Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
Don’t Wake The Night, which released on itch.io last week from developer Brujería at Werk, is about having conversations. Or it’s about navigating community. Or it’s about waiting. It’s an experimental game that places the player in the all-seeing shoes of a spirit summoned to a meeting. You click things. You overhear conversations. And then you judge.
If you’re checked into the world of video games, there’s a constant cycle that you experience. A video game comes out, and the consensus is that it is the new marker for a great video game story. Bioshock, Grand Theft Auto V, The Last of Us, God of War: These games build up their legends (and their advertising portfolio) based on how engaging they are to play and how beautifully, or rewardingly, or emotionally, their stories come together in the end.
We’re seeing this same pattern repeat itself again with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, a game that isn’t even out yet but which is using its developers’ past work at Naughty Dog to sell us on the game having, as Austin Walker wrote last week, ideas and social commentary that are ripped straight from the headlines and planted into a video game context. The next big thing is always around the corner, and it is harvesting the hellscape to create the next big thing in narrative entertainment.
The world and its violence, from the context of interminable overseas warfare to interpersonal family trauma to the spectacular clash of revolution, all of this gets recycled into our games and produced as entertainment. And that’s ok, I guess, because I would rather that games look these ideas in the eye and try to do something with them instead of avoiding them entirely. The medium’s reach often exceeds its grasp, but I admire the reach.
Don’t Wake The Night is about as far away from those spectacular blockbusters as you can get. It is maybe half an hour long instead of thirty. It doesn’t have shooting. It’s mode of interacting is radically different from the “shoot” or “mantle” or “punch” verbs that populate our video game imaginary. Instead, it relegates the player to a kind of immanent force that can knock fruit from trees or jiggle rocks. The majority of the game is spent doing these small actions and watching the small social group in front of you scatter and chatter to each other about what just happened.
At its core, Don’t Wake The Night is doing the same thing that the press tours behind Modern Warfare and God of War and GTA V claim those games do. It recreates real situations, puts them in front of the player, and asks you to think about them. While the Call of Duty machine is only interested in this for spectacle, as a kind of cinematic emotional investment bridge that gets you from Plot Beat A to Plot Beat B, and uses, for example, a child dying in a chemical attack as a way of demonstrating how bad things have gotten in their fictional world. As Caty McCarthy neatly put it, “at its best, the series makes us uncomfortable but contemplative. At its worst, it's exploitative and makes us feel gross in a whole other way.”
Don’t Wake The Night really does the work of taking the everyday and putting it into a game context. The conversations that are started by your wriggling a tree branch, for example, are prompted by your action but never end with just that action. Pulled from a mix of designer Santo Aveiro-Ojeda’s “personal family traditions, general Guarani traditions and designs, as well as afroindigenous influences that come … from the region [they] grew up in,” the way that these people interact and hone in on the player’s interventions feels unique and specifically situated. The group members who speak to each other, each with job title names like Hero or Gardener, voice their concerns and complaints to one another. The tree branch might come up, but really it was an excuse for them to shuffle around, talk to new folks, and figure out what they’re going to do with the results of the ceremony that they’ve performed.
That ceremony, the “point” of the game, involves summoning a spirit and asking it what to do about their social situation. Apparently there’s a woman who has broken with tradition or expectation in some way, and the spirit summoned by the ceremony (the player) has to figure out what to do. The problem is that the spirit is no smarter than your average player. You’re not omnipotent. You can’t delve back into the past to get the objective truth about this group and what they’re doing, so instead you have to listen and pay attention and try to puzzle through the best course of action. All in all, it feels partly like an oral story and partly like a Samuel Beckett play. It’s all inference from context. It’s all about what is going to happen, not what happened.
And in that way, it feels real all the way through in a way that the big blockbuster games only manage to do in fits and starts. All of these personalities, perhaps too familiar and too obligated to each other in their small group, clash and congeal and hang together. The game actively prevents you from rushing through these altercations, too, and holds you to a timer between actions you can take. It actually tells you to slow down. You’re a spirit, after all, not some twitchy gamer.
When I spoke to creator Santo Aveiro-Ojeda (whose 1870 is a fascinating game I’ve written about before) over email, they told me that Don’t Wake The Night “was made to be fairly abstract to go against the ‘settler gaze’ that wants to consume indigenous stories in order to feel like they have gained social currency or stand on a higher moral ground than other settlers.” Averio-Ojeda is referring to the historical formation of settler colonialism, a political and imperial program that not only performs the resource extraction of colonialism but also displaces, and ultimately eradicates, the indigenous population of the colonized space. The project of settler colonialism is, thus, eternal; as long as there are indigenous people, settler colonialism needs to minimize them and their perspectives to be successful.
Don’t Wake The Night, then, works to be a thing that can’t be fully absorbed. It works to not fit into a predictable model of games. When you make your judgment as a spirit at the end, you’re almost certainly not going to feel good about it. You didn’t have all the information. You didn’t have all the context. But that’s part of the power of the design of the game. It’s an argument that you never had it to begin with, and the idea of having all the facts and what Friedrich Nietzsche might call the “god’s eye view” was an illusion the whole time.
For me, this felt like a damning criticism of the cultural assumptions of my everyday life and my gaming habits. Of course I didn’t have all the facts. Of course I can’t make the universally good, Paragon-like decision. That’s not a thing that’s possible. A cold compromise that hurt the least people was, I guess, the best possible outcome.
When I, or others, have made arguments about this in the past, the common response is that this kind of impasse or ambiguity or displeasure isn’t what we play games for. People love to talk about how games are somehow this other space for the workings of culture. We go there to experience things that aren’t real, power fantasies that we cannot have, and so we need to ability to Paragon our way through the muck to fulfill the project of games.
Sure. But when the biggest games, like Modern Warfare or The Last of Us: Part 2, are hellbent on selling themselves and their stories around morally grey compromises and ambiguous ethical choices, shouldn’t we take seriously the games that take that position to its logical limit? Shouldn’t we look to games that really do the work of portraying real situations to say something serious about them and not just present them as Mission 8: The One Where You Kill Civilians?
Don’t Wake The Night tackles many of the same core issues of living in the contemporary world as our other celebrated games, and yet does it from an angle of approach that feels more honest and considered than even the best emotional beat. It does it with 2D graphics and chunky animations. And it does powerful work.