For a second you contemplate the possibility of a divine presence at work hereâ€¦ Probably not.
It is human nature to long for unity. Reconciliation of life, the universe, and everything else, tightly structured theater, and “one true sentence” are ideals vastly different in scope but fundamentally related in that they reflect our desire for completion and perfection. When human experience makes such idealistic concepts seem illusory, existential philosophies are born. Absurdism, introduced by French philosopher and writer Albert Camus, is one such system of thought. Arguing that human existence is essentially meaningless, absurdism asserts that searching for a fundamental truth harmonizing human existence and the universe at large – for intrinsic value and perfection – is pointless and will lead only to despair. However, by becoming aware of the absurd conflict inherent in longing for meaning in a meaningless universe, one can find freedom from fruitless hope and live simply for the sake of living. As Camus wrote in his 1948 essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, “people have played on words and pretended to believe that refusing to grant a meaning to life necessarily leads to declaring that it is not worth living. In truth, there is no necessary common measure between these two judgments.” The lack of meaning to human existence does not mean that life is not worth living. Accordingly, absurdist artists believe that the struggle to perfect art to some ideal is absurd – as there is no intrinsic value, there is no “perfect art.” Therefore, the absurdist artist strives not for unreachable perfection but to mirror the absurd human condition. Video games are a form of art particularly associated with a “perfectionist” approach to creation: their strong association with specific genres furthers the notion that there are ideal “perfect” games that should be worked towards. Consequently, absurdist games upset the evolution of typical games, twisting mechanics that were accepted as part of a genre’s progression toward perfection in order to challenge players’ conception of a “well made game” and further a virtual absurdist philosophy: one should game for the sake of gaming.
Perfectionism is more metaphysical than one would initially believe. As Plato theorized that all things in our world are imperfect derivations of their ideal Form, in our art we may strive to realize a perfect variation of a certain category. Such is the philosophic justification for developing according to a specific genre, repeating and honing elements of past creations through direct or indirect extension of their content. In his 2008 essay, Sequel: The Videogame, game critic-philosopher Alex Kierkegaard (Icycalm) argues that “every game which belongs to a clearly-defined genre or sub-genre is effectively a different version of the same game as all other games belonging to the same genre or sub-genre.” Game developers, then, are reportedly obliged to perfect rather than reinvent their genre of choice. Imagine a developer who adheres to such beliefs. He spends his days tweaking minute details of established level progression formulas, balancing playable characters, and structuring a storyline in the hope of creating the one true role playing game. This developer happens to be the protagonist of a Lovecraftian horror story. He is seized by eldritch tentacle beasts and whisked away to the very heart of the universe, where he witnesses the blind idiocy of creation. A true philosopher, the developer contemplates the conflict between his human desire for unity and the cold, inhuman universe. He measures his daily struggles in the context of the immeasurable totality of existence, and his once conceivable world begins to seem strange and alien. He is struck by the absurd: the simultaneous existence of his own innate longing for meaning – for perfection – and the meaningless and unreasonable nature (as far as humans can perceive) of the universe.
French philosopher Albert Camus identified this irreconcilable conflict in Sisyphus. Declaring that “what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart,” Camus argued that absurdity is the one intrinsic truth of human existence. By giving up hope for meaning, unity, and perfection, but continuing to live in spite of the absurd, we can experience freedom from despair, living according to the only human truth in an otherwise inhuman universe. Camus’ philosophy enchanted artists disillusioned with their species after the inhuman atrocities of World War II. Most famously, absurdist dramatists interpreted the philosophy on the stage, renouncing the futile struggle to achieve a “perfect” production in a universe without comprehensible value, therefore freeing themselves to create art more suited to the absurd human condition. They dismissed the ideal of a “well-made” play, instead creating theater of the absurd. Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, in which two vagrants waiting for the arrival of a mysterious Godot pass the time by contemplating suicide, failing to effectively communicate, and, ultimately, doing nothing at all, is an archetypical example of absurdist theater. Eschewing dramatic structure (Godot features no conflict or plot, and hence no conclusion), Beckett’s famous play suggests that subjects as horrific as suicide are, in the context of absurd existence, trite and frivolous.
