The game itself suffers from a lot of problems. If I were to ignore the politics, there's plenty of production values to critique -- the characters have blobby sculpts, inconsistent lighting, and stilted voice acting -- the particles are really really awkward -- and the one thing I like is the floorplan, especially the cramped corner office you begin in, which feels like a pretty authentic detail of old NYC office buildings.
But who are we kidding, this game is totally a political work, and it is much more generous to the developers to interpret it that way. Most people are just going to talk about this game instead of actually playing it, which is OK, and that's what compels me to write about it: I think this is a very flawed conceptual work, and I want to talk about why that is.
(1) TECHNOLOGY. Using virtual reality was not a good idea for this project, especially in this early generation of VR where it is mostly positioned as a nascent platform and consumer market that desperately needs to prove itself. Anything using VR in these early years is, inherently, saying, "look at me, I'm using VR!"
That's an OK thing to say, but it centers the technology instead of what you're saying with the technology, which is probably not what you want to do for a 9/11 game that's supposedly about respect for the dead rather than how this cool new peripheral? To be clear, I think you could make a game that powerfully critiques Western attitudes toward the dead and who is allowed to talk about the dead; I don't think this is that game.
(2) METHODOLOGY. Can VR function as an "empathy machine"? Many others, myself included, argue against this idea -- but the opposition, other artists and nonprofits, at least try hard to let "the empathized" speak in their own voices. In Machine To Be Another, you are performing with another real-life human next to you; in Clouds Over Sidra, the artists worked with the United Nations to make a Syrian refugee camp VR documentary, narrated and guided by a girl living there. These works are still about tech, but they are arguing that tech can mediate meaningful direct conversations.
The developers of the 9/11 game are a group of young 20-something French game development students at ENJMIN, and I doubt they have any working relationship with any 9/11 organizations or survivors, who probably would've told them not to make this game. (If the team did collaborate with a subject expert, they certainly did a good job of not mentioning it to anyone, anywhere.)
If you want to make a game about someone else's real life pain, at the very least, you must talk to them and work with them! Yes, September 11 is, in many ways, "everyone's tragedy" -- but I don't think that is the game they tried to make.
(3) PURPOSE. This is a student project. That's important -- if it were a commercial project, it would clearly be disrespectful to profit from a national tragedy, but as an amateur artistic project, we judge it differently.
However, students projects usually exist to showcase technical skills, and this one is no different. That's why this game waits about 5 seconds at the end before locking you in its credits room, which feels really tactless here. And, I think, that's the problem.
Student showcase projects are usually about the students; we are supposed to marvel at their mocap implementation, the vastness of their 3D skybox, and their knowledge of VR usability design -- this functions as a portfolio piece, not a research project. (If it was a research project, then they did very little research, and barely discuss their methodology or research on their own website.)
The tactic kind of worked. They certainly got a lot of attention, but these students have also essentially banned themselves from a lot of the game festival circuit and game industry employment they were seeking. Every US studio is going to see "9/11 game" on their portfolio and CV, and go "uhhhh..." It doesn't really make for a good impression. Also, very few North American curators would put this in their show or festival. (An exhibition of 9/11 games would be really interesting, but, um, really dangerous in the US.)
For this reason, even if I really liked this game concept, I still would've advised them against making it, because it has a good chance of hurting their careers and prospects. (Maybe do it later in your career.)
* * *
If I were these students' teacher(s) I would've discouraged this concept as something they were not ready for -- and even if they were ready for it, they should spend more than just 3 months on it!
But even though I consider it to be ultimately a failure, at least it is an interesting failure that is very instructive. It provokes questions about art and spectacle, documentary, virtual reality, and the relationship of "student projects" to the game industry / what it means to be a game development student today.
I also believe a "better" 9/11 game is possible, it's just that this game isn't it. What would a "better" 9/11 game look like, to me? If I were forced to make a game about being in the towers, then I'd set these formal requirements upon myself:
- Screen-based, with conventional hardware and peripherals / "normalized technology"
- Made in collaboration with 9/11 organizations and/or survivors, the closer the relationship the better
- Ideally, don't even try for a realistic 3D art style, don't pretend to be "reality"
- Spend more than 3 measly months, ideally more on research than production
- Don't frame it as a student project, de-emphasize your identity as a developer, don't make it about you in the end, never show a developer credits screen except via a small button in the main menu.
- Document your research and methodology on your website, and show that you did the work of thinking about this
- Make a game about 9/11 that doesn't take place in the towers?
- Basically, discuss 9/11 from any thousands of other angles and perspectives, rather than the most obvious / literal / direct / unsubtle one?
- (Maybe make a game about the institutional failure of US healthcare systems to care for 9/11 survivors and their families? The "Dust Lady" lived as a powerful intersection of race, class, public health, and geopolitical events. Interview the angry, the dispossessed, the ones who fell through the cracks, and incorporate their stories, about how 9/11 is still killing so many people, years after. What is our relationship or responsibility to anyone who is dead? How do you face death, cope with death? Can video games even meaningfully talk about death, given how we have so thoroughly normalized it in games culture? What does it mean to die? What did it mean to die on 9/11?)
(Also, from the blog archives: my (flawed?) thinking on this, 4 years ago.)