waters of abstraction. The text-only, interactive fiction work of writers like Porpentine, Tom McHenry, and Liz England allows players to choose one of many paths through a story, but in the context of this fleshy, transgressive body of work, “choice” is like a flashlight illuming a strange new world, bit by bit.

The contract between Den vänstra handens stig and its player is predicated on identification; a less aggressive strain of empathy than, say, the shock-and-awe of bad virtual reality, which wields tech with the absurd Panglossian blindness of people who think games can change the current administration. You can take a VR trip to Syria courtesy of the New York Times, or step inside a slaughterhouse; at a VR conference I attended, one panelist swore with amusing sincerity that this particular film put him off meat immediately, like a consumer version of the Ludovico Technique in A Clockwork Orange. It is a hollow and self-satisfied enterprise: In the words of designer Robert Yang, “What if we don’t want your fucking empathy?” Yang echoes the sentiment of designer Anna Anthropy’s 2015 Empathy Game, an installation piece that scores players one point for every mile they walk in a pair of Anthropy’s own shoes; a blunt metaphor. “I respect games too much to see them relegated to a way for the privileged to opt out of their responsibilities,” Anthropy said.

Den vänstra handens stig asks you to identify with suffering, but it does not condescend to suggest that you understand suffering. The player’s agency, that world-ending button press, is not a moral escape hatch, nor does it reveal anything in the game. It is a choice that reflects entirely on the player.

This is M. James Short’s first game in this vein, but he talks about the way experimental game narratives tend to tell “the same stories in a way video games aren’t used to.” They experiment with form, not content. The gold standard here is Jonathan Blow’s 2008 Braid, a self-important, time-travelling twist on Mario that told a simple story (wait for it) backwards.

Short calls the player of Den vänstra handens stig an “observer.” He’s well aware that if the observer doesn’t buy into the AI’s struggle, the game doesn’t work. The game has an emotional arc: The player sees the AI figure struggle forward on its journey, and its suffering creates empathy. But the AI’s ultimate goal, Short says, ends up twisting that empathy into discomfort: most people end up pushing the button.

Black metal’s philosophies of transcendence — through repetition, even death ― are finding new life in a video game

The game’s pixel art is off-putting and anti-fidelity, offering no easy aesthetic handholds (take a look at the game’s assaultive trailer). This is not the finely wrought pixel work of Hyper Light Drifter or Rain World; it is deliberately rough and crude. Backgrounds are blocked out in solid pastel colors sans any kind of detail: stony gray, livid purple, icy blue. Short went heavy on the purples and greens to evoke a mood of “mysticism.” The figure itself is a blob, an abstraction of the human form. Short’s art, and his writing, give only the minimum information for the player to grasp the shape of things.

Abstract art remains a niche approach for games. Big-budget productions like Watch Dogs 2 and Ghost Recon: Wildlands aim for photorealism, forever chasing fidelity. Stylization is just as common ― see Persona 5 and Zelda: Breath of the Wild ― but these games still offer a world steadied by the firm hand of realism. Short’s closest aesthetic touchstones are indie games like Proteus, a gentle 2013 exploration game painted in Impressionist daubs of color, and Don’t Look Back, a 2009 retelling of the Orpheus myth in shades of pink, maroon, and black. These games’ aesthetics communicate all the bucolic beauty and violent turmoil of their narratives; they look exactly like they need to, in other words.

Short’s influences come, as well, from black metal. He cites Deathspell Omega and Blut Aus Nord as inspiration, French bands who formed in the mid-to-late 90s and transmuted the wintry, youthful aggression of Norwegian forebears Darkthrone and Emperor into an overtly philosophical, sonically restless strain of black metal. These bands’ ideologies run the gamut from your basic Bataille-quoting headiness to tiresome misogyny and fascist apologia, but the churn of their compositions is searing and beautiful by turns.

Black metal tends toward two related preoccupations: Satanism and reverence toward nature. The Satanism can be sincere, but it functions best as aesthetic provocation — the more sincere the musician seems, the sillier the reality tends to be. (For example, theistic Satanists Watain, whose onstage theatrics channel the Satanic panic that swept the United States in the ’80s; or Behemoth’s frontman Nergal, an avowed Satanist who appeared as a judge on The Voice of Poland and was the face of an energy drink line.) The other pole, the awe of nature, arguably branches off from Satanism’s Pagan roots. It is intrinsic to the sound of black metal: guitars are diffused with distortion and reverb, the treble edge boosted, and played at tremolo speed so that the phrases turn into ouroboric wisps.

It’s not hard to make the leap from this sound to a kind of transcendentalism. Black metal is hypnotic; its endlessly cycling progressions easily fill the role of ritual. This type of authenticity distrusts technology; polished mixes, click tracks, vocal treatments, even the PR apparatus afforded by label deals are the tools of the enemy. It might seem ironic that black metal’s philosophies of transcendence — through repetition, even death ― are finding new life in a video game. But video games are predicated on failure, on the loop of try-fail-try-succeed. Even Mario dies, again and again. Den vänstra handens stig burrows into the morbid, Sisyphean nature of that failure, twisting a cliche into something neatly profound. Both black metal and Den vänstra handens stig opt for abstraction over specificity; blurred forms that induce feeling more than they denote reality.

I do not know what awaits at the end of Den vänstra handens stig. But something does. Short assures me that the game does not leave its conclusion up to the player’s imagination; it ends, in a way calibrated to challenge the player’s instincts. Plenty of video games will mold themselves around your will, to make you feel important and strong. Few ask you to sacrifice even your comfort, let alone your agency. Despite its deliberately jagged aesthetic and its limited interactivity, Den vänstra handens stig needs an audience. This dance requires a partner. Whether it ends by your hand or the AI’s is your only choice.

Images of suffering abound on the internet, but they are never just images. Last year, the image of a filthy, blood-stained Syrian child sat in an ambulance became an icon of the violent maelstrom gripping his country. He was not alone. The photographs of these children became sharable synecdoche for those of us observing a greater humanitarian crisis, but per Susan Sontag, images of war’s victims both disgust and “foster greater militancy,” depending on the viewer. The icon of suffering holds no meaning in itself. It is wielded. It is aimed.

The vicious intelligence of Den vänstra handens stig, then, is that it asks you to determine what suffering means to you, and then act on that conviction. It simulates the decision-making process that leads to, say, a drone strike, or a bombing raid. You look at an image of pain, and you decide: do you push the button.

Astrid Budgor writes about movies and videogames on the internet.