On The Missing and what we choose to ignore
January 9, 2019 8:00 PM   Subscribe

"If we can ignore bad politics of AAA games and enjoy their mechanics, we should do the inverse with indie games that have something important to say." [Content warning: discussion and imagery of bodies, mutilation and graphic violence, including self-harm.]

The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories is the latest horror game directed by Swery (known for Deadly Premonition, previously), and the first developed by his studio White Owls Inc. It opens with a message, then a disclaimer:
This game was made with the belief that nobody is wrong for being what they are.

This game contains explicit content, including extreme violence, sexual topics, and depictions of suicide.
And I haven’t even talked about the ending yet! And I won’t, at least not really – it is not my place to examine it, analyse it, pick it apart, comment on its structure or evaluate its impact. I can just say that I felt… so many things, that Swery is a beautiful human being, and that people must experience it for themselves, within the context of actually playing through the entire game.

Many pieces interpreting this game are online, but they all contain major spoilers for the story.

Caitlin Galiz-Rowe (Out Front Magazine)―‘The Missing’ Triggers Trauma and Conversation:
Geminiking3, a user on gaming vertical Waypoint’s forums, created a thread there to discuss their initial feelings of discomfort with the gameplay: “On one hand, I find the characterization really interesting. As you go, you unlock text conversations with people, and I find that really cool. It’s my main reason for playing. On the other hand… oh boy do I find the actual gameplay fairly upsetting… the game isn’t as gory as it could be since you go into a silhouette after taking damage, but the SOUNDS are so rough.”
Julie Muncy (The Verge)―The Missing is an argument for why brutal, violent stories about queer existence matter:
Within that landscape, it’s easy, then, to imagine that tragic or grotesque stories about queer people are best avoided by those interested in treating our stories respectfully. There are regular debates in the LGBTQ communities I’ve been a part of about what stories we should and shouldn’t be telling, and what value they have. I frequently see people who, if they don’t outright condemn dark, sad stories about us, at least prefer to avoid them.

There are understandable reasons for this. Stories about trauma can easily evoke our own trauma, and that’s not always desirable. And there’s no shame in avoiding types of storytelling that don’t suit you. But that avoidance can often calcify into an argument that no one should be telling stories like this, period. That queer stories should be soft, and optimistic, and kind. After all, the world is so cruel already, isn’t it?
Nadia M. (Timber Owls)―The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Ownership of Identity:
With all these revelations in place, everything within The Missing began to click in ways that it seemed to tilt at earlier, but now appeared blatant. The more I thought about the various parts of this game, the more things I realized were deliberately placed. But it’s no puzzle box. If you make it to the credits you’ll know exactly what was being conveyed without having to painstakingly analyze every single scene. It expertly uses its disparate imagery to make you internalize the message by the time it’s spelled out for you. Something I’ve found is that trying to “solve” the imagery of the game is a fool’s errand, as almost everything is used to convey multiple meanings. So I’m not here to tell you what everything in The Missing means, rather what it means to me.
Rose (Video Game Choo Choo)―It wasn't what I was expecting, but it changed my expectations forever:
From the outset I was incredibly into the concept of a game about solving puzzles via loss of limbs and other torturous concepts. When I first heard about the game NeverDead back in 2012, I couldn’t get it out of my head how novel of an idea it was (though its implementation left a lot to be desired). Seeing a game actually manage to pull these concepts off inventively and entertainingly is incredibly satisfying, and all the different ways that The Missing is able to create interesting scenarios out of grisly situations in its short playthrough time (about 6 hours) gives it plenty of points for creativity.
posted by Tha Contender (12 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
"If we can ignore bad politics of AAA games and enjoy their mechanics, we should do the inverse with indie games that have something important to say."

Haven't people been playing games that manage to be compelling despite mechanical deficiencies for ages? Even relatively mainstream/high-budget games like Resident Evil? I'm aware that there's some history to this being a partisan issue - backlash against the glut of "cinematic" games in the late 90s, political scapegoating of "artsy" indie games by gamergate types - and I assume it's the latter, especially, that's the implicit target of that first essay. But nonetheless it feels a little weird to spend so much time explaining the principle that one might appreciate a game's artistic ambition, as if one is afraid the actual game might not pull it off.

(I have no indication that it doesn't, which is sorta my point.)
posted by atoxyl at 9:03 PM on January 9 [3 favorites]




Haven't people been playing games that manage to be compelling despite mechanical deficiencies for ages?

That scanned to me more like a plea to not apply the same pablum-spigot critical standards that are often applied to AAA games to games trying to do something better. It was sort of clunky to read and didn't quite hit the mark of the point it was trying to make, though it contained many good letters. Seven out of ten but looking forward to the DLC.
posted by mhoye at 5:13 AM on January 10 [4 favorites]


I'm a gamer and I had no idea what AAA games were, thinking it was an acronym for a genre (e.g. 4X or FPS) but the author here uses it to mean high budget, blockbuster, intended to be highly rated, massively popular, and played by millions, FYI for other folks not familiar with the terminology.

Also while the first article is well written and full of useful information and criticism I found myself unable to continue reading it after encountering this image caption relatively early on:

You gradually lose limbs, then your entire torso, allowing you to roll around as just her head.

Switching pronouns in the middle like that is, to me, super problematic in that it is deeply othering and objectifying. I get that there are rhetorical, psychological, and emotional reasons for drawing that boundary in that article but it was too much a sleight or slip of the fingers for me to be able to tolerate this early morning.

I think I am also repulsed by the overall treatment of the character in the game. That's rough. And a huge ask for any gamer who tends to, when encouraged, identify with the character they play.

Perhaps rougher for a non-binary player like myself? I can't tell without talking about it with other folks, which I hope happens in this discussion.

In this context I would say making the playable character feminine is the wrong call. Let masculine players play as amputated men. Not as, as usual, parts of objectified and cut apart women.
posted by kalessin at 5:45 AM on January 10 [9 favorites]


Kinda what kalessin says.

This is one of those cases where I kinda need both trigger warnings and spoilers for myself. Otherwise, I'm taking a huge leap of faith that early gore isn't setting me up for a sucker-punch denouement. Warnings and spoilers help me maintain critical distance to look at how a work is made.

But in general, I agree with having different criteria for different games.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 5:58 AM on January 10 [4 favorites]


I certainly agree. Actually had this thought while watching this talk by a Subnautica developer. (I know, Subnautica hardly needs more praise. It's a darling, but hear me out)
Like many folks, I picked it up on Epic for free and became obsessed with the game, but after completing it, I did find myself increasingly critical how broken game is. Glitches constantly ruin play sessions, and I was beginning to jump on board with a lot of folks arguing that we shouldn't be heaping accolades on the developers if they were going to move on to their next project without getting the game in better condition, what message are we sending, bah bah bah.

Then I watched the video and realized 1) this was a tiny, decentralized team 2) that it got made at all is a miracle, especially for how amazing its content is and 3) despite ending up with a very different narrative than they had originally intended the developers stayed true to their initial principle of making a game about exploration instead of shooting. The developer even mentioned that they made the no-guns* decision because there had been a shooting in America right be fore they started, but that really just means the game was made in the last 5+ years.

Then I realized I could love the game in the same way I love music. My favorite bands are punky/diy artists with rough edges that soldier on because they're offering something the mainstream isn't providing or because they have something important to say. And now my favorite video game is, too.

*There are, technically, HL2 gravity-style 'guns' in the game but they're meant to be fairly non-lethal. That players have managed to find a way to kill just about everything in the game, well...kids with an antfarm.
posted by es_de_bah at 6:52 AM on January 10 [2 favorites]


Reminds me of RPS's series of articles Butchering Pathologic. Pathologic is a Russian made game that had severe issues with both its mechanics (to the point where I've personally never finished it) and its English-language localization (which was fixed in a re-release), but there is nothing else quite like it. The studio has been working on a remake/sequel for ages that is finally starting to see the light of day.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 8:02 AM on January 10 [2 favorites]


Having awful gameplay and a powerful message is arguably the point of Papers Please, where the stressful time limits, nitpickingly tedious rules and repetitive nature is essential for its premise. It's a very worthwhile experience, but not what you'd call fun.
posted by Eleven at 8:38 AM on January 10


Having awful gameplay and a powerful message is arguably the point of Papers Please, where the stressful time limits, nitpickingly tedious rules and repetitive nature is essential for its premise. It's a very worthwhile experience, but not what you'd call fun.

I would say that in this case the game mechanics are "enjoyable" in that they are thoughtfully implemented as part of the premise of the game.

Bad game mechanics is when you want to do something the game itself wants you to do, but you can't because the control scheme, or how objects interact in the game, prevent you from appreciating the game. A personal frustration: when a game doesn't allow Y-axis invert -- this caused me to stop playing the Telltale Games Walking Dead.
posted by linux at 9:48 AM on January 10 [2 favorites]


What madman would not invert the Y-axis?
posted by Mogur at 10:06 AM on January 10 [2 favorites]


> In this context I would say making the playable character feminine is the wrong call. Let masculine players play as amputated men. Not as, as usual, parts of objectified and cut apart women.

You're definitely right about how this mechanic potentially reinforces the dehumanization/objectification of women, and nothing in particular excuses that the story could have been designed to revolve around a masculine main character. In fact, being able to decide between a masculine or feminine character would have been a great design choice, provided Swery had the resources to fully implement it. But for anyone concerned about this who absolutely knows they won't play the game, please do consider completely spoiling yourself about the story.
posted by Arson Lupine at 10:15 AM on January 10 [3 favorites]


So I did go spoil myself and I remain sitting with the most cognitive and emotional tension I've carried over a video game for quite a long time.

I have a plethora of issues with what I've read and seen about the game's conceit and execution. And I am so turned off, turned away, and alienated by what I've read that I don't think I will ever play it.

That said I am an EFF liberal/progressive sort and I think there's room in the universe for stories that make me extremely uncomfortable for a mix of rational and emotional reasons, and I don't think of myself or my experience as either representative (except in a very global/general sense), nor as authoritative.

I do think the game, while it engages with extremely complex issues of emotional, and physical health, as well as with identity, it also has a lot of problems, not least (as with most single perspective media treatments of identity) that it is not representative or authoritative. For example I have identities in common with the protagonist in this game and my experience was NOTHING like what's portrayed in the game. And yet there's a strong likelihood that folks who play the game may come away thinking mistakenly that they understand my experience.
posted by kalessin at 12:17 PM on January 11 [1 favorite]


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