Whether You’re Confessing or Fighting, Video Games Let You Enter Other People's Minds
From the indie game 'Selfie' to the Street Fighter series, games often ask us to get into fellow players' heads.
The Steam store page for Selfie: Sister of Amniotic Lens classifies it as a massively multiplayer online game (MMO for short), but it's nothing like what you'd think the genre would imply. It is oppressively lonesome. When I "log in" (I don't have credentials to log in with), I'm greeted with a short message: "You have been condemned by user Stranger on 2015-05-13 20:59:05, meaning your score has been reset. Try changing your personal response." The score is measured in pounds, but doesn't matter. Not as far as I know. It's a penalty nonetheless. My personal message, my typed response, wasn't personal enough. It was something to the effect of, "I'm fine."
Selfie is a predominantly single-player game. You begin in a garishly decorated room, infested by flies and inundated by the blinding rays of a sunset you can't see. There's a TV and what I think is a turntable. You highlight the flies around the room for seconds at a time, and they begin to power the turntable with their magnetic energy (your guess as to how this happens is as good as mine). The TV turns on, you flip through a few channels, and suddenly you're flying through outer space to the sound of ex-Swans singer Jarboe crooning over a theme evoking a version of the Twin Peaks theme with a little more ennui. You seek out and shoot red dots as they fly among wheeled mannequins, then finally to another space platform littered with more flies. You blast them as well, to escape outer space, and land back where you began, in the TV room.
It's a simple loop, with each repetition capped off by a screen of text espousing an anecdote of mental strife or from some biblical verse (it directly mentions Hebrews 4, the connection to which I have a loose grasp on). It's all a bit melodramatic. Hammy, at times. The title screen plays back videos of a news report clearly filmed in someone's apartment, telling of a cult (the titular Sisters of the Amniotic Lens) in several languages. Again, hammy. But intensely personal. And vulnerable.
The game is a weird trip, but the most impactful thing about it is that message system. Selfie prides itself on the idea of digital intimacy. It takes its personal message system very seriously. These messages are confessions, and defying the tribe of confession, by not confessing, by writing "I'm fine" like I did, is punishable with the death of your virtual cash. Not that you buy anything with that money. It's the principle of the thing. I am not "fine".
But these messages let you enter other people's minds, to hear their thoughts and think like them, and in that sense it's one of the most pure distillations of intimacy through multiplayer around. All multiplayer gaming is a conversation with someone else through gameplay. Selfie just simplifies a lot of those aspects.
Take fighting games, for example. You can learn to execute Street Fighter IV's combos from memory until your fingers cramp, but you won't be good at the game until you play someone else. You can learn to react to fireballs when you see them coming, but you're still not really playing the game. Good players know that the hard part isn't controlling your own character – it's controlling your opponent's. The only way to overcome some strategies in high-level play is to predict them in advance. Predictions are called reads, and the best Street Fighters read their opponents constantly. They enter their minds.
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The world's best players aren't the ones who go all in the first round – they're the ones who learn their opponent. There's a term in the fighting game community: downloading. It refers to how many pro players will play a round not to win, but to learn. Initially, they're testing moves and seeing how their opponent responds to them. Every reaction their opponent makes is a confession: "If you perform that move, here's what I will do. This is what I've learned to do. This is how I play. This is what I'm afraid of. This is who I am."
Daigo Umehara is the world's most famous Street Fighter player (you've probably seen his greatest moment). Among several other things, he's famous for the Ume Shoryu. If predictions are reads, the Ume Shoryu is a very well-read uppercut, a Shoryuken that no other player would have thrown out, but lands because Daigo's Daigo. When it lands, it's the perfect counter to just about anything. It's a powerful, awe-inspiring manoeuvre, precisely because of the risk it involves. On the rare occasion it doesn't land, it's devastating, and it's lost him rounds.
But Daigo's Daigo, and he lands Ume Shoryus. He learns his opponents better than anyone else. Other players have defeated and taken titles from him, but few stand against him in longer sets. It's a testament to how devoted he is to the game, but also to how well he can read people. You confess your Street Fighter sins to him with every faulty punch you throw out, every offense he dismantles. Still, those uppercuts are risky. Intensely personal. And vulnerable.
Back in Selfie, I change my personal message, my confession. It now reads as follows.
Selfie is a short game. Perhaps not all that fulfilling, either, if you put nothing of yourself in it. In order to "win" you must let others read you. It is an inverted fighting game. But it's not that simple. The game straddles a line with the intimacy it asks players for. It warns players against using the information they learn about others, to not spread and exploit it. This is because it expects people to fully confess their sins. And at the same time, you tend to question players submitting confessions anonymously. Are any of them genuine? Am I alone in putting myself out there? Will someone condemn my confession because it wasn't enough? Because it was too much?
That Selfie is not a very popular game works in its favour. The game's all-time high concurrent player count, according to Steamcharts.com, is six people. Knowing that makes the intimacy all the more powerful. Perfect, in a way. You can be confident the world won't find out your secret, but you're still sharing it. And you can use this opportunity to unload. Talk about what you're dreading most right now. Your biggest fear about life. The big mistake you made but can't admit to the person who needs to hear your confession most. Let it out.
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The ending of the game is another video. This time it features Dylan Barry, the designer and writer of the game. He explains his game to you, where he got the inspiration for it and how it came to be. He rambles, moralising about what he hoped the player got from the game. He reveals this is his final game. Do I believe him? Is he genuine? It's all bit hammy. Intensely personal. And vulnerable.
It works. It's not perfect, but it works. Because it's just another confession. Captured on video and given importance, no doubt, but another confession nonetheless. It works because Selfie is about having other people read you, but for that aspect to work, you have to read other people yourself. You have to condemn them if you don't think they're genuine, because saying "I'm fine" won't cut it. For the game's creator to unload his own confession is fitting because nobody should be exempt from being vulnerable here, in this safe space. You confess because you expect the same in return, and it's devastating if someone doesn't reciprocate.
Or, if you're like me: you risk confessing to gain a better understanding. You hope, by confessing your biggest fears, that you're ultimately contributing to some sort of karmic pool, and that you playing along will somehow cause someone else to add their own confession to the pool. You risk the confession for a better outcome, knowing you could very well set yourself up to get exposed, be condemned, and "fail" by the game's standards. But you do it because the payoff, getting someone else to confess, to increase every other player's understanding of other people even slightly, is worth the risk. Your own personal Ume Shoryu, committed to in confidence.
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