Video Games & Stand-Up Comedy – Subversion In Common?

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[This is excerpted from the fifth issue of my new TinyLetter email newsletter, dealing with ‘musings on games, tech and life’ – go ahead and sign up if you dig it!]

As I noted on Twitter, one of my most beloved Christmas presents this year is Stewart Lee’s book ‘How I Escaped My Certain Fate: The Life And Deaths of a Stand-Up Comedian‘. And one of the things it’s taught me is sorta, well, chicken soup for the soul, in an underfed Dickensian orphan kind of way.

(For anyone who doesn’t know him, Lee – once half of British comedy double-act Lee & Herring, who I rather enjoyed as a callow teenager, is a master of edgy meta-humor – often on tough subjects like terrorism and religion – that’s more repetitive performance art than ‘real jokes’ at times. Which is precisely why it’s amazing. Check out his ‘Stand Up Comedian’ set – naughtily available in full on YouTube – and his ‘Comedy Vehicle’ series for the BBC.)

In any case, Lee has had an interesting relationship with ‘making things’ because of his history both writing and producing for comedy as well as theater – notably co-creating Jerry Springer: The Opera and being targeted en masse by protesters along the way.

The book, which is in majority annotated transcripts of 3 of his recent stand-up shows, also has narrative parts that talk about his life and method – and it’s clear he reaches way beyond the dick joke in an attempt to introduce theatricality into stand-up. But Lee is also caustic on how comedy is seen, and I thought this part particularly quotable:

“Comparisons between comedians and priests are a cliche of comedy criticism. ‘Bill Hicks was more than a comedian, he was a preacher’, offers some fuzz-faced pothead loser on every documentary you’ve ever seen about the self-styled ‘Shiva The Destroyer’ of stand-up. Why is preacher ‘more’ than comedian? Why are comedians regarded as being so low in status that the most flattering thing you can do is compare them favourably to almost any other form of performer, public figure or artist?”

This definitely set off some thoughts for me about how I explain video games to others. When I start conversations with ‘random people’ at parties or family gatherings about the fact I work in/around video games, I have been known to start with the plaintive lament: ‘They’re not all about shooting people in the head’.

This qualifying statement may say more about my own insecurities – as an almost 40-year old guy who’s worked around games for over two decades and loves them dearly – than the state of the medium itself. But it also speaks to fears over perception of video games – over what we’ve spent much of our lives immersed in – which is exactly what Stewart Lee is referencing in the above quote, with regards to stand-up comedy.

[SIDENOTE: In point of fact, I’m actually fine with FPS-es. I enjoy plenty of ‘pure fun’ blast-y games like the Geometry Wars franchise, and a lot of the furore over Grand Theft Auto V of late hasn’t sat right with me because in my mind, it’s equal-opportunity awful to all. So please don’t mistake me for one of ‘those puritans’ who insist all games should be ‘hard work’. If indeed ‘those puritans’ exist – which I suspect they don’t.

Just let’s be sure that we let people create and play the kind of games they want. Let’s criticize, by all means, if things seem lazily mischaracterized. But let’s embrace and build up alternatives, and leave those who enjoy certain types of games to enjoy them.]

Generally, after that slightly self-effacing intro re: heads and shooting, I go on to explain to my party companion or elderly family member (or, on one occasion, a Dame of the British Empire) that yes, there can be games without 99% cranial shattering in them. For example, I say jauntily, there’s this game called Cart Life that makes you live – yes, really live, without maps and hints – the life of a low-income food cart vendor.

The game quite efficiently subverts a lot of the normal paradigms of ‘leveling up’ in video games. At the same time, it puts you in the shoes of someone who has a lot to juggle, and giving you real-life (in-game) consequences to fouling up.

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Looking at the Metacritic page for Cart Life right now, we can see some of this clash in full effect. Cart Life is actually very provocative in places, as can be seen by one of the user reviews, from Kitouski:

Gripes with the game itself would include the inability to pause the game at all. Any time while you’re playing the game, whether that be walking from point a to point b, having a conversation and even opening help files to understand how to play the game and the clock is ticking and you have no way to stop it. Many features in the game exist to try to give a painfully realistic feel where you can waste time and must constantly satisfy needs to survive so whether the inability to pause was intentional or not is beyond me.

