Friday, November 10, 2017

Behold the bildungsspiel: the coming-of-age game

NOTE: There are somewhat vague spoilers about the general plot for several games in this post.

US high school students are generally required to read novels like The Catcher In The Rye -- stories about growing up and finding a place in society. Many of these students also learn about the technical literary criticism term for these narratives, the German term bildungsroman. (Bildungs means "educational" and roman means "novel", and so we usually translate this as "coming-of-age novel")

While there are many well-recognized coming-of-age films, I'd like to figure out the equivalent bildungsspiel -- the coming-of-age game. This also seems like an especially urgent genre for game criticism to consider, since there are so many children and young people who plays games, and form their identities partly around these games. (Meanwhile: something like opera has a much weaker association with youth culture.)

One small obstacle to this critical project is that "bildungsspiel" already means something. Based on my cursory Google searches, it seems to refer to rudimentary educational toys for very young children, to help them develop basic cognitive abilities and motor skills. Curse the German toy industry!...

Well, I'm taking the word back. Let's talk about the bildungsspiel, which isn't for babies, it's for teens!

Gone Home is maybe the most famous bildungsspiel, with its sympathetic characters and setting. While I enjoyed witnessing the main protagonists blossom into their sexuality and everything, Gone Home resonated with me more because it's also about another phenomenon of growing up -- the times when you realize that your parents are humans too, with their own histories, quirks, dreams, and flaws. As you explore the empty house, you learn that the dad character is dealing with his own masculinity issues and failed writing career, while the mom character is possibly considering an affair with a hunky forest ranger. Mooommmmm! (2-4 hours)

We Know The Devil is a visual novel game that plays off the "magical girl" genre. Traditionally, magical girls summon forth mythical reserves of femininity to destroy their anxieties, and that self-confidence seeps back into their non-heroic ordinary lives. We Know The Devil cleverly flips this script so that the transformation involves the devil incarnating inside you -- to survive, you must "own" your anxiety on your own terms. At first, "The Devil" seems like the most important part of the title, but by the end, "We Know" is more significant. In this sense, maybe it's kind of an anti-bildungsspiel that argues the best relationship with society is to defy it and destroy it. (2-3 hours)

Night In The Woods is much more of a Catcher In The Rye type of game. The player character Mae is a charismatic jerk who feels that life has been really unfair to her, and she suffers from a lot of personal problems and anxiety -- but then she learns that life is unfair to a lot of other people too, and the community she left behind kind of resents her for the choices and opportunities that she takes for granted. The stress of poverty is something we usually try to protect children from, but once they grow up, they have to navigate their own relationship with money and power. I don't want to spoil what happens, but let's just say that Mae learns about how desperate people end up doing desperate things. (6-8 hours?)

Little Party is a short story game about your daughter's all-nighter art party. Playing as a very patient mother, you talk to your child and her friends, and witness their creative process. Because you don't play as one of the younger people, you don't have access to their thoughts or interiority. Instead, you just make some guacamole and hope they figure everything out. You care about them and worry about them, but you literally can't make their choices for them. It brilliantly inverts the format into a reverse bildungsspiel, with carefully-paced discoveries and a wonderful climax at the end. (30 minutes)

Butterfly Soup is a visual novel that's about 4 young Asian women who play high school baseball and get in zany situations. (There's a surprisingly high amount of baseball in this. But don't let that dissuade you.) In all the other games here, girls are expected to be thoughtful and contemplative beyond their years -- but here is a game where some of my favorite characters were young women who are brash, arrogant, silly, and say all kinds of petty infantile shit -- and it's hilarious. Most fictional women in games are often either (a) dead or (b) under a lot of pressure to be perfect strong role models who always rise above their challenges. So it's refreshing to see these girls relax and make sex jokes sometimes too. (There's also a very high amount of deep emotion and feelings in this too, when you're not in the mood for poop jokes.) (2-3 hours)

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One last observation: all these amazing coming-of-age games are about young women. Coincidence or no? Hmm.