The Television Crew

Eric Murnane, University of Central Florida
Laura Okkema, University of Central Florida

Editor’s Note: The Television Crew is a meta-game in which the authors have used the Twine platform to compose the critical essay. The essay below is extracted from the original work for consistency. We recommend that the reader right-click on the link to open the Twine work in a new tab.

Working on this project has been trying in ways that are often not associated with the making of games. The story at the core of “The Television Crew” is true, based on the childhood experiences of Eric. In one form or another, he has been trying to tell this particular story for years, but the biggest obstacle has always been the exhausting emotional work to put these experiences (even in the form of creative nonfiction) on the page. There is considerable push/pull between the sad but still hopeful child and the adult who understands those experiences but is considerably more jaded for that knowledge. The game itself represents part reflection, part confessional, part social commentary. Twine (as much for its history as for its features) represents an ideal medium for this kind of game. Salter points out “Twine games offer an alternative to these models [Self/Other], and often serve dual purposes as explorations or creative outlets for the Self of the creator that then become lenses into playing through the choices (and systematic oppressions) of the Other” (6). Historically, Twine has been a space for storytelling that is on this border, a place to tell of the raw and the hurt. A story that took over twenty years to get out there felt very at home in this environment.

Ultimately, the call for this journal was the deciding factor to make a game instead of writing a traditional piece of fiction. Using the medium of video game made sense as a way to put players in the experience rather than observing it. Schott, in recalling a conversation with one of the creators of That Dragon, Cancer says, “Ryan Green explains how ‘videogames unlike any other mediums allow you to linger in spaces…I think videogames allow you to rest in that space better than anything else.’ The game removes the desire to advance as efficiently and quickly as possible” (6-7). Certainly, there are games where the end is the be all and end all. However, the goal to explore, to really take in the space has always been a part of the medium. In “The Television Crew,” the player is encouraged to see everything. A single play through is not very long, but because of a variable which is tracking the player’s movements, it is impossible to see everything on the first try. The game is tracking the number of turns that the player is taking, and ready or not, the crew arrives. In subsequent play throughs, the player is just as aware of the details and choices which occurred in previous plays as they are of what has happened this time. Juul explains that design decisions “present a fictional world and determine what players can and cannot do at the same time” (163). In this case, each iteration of “The Television Crew” is a snapshot of this life. These decisions are everyday but not trivial. Available dialog options in the interview are shaped by what the player has seen in that instance. What they do, what they remember, these little things determine what is on the character’s mind when the bright lights are on, and they must supply an answer.

The game asks the player to see experiences within the game with knowledge that the character may not possess. The story itself is fairly pedestrian. It is a family getting ready for an interview. However, all of the things around this interview are telling. When discussing this kind of game, Zagal notes that these minutiae are “not exotic, extreme, or fantastical circumstances, they’re mundane.” (12). However, this everyday life experience “allow[s] the player to project (or reveal) moral virtues on to the game’s characters (take the moral perspective of the characters)” (12). In essence, by seeing these characters in their everyday lives, we are able to understand them, and ideally empathize with them. The core of the story is the arrival of a TV crew who are filming as part of the local station’s Christmas charity drive. This kind of moment is a useful one, as it encapsulates the paradox which is our primary relationship with the poor.

That paradox often plays out in the following way. We recognize that poverty is not good (a gross over simplification but bear with us on this). Therefore, when opportunities arise to help the poor, we ought to take them. We ought to help. This line of thinking is engrained in every major religion and therefore heavily permeates society. However, this ideology often finds itself at odds (especially in the West) with another core belief which is that people should earn the things that they have. Now, in a just society, hard work leads to positive outcomes. For those who are successful (a fuzzy term, but here let us say that this means a degree of economic comfort), this is apparent. These people put in the hours, got the big account, became a physician, made a thriving small business out of nothing. This system worked for said people. It is thus advantageous for those who benefit from a society to incorporate those values into their own identity. Van De Mieroop posits that “the construction of identity emerges at the time of speaking and it is not some kind of pre-existing resource that is explicitly crafted beforehand and then copied in the interview afterwards. Rather, it is in the narrative performance itself that identities are negotiated with their interlocutors” (567). Essentially, we best understand ourselves when we are forced to articulate it in the moment. We tell a story, and all the trappings of narrative cohesion find their way into the production. Certainly (old money not withstanding), the successful person worked hard. Of course, they studied and put their nose to the grindstone. There was likely some manner of hardship along the way. As we are always the heroes of our own stories, there simply isn’t room for systemic violence in this kind of story. In isolation, there is not even necessarily anything wrong with a personal narrative of success like this.

The issue arises when those well-off folks look at someone living paycheck to paycheck, a bankruptcy hearing on the books, and more credit card companies calling daily than they know what to do with. If it is the case that we live in a just society, then this person who is trying their best should be doing well. However, they are not. Thus, there is a great amount of societal pressure to arrive at the conclusion that this person has some kind of failing. They must be irresponsible or lazy. It should be clear that these two beliefs (that we ought help the poor and that poverty is a moral failing) are incompatible. Therefore, the only solution to such an issue is to distribute the beliefs into different aspects of life. This is how we arrive at social media posts about “welfare queens” (a truly loathsome term) from individuals who volunteer at soup kitchens on the holidays.