Aware of the absurdity of pursuing perfection and the freedom gained by giving up such a struggle, how would the absurdist game developer create art within his medium of choice? In games, the artist may create a particularly strong sense of absurdity by confusing the player’s mechanical expectations. Modern games are so strongly associated with particular formulas of play that the unease associated with counter-procedural mechanics is greatly magnified. Furthermore, games are uniquely suited to not only portray the absurd, but to demonstrate successful coping with it. In abstract terms, designing a game such that player actions that typically facilitate success or doom failure do not respond as predicted imparts the sense of confusion and meaninglessness central to absurdism. By requiring the player to relinquish their completionism to enjoy the game, absurd games can mirror Camus’ philosophic conclusion: that freedom and happiness can be found only in abandoning the pursuit of perfection.
Consider Space Funeral, an absurdist Japanese role playing game released by thecatamites in September 2010 (Windows only, developed in RPG Maker 2003) that features the adventures of the petulant Philip and a domineering abomination, Leg Horse. The JRPG genre’s constituent games feature particularly heavy mechanical guidelines. It has become expected, for instance, that the player progresses through such games by gaining some form of experience point (typically by defeating enemies). Players succeed by developing their characters, battling monster after monster in a process referred to (not without exasperation) as “grinding.” In Space Funeral, defeating enemies is mechanically pointless; the game is balanced (or rather, imbalanced) such that the player’s characters level up and become very powerful extremely quickly. Repeated combat is not necessary for success. The player can simply glide through the game, fighting if he choses and never worrying about being defeated. The game’s battle system even features an option to have combat automatically carried out by a simple artificial intelligence. This is counter to the JRPG genre’s evolution. Also typically required for victory in JRPGs is acquisition of items, armor, and armaments. Again, in Space Funeral this is totally unnecessary – the player never needs to worry about stocking up on health regeneration items or more powerful weapons and armor, simply because enemies are never powerful enough to warrant their use. In Space Funeral, there is an absurd conflict between the player’s expectation that perfection of their characters through experience gaining and item collecting will prove to be valuable, and the truth that such an ideal is completely meaningless.Given these circumstances, why even play the game? What motivation do players have to progress when they are not required to exercise the game’s mechanics? The fact that battling and collecting in Space Funeral are meaningless in the context of the larger game does not inevitably lead to the conclusion that they are not worth doing. To enjoy playing Space Funeral, one must abandon the longing for perfection that generations of character-development focused JRPGs have fostered. While fighting enemies and obtaining items are materially pointless, subjectively they are, quite simply, fun to do! A player might be able to complete the game without buying items from shops and avoiding conflict with the majority of enemies, but he would never discover the simple pleasures of hurling bibles at criminals and vaporizing ghosts with sentimental old movies. If he only visited areas required in the game’s progression, the player would never participate in a battle between swamp knights and the swamp dragon, and would never discuss weed with Dracula. He would never outfit Philip with new pajamas and would not arm Leg Horse out with razor-toed boots.
In Sisyphus, Camus contends that objectively meaningless actions are not necessarily unworthy of pursuit: by realizing the fundamental absurdity of existence and giving up hope for unity, completion, and value, one can free oneself from the pursuit of meaning and instead live for the sake of living. In absurd video games, a player who realizes the ultimately pointless nature of exercising the game’s superficial mechanics can free themselves from completionism and game for the sake of gaming.Space Funeral is a piece of absurdist art in that it was designed to evoke such realizations and reactions. But are typical games any less absurd? In non-absurdist non-interactive art, one may either experience the artist’s pointless pursuit of perfection or walk out of the theater. In the perfectionist game, however, the absurd-conscious player may play on his own terms. Emergent play, then, can be explained in terms of absurdism. Such a phenomenon is a testament to the power of interactive art. In an absurd world, game developers create absurd games. In absurd games, players inhabit an absurd world – and, perhaps, discover Camus’ philosophy all over again.