by Leigh Alexander
January 12, 2010
[Gamasutra news director Leigh Alexander looks at Molleindustria's Every Day The Same Dream and how it is -- and isn't -- like other "art games", to great success on all fronts.]
Every Day The Same Dream is the latest endeavor from Molleindustria's Paolo Pedercini, developed in just six days for the Experimental Gameplay Project's "art game" theme. In the words of its creator, it's a game about "alienation and refusal of labour" -- and it also turns out to be a demonstration of why games are better suited to some artistic statements than any other medium.
It's a short game -- really, more experiment than not, although it just manages to stand on its own as an experience powerful for its brevity. The player is a faceless, vaguely art-deco stick figure cast in a black and white world; using only the arrow keys, he must commute to his office.
And that's all, essentially -- arrive at the figure's cubicle, and the player will have to start the same rote day all over again. You could almost call it Orwellian if not for its modern vibe and clean, chic lines: Plain suit, endless march of identical cars, subtly alarming rows of office drones who look exactly like you.
The game knows that the player's first thought, upon obeying the instructions and arriving at work, will be how to disrupt this soulless routine (a mysterious old lady in our drone-hero's elevator will offer subtle clues if it's not immediately clear). So the player's task very quickly becomes finding ways to subvert the limitations of the world in which the protagonist lives.
The game's ultimate conclusion, once the player has discovered all the possible avenues of subtle disobedience, is less satisfying than the lead-up, but it's not useful to evaluate Every Day The Same Dream on its narrative or "message."
There's often a temptation, with art games, to analyze what they are trying to "say." Every Day The Same Dream is most useful when viewed as an example of how the specific nature of video games -- with interface, interaction and natural player tendencies -- can be used to offer experiences that passive media can't possibly.
A world rendered in two dimensions, where left and right are the only comprehensible inputs, suits the world Pedercini has built to challenge its hero; the game is designed specifically for a player's natural tendency to explore and push the boundaries of game design. And their desire to do so organically dovetails with the wishes of the drone-hero: The player wants to test the constraints of the game world just as much as the character wants to test the rules of his.
Next-generation commercial games march ever-closer to the holy grail of immersion and realism. Audiences criticize invisible walls, artificial constraints, and all the places where players' reality is interrupted by the artifice of design. Rather than combat this artifice, Every Day The Same Dream employs it, and by itself makes a compelling case for the power of design to be the message, rather than a simple conveyance.
It's an approach familiar to many games we refer to as "art games" -- Jonathan Blow's rewind mechanic in Braid has thematic value to the game's message; Tale of Tales' The Graveyard makes its statement in allowing the player to experience frustration in controlling the avatar of an elderly woman.
But Every Day The Same Dream stands out because it avoids traditional "art game" pitfalls. Firstly, it doesn't tip its hand too early. Writer and designer Emily Short recently criticized Steven Lavelle's Home for being evident about its "message" from the beginning, for example. Her article notes that these overt conventions may be poignant when players first experience them, but that too many games where mechanics alone drive at a "point" will soon lose their impact for anyone.
Secondly, Every Day The Same Dream succeeds because it's not too heavy-handed. Short's editorial also mentions The Graveyard for making effective use of interaction -- but not being especially satisfying to the player. Rather than tell the player how to think, Every Day The Same Dream allows itself to be thought-provoking.
For artists, the balance between being literal and being vague is quite challenging -- and striking that balance correctly is crucial to the success of a work. Every Day The Same Dream achieves this, for the most part.
Players may not realize that their existentialist struggle is reflected in the gameplay itself until they've already completed the game. The mechanics serve the experience; they aren't the experience in and of themselves.
It's far more nuanced from a narrative standpoint than other games that have dealt with ideas of constraint, repetition and futility. Most interesting at all about its approach is that it derives impact not from enforcing what players cannot do -- as with Home -- but from adding maximum impact to that which they can do.
Even though it's an experiment -- if it were fiction, it'd be flash fiction, not a short story -- it holds subtle but important lessons for the school of game design that aims to leverage, not transcend, the conventions of interactivity.