While many of the frustrating features of the game make it what it is, the inability to pause the game is simply pushing it. I couldn’t imagine any other reason it would be excluded given how easy that should be to program in. Maybe it was the designer’s idea of a joke, but there’s quite a bit of irony when life’s calling and you have to use the bathroom or take a call but you can’t because you’ll character will starve and it’ll be 1am by the time you get back without closing the game.”

It’s interesting that Cart Life was sold on Steam but is now open-source and free. This is partly because of the amount of unsquashable bugs generating complaints, I think. But perhaps it’s also partly because design decisions like this are antithetical to paradigms built up over 30+ years. This wasn’t ‘the designer’s idea of a joke’, it was a deliberate design decision, and game creator Richard Hofmeier confirms as much in posts on his forums, saying:

“The minutes are too brief, the instructions too sparse, the distractions too numerous and the necessary tasks are too complex. However, in my defense, it isn’t configured this way simply to be difficult. In order for Cart Life to do its job, the game must remain indifferent and it’s you that must improve. To construct the game otherwise would be dishonest, I think… the unceasing clock is at the core of this game, dammit!”

Of course, nobody who bought the game on Steam checked the ‘I am willing to give up basic features I expect to have within this game in order for you to make a point’ tickbox. (And luckily, there’s the ability to Alt-Tab out to ‘pause’ the game in the standalone version, which still makes the artistic point while allowing pausing for practical means.)

But then, nobody came to a Stewart Lee gig after ticking the box that said ‘please repeat an irony-laden terrible joke about the director of The Ice Storm so many times that it becomes either hilarious or torpid’. Perhaps it’s all to do with what you’re expecting from the box that you’ve mentally filed the activity in. But there’s joy and new territory in that subversion, and if we stamp it _all_ out, ruthlessly, we lose a lot.

And now I come to think of it, Cart Life sits snugly alongside Papers, Please, another title that brings real-life moral complexities into games in an intelligently subversive and less paradigm-busting way. The essential paradoxes of making your quota to support your family, while controlling the fates of other citizens and the regime, is the kind of challenge that engages your values as well as your mind.

This is probably a better example – not least because Lucas Pope doesn’t break any major rules, gameplay mechanics-wise, while making his delicious subversion cake. And to me, that’s a good thing, and it leads to wonderful places.

Titles like this important to me (and you, and video games) simply because they make you think about something besides the visceral, and even go a step beyond the cerebral.

ppleaseSo I don’t think it’s controversial to say that the moral muscle is under-exercised in games to date, and games like the two I’ve mentioned do a great job of showing that. But sometimes nowadays it _is_ controversial, because you can quite easily be dragged into the ‘you don’t want games to be fun’ debate.

No, I think what I want is for some games to be fun, some games to be cerebral, some games profoundly moral, and many games a mix of all three. And I want to pick – on any given day – which one or ones I want to play. You probably want that too, right?

To end, here’s another notable quote from Stewart Lee’s book on stand-up comedy, this one with some hope in it. Maybe it’s the same kind of hope that I’m feeling about where games are going, and what games are increasingly being seen as. It’s the story of being a bit downtrodden and then realizing that the medium you work in is only as good as the work you do – or facilitate. It’s a happy message – couched in a bit of a sour-faced one – for 2015:

“When I was working on Jerry Springer: The Opera at the National Theatre, Nicholas Hynter called Richard Thomas and me in to discuss his anxieties about the end of the first act, which he didn’t feel was working. ‘You have to stop thinking like comedians,’ he said, his apparently endless patience finally exhausted, ‘and start thinking like theater practitioners’. It was a slip of the tongue that served as a reminder of our status.

In the world of the arts, a comedian, despite all the skills they pick up in the harshest environments, is never more than ‘trade’. But… I realized I was more than happy with that… while stand-up’s sandy coastline was mapped, its uncharted interior still hid vast swathes of fertile territory. There was a lifetime in this.”

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