Paul O'Brian writes about Watchmen, trivia, albums, interactive fiction, and more.


Game As Life, Life As Game

Something Dante loves is to find some little Flash game on JayIsGames and play it with me. At this point, he’s got a repertoire of them in his head, and he calls them out for me from time to time like requests at a piano bar. “I want to play Electric Box 2!” “I want to play Meeblings!” “I want to play FireBoy and WaterGirl!” “Let’s play Shape Switcher!”

Some of these games have level editors, which fascinate him. He delights in putting together nonsensical levels and watching them go. I can relate to this feeling, but when he asks me to make my own level, I always demur. I just have no interest in constructing a puzzle off the cuff, partly because I am terrible at it, and partly because I don’t get much pleasure from it. So one night last week, as usual, he said something to me like “Now you make a level!”, and I said, “No, that’s not the kind of game I like to make.”

“Well, what kind of game do you like to make?” he asked, quite sensibly. Heh. So I told him that I like to make text games, and he asked what those are. It’s come up before, but he’s a little older now (he turned 5 in June), which made it feel like even more of a Talking To Your Kids About Star Wars moment. So I explained the basics to him, and asked if he wanted to see one. He did.

So we played Zork 1 together for about 45 minutes. Oh my, the cuteness. Rockhound that he is, he got very interested in the description of the canyon. He laughed at the response to COUNT LEAVES. He called out suggestions and had fun seeing the responses. However, the response to WHAT IS A GRUE made him so nervous that he refused to enter the trapdoor after we’d found it. He was up for everything but that, which is a pretty funny way to play Zork.

Then it was time for him to clean up his dinner dishes, so I asked him to do that, and he said:


He’d speak the command, and then execute the action. I loved it. Then he asked me, “Do you ever pretend that your life is an interactive fiction game?”

Oh man. YES. I have a memory from 18 years[!] ago, still vivid, of walking around the CU campus in the morning after having stayed up most of the night playing A Mind Forever Voyaging for the first time. My brain was getting the usual input from my senses — colors, sounds, temperature, and so on — but alongside that, it was generating a stream of text, describing my experience in the world as if I were Perry Simm walking through a simulated Rockvil campus. It was genuinely psychedelic, one of the few times I’ve felt like my mind had been affected on a fundamental level by a piece of art.

Part of that brain alteration was to look at life through the lens of IF. When I do that, a few things get reframed in my head. I no longer have problems — I have puzzles. They seem a lot more solvable when I think of them that way. (Pity about the lack of Invisiclues, though.) The routine I rely on becomes suspect. What new areas of exploration might I be ignoring by choosing to go the same places, do the same things every day? My naturally introverted nature grows more interested in hearing what other people might say if I ASK them about various topics. IF is based on a world model, with certain assumptions embedded within it. So is the brain, though the model is far more sophisticated, and the assumptions probably aren’t the same. Replacing the brain’s typical model with the IF model can prove surprisingly illuminating.

Now, in my typically tardy way, I’ve begun playing The Sims, a game whose whole point is to create a world model for daily life. Inevitably, some of its world model has begun to creep into my head. Why am I feeling depressed? Oh, maybe I need to eat. Or sleep. Or call a friend. The game’s demands, while they can be rather prosaic and irritating, also feel like validation to me, confirming my view that yes indeed, much of life is actually rather prosaic and irritating. There really is a relentlessness to the way we must all keep meeting our physical needs for rest and food, for bodily upkeep, domestic upkeep, and financial stability. Relationships really do require maintenance, even when doing so contravenes our need for rest or “introvert time.” So many competing needs, so little time to fulfill them, and all while trying to succeed at work and as a family member. It’s compelling, but I’m not sure I could call it fun.

But wait. Yes, there is something seductive, at least to me, about seeing daily life as a set of needs to be balanced via time management and careful attention. Seductive, but also reductive. It’s an oppressively left-brained, mechanistic view of reality, not to mention overwhelmingly consumerist. There’s no pleasure in cooking or eating, just the discomfort of standing up and the relief of filling one’s belly. There’s no pleasure in work, just the opportunity to keep getting better stuff and expanding our space. Listening to music, reading, creating, interacting with others — they don’t feed the soul. They just keep us mindlessly having fun, making friends for career advancement, or setting up separate streams of income. I have no doubt that for some people, in some circumstances, any of these things could be true. Some of them are true for me sometimes, which is where the seductive part comes from. And yeah, it can be a useful tool to challenge routinized thoughts and unconscious actions. But if it were sufficient and true, I wouldn’t be writing this now. The pleasure I get from analysis, the satisfaction of sharing it with the world, doesn’t fit into The Sims‘ world, but it’s crucial in mine.


Meanwhile, elsewhere on the net


Trivial Matters


  1. Wow, awesome and cute and deep. Thanks for posting this!

    Come to think of it, that is actually my favourite way to play Zork too. I always found the above-ground stuff more fun than the tunnels. It’s the apparent freedom, whereas underground you’re literally constrained along a few paths.

  2. Oh dear lord you’re living my life. Right down to playing random games from JayIsGames.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén