We’re going to take a whack at so-called criticism here on dot game, and we’re going to start with Anna Anthropy’s dys4ia. It’s a five-minute flash game on newgrounds. Go play the game before you read this. Please and thank you. Even if you don’t read the rest of this critique, it’s a great game that you should play.
Now, there are many things about dys4ia that contribute to its high quality: its subtle, sweet sense of humor; its simple graphical style, which lets the player focus on other content in the game; and the music, by Liz Ryerson, makes the final level all-the-more touching. But this is not what this critique shall focus on; to frame exactly what is the focus of this critique, we’ll look at a quote from this interesting First Person Scholar article (also worth your time):
Dys4ia is inextricable from its play. As a critic and a gamer, I’m far more interested in the process of feeling something new, like gender dysphoria, than being told about an assassin that cuts throats at the press of a button.
Here the author uses dys4ia to illustrate his concept of procedural diegesis. The idea behind this terminology is rather simple: the actions involved in playing the game should represent experiences involved in the story the game represents. That is, the procedures of the game should be diegetic to the story, in the sense similar to film’s diegetic sound. It is not quite a perfect analogy. Many of the actions taken Dishonored (the game to which he refers in the quote) are perfectly diegetic to the story – for instance, walking ; conversely, many (if not most, or perhaps even all) of the actions taken in dys4ia are highly symbolic. Instead, he is referring to the classical use of diegesis, and is advocating a reversal of the general advice “show, don’t tell.” In film and literature, the advice means this: instead of simply telling us that the character is upset, show them being upset. In videogames, our reversal is this: instead of showing us through their action that the character is upset, make the player upset by making them take those actions.
This, indeed, was Anna Anthropy’s stated intention. The gameplay is intended to evoke, intrinsically, the feelings associated with her own experience. Given this information, it seems fruitful to examine how this has contributed to the game’s artistic success, and, sadly, where the concept seems to have been overlooked.
The game, if you have belligerently declined to play it, is comprised of four levels, each of which is comprised of many screens, which (apparently in the style of WarioWare, which I have never played) each have their own extremely simple gameplay mechanics, and illustrate vignettes from her process of deciding to go on hormone therapy to finally beginning to feel at home in her body. In regards to procedural diegesis, these vignettes can be broken roughly into three categories:
- those which embrace the concept of procedural diegesis, and meaningfully evoke a certain experience; e.g. the shape trying to fit through the brick wall, trying to put on the tight shirt
- those which are neutral or agnostic towards procedural diegesis, which require minimal player interaction, are quite short, and let some other aspect of the content take over; e.g. controlling the sun to disperse the clouds over the word “hormones”, controlling the butterfly at the end
- those which seem entirely to ignore the ideas of procedural diegesis, which require substantial (relatively) control from the player but do not meaningfully evoke experiences; e.g. controlling the razor blade, swallowing the pills ejected from the moving pill bottle
The vignettes from the second category are nice touches; they serve to provide procedural and emotional variety in the game, the equivalent, perhaps, of comic relief. We will not examine them closely here. We will instead focus on the resounding success of the first category, and the disappointments of the third category.
The first level, “Gender Bullshit”, has three strong vignettes from the first category. Attempting navigate the hole in the wall, attempting to pull on the tight shirt, and stealthing through the women’s restroom are excellent examples of procedural diegesis in action. Whenever I hit the shirt scene, my first instinct is to press the down button as often as I can, in an ever more fervent attempt to put on the shirt; of course, it is a fruitless effort. In the bathroom, too, you can sometimes succeed and sometimes fail, and this is a perfect demonstration of how going to bathroom felt like a crapshoot.
It also has two vignettes from the third category. The first may seem at first as though it is from the second; I refer to the walk home, which takes you past three persons who fail to call you ma’am. Our heroine meekly corrects them, seemingly to no avail. While I might argue it would be more effective to let the player deploy the “ma’am” balloons at will, and watch them disappear or pile-up futilely on the ground, it hardly seems a point against it that it does not do this. But I will later explain why I feel this belongs in the third category. The second vignette from the third category is the shaving scene: it claims that “shaving is humiliating” (which, no doubt, it absolutely was), but it does not provide the player with this humiliation. Perhaps, instead of the shaving sound effect, the sound of children’s laughter played instead; or perhaps the hair regrew immediately after being shaved away. These are merely possibilities; any number of decisions might lead to the shaving sequence being more representative of the experience than it currently is; suffice it so say, the shaving sequence did not feel even remotely humiliating, though nicking yourself at the end is a nice touch.
The second level has one of my favorite first-category moments: the waiting room at the clinic. Here, the players moves the character around, striving for something to do. The counter on the wall clicks impassively down. The player finds themself anxious to continue playing the game, but it won’t let them! The player is impatient! Hurry up, let me through! Then, one hopes, the player realizes what it must be like to wait for this appointment. How brilliant!
However, it also contains a segment in which I think the game most missed the mark – when the player moves their mouth (with some kind of horribly-deformed bottom-lip?) to catch pills coming from a moving pill bottle. If this segment is meant to convey that it was difficult to take the pills, that reading is never reinforced (as one would expect it to be, given the rest of the game) through monologue. Instead, this segment seems to come off as padding, as some apologetic justification of its status as game. Far from being diegetic, this procedure seems to come off as entirely unaware of its context in the narrative, perhaps even counter to it.
The most effective use of procedural diegesis comes in the form of contrast: replaying similarly-structured in vignettes in a post-hormone avatar. The third level exploit this expertly: the last time you tried to walk home is contrasted with a new vignette in which reaching your house becomes a chore as the avatar’s walking speed is logarithmically reduced, and the nipple-minefield, effective on its own, sets us up for the second-best contrast in the game.
Then we have the triumphant final level: in which the minor annoyances of the first three are put into perspective by the joy of the fourth. The hair on your chest is gone, though you can still drive the razor around; the hair on your lip is still there, but you don’t nick yourself while shaving. Remember that brick wall you couldn’t fit through? Make your own hole with the breakout vignette! These and many other contrasts are the most powerful forces in the game.
Surely the most triumphant moment of the narrative comes when our heroine blows away a hapless strangers with an enormous pink “MA’AM” balloon. This is an effective contrast with the situation earlier; it is remarkably simple, yet speaks volumes; and it is utterly surprising, humorous, and poignant. But here, indeed, seems to be a major failing to take advantage of procedural diegesis. As the player was not in control of the ma’am balloons, they seem to come not from the player, but from the game. Deploying the balloon is not one of the player’s procedures. Controlling only our heroine’s movement, the player here, instead of feeling the triumph of her newfound confidence, watches like a Homunculus in her head. The moment, as I have stated, is profound and effective. And it uses its videogame heritage well; the concepts of ballistic word-balloons would not feel at home in another medium, but this effectiveness is skin-deep. Had it been in a very special episode of Code Monkeys (and indeed, were it to be of anywhere near this caliber of narrative, it would have needed to be a very special episode of Code Monkeys), it is likely we would have perceived the triumph of this balloon the same. To actually feel with Anthropy in this triumph – undoubtedly the very climax of the narrative – we would have needed to control the fire button.
This may seem like nit-picking. You may ask me to leave well-enough alone and trumpet the game for its successes, which, I would agree, far outweigh its shortcomings. But as Steve Wilcox claims, in his FPS article, that this game embodies procedural diegesis, it seems relevant to demonstrate where it does and where it does not – and when and why this is important. I am the first to present dys4ia as a game whose example should be followed – and as such, I am specifying which example, exactly, I believe that is.