Truly, the holidays represent moments in which we briefly abandon our worst thoughts about other people. The choice of a memory of Christmas charity is no accident. By putting players in this home at this moment, we have created a space where they can see the shadow of society’s judgement over them even as they are preparing for what by all rights should be a moment of celebration. The point then is to ask players to interrogate their own biases through empathy. The structure of the narrative asks the player to be this person, walk a mile in their shoes. Gee notes that “[v]ideo games are a technology that allows us to deal with other people’s stories as if they had been handed to us” (357). In this case, the player is given a story of a child who believes that this is the best of all possible worlds. Certainly, the narrator would pick up on Voltaire’s irony in ways that are only possible upon reflection. The main character’s hope then is an invitation to the audience to explore this world. This isn’t to say that youth makes the character blind. Cassiman explains this kind of “tacit knowledge” as “something we know, and yet are unable to articulate” (59). That’s part of the role of the memories throughout the story. The player experiences the memory of the character lying their ass off, telling “the suit” that everything is fine because if they don’t, child protective services will break up their family. The principle difference between the narrator and the character in “The Television Crew” is that the character thinks that this is all there is while the narrator knows better. On this day which ostensibly is supposed to be happy, all the weight of a million other moments press down on this child.

The player can use these moments to contextualize the choices with which they are presented in the moment. To be clear, those choices are not great, and there is no way to markedly improve the standing of the character by playing the game. There will be no Daddy Warbucks. Kuznestova explains that this kind of approach forces the player “to experience a sense of powerlessness” (44). The point of this game is not to fix things for the character. The whole game is a memory. The choices are what-ifs played out years later, musing about what could have been done differently. Because memory is so fuzzy, any possible play through could be what really happened, but that is inconsequential. As every possibility in the multiplicity represents a part of the character’s identity, they are all valid. Equally, the choices are all fruitless. The crew will come, the story on the news will be saccharine regardless of the answers given, and they will disappear. Returning to Kuznetsova, “[w]hen players are presented with choices that do not influence the game world in a meaningful way (as is the case with denied agency), or when the mechanics offered to them explicitly enter into conflict with narrative incentives (in cases of deliberate ludonarrative dissonance), players are encouraged to approach their in-game actions from a perspective that favours critical evaluation over purely ludic reasoning” (124). If one cannot get the “good” ending, then there is no system-level pressure to make the “right” choice.

The game is designed to ask the player to move through the house, interacting with others or simply exploring. Ryan would call this kind of experience a “playable story” in which the object is simply “to observe the evolution of the storyworld” (46). This exploration, however, cannot be done in a single instance of the game. Mukherjee explains it as follows: “[T]hese narratives keep overlapping and there is both difference and repetition amongst the countless potential or actualised trajectories” (133). In the case of this game, there are more credible options available to the player than turns before the arrival of the crew. Each play through, therefore, is its own narrative, with consequences for choices made, and consequences for choices not made. There are numerous variables tracking decisions made by the player over the course of the game, and this serves as a way to create a unique experience for multiple traversals of the game. When the crew does arrive, and the player participates in the interview, the choices given to the player are shaped by what they have done in the game. Instead of a traditional branching narrative where the player can go far afield based on the options given, the outcomes are often quite similar. Friedhoff notes that “[p]layers coming to a Twine game may assume that the game will behave like a CYOA” (6). Those unfamiliar with Twine are perhaps the most jarred by this change. There is no heroic ending in this kind of game. The crew will always arrive after seven turns. The interview will always paint a cheery veneer on the life circumstances of this home. Exploration, then, is not about finding all of the possible endings. It is instead a way to get a complete(ish) snapshot of this family, their home life, and what it means to live their life.

Of course, the memories do complicate matters significantly in terms of the overall chronology of the story. Temporality is a bit messy in “The Television Crew.” Much of this has to do with the framing of a game. The core events of the game are a memory. To an extent, this is an adult imagining what they could have said/done in this particular moment. Presumably, among the options presented to the player, there is one which “really” happened. This is demonstrated by the difference between the voice of the main character in dialog and the descriptive narration presented. We often consider what we might have done in a moment, and this kind of hindsight is often nonlinear. Despite advice from writing professors to the contrary, the clickable memories within the game are something of a flashback in a flashback. They represent details which provide context to the present moment. As this is an adult reflecting on childhood experiences, these are meant to help paint a clearer picture and also demonstrate the stream of the player character’s consciousness. Some of these events did occur after this one day in the trailer, but this is hardly incongruent as we often apply a kind of retroactive continuity to our experiences when remembering. If the complicated relationship with time that “The Television Crew” has leaves the player feeling a bit ambivalent, this is a good thing. An ideal takeaway from this game is a feeling of discomfort. It should take a while to unpack.

If the game resists easy answers, that is not to say that it resists the player. Considerable effort was made to ensure that the game allows the player to put themselves in the position of the character. The second person narration serves the purpose of obscuring gendered assumptions. The fact that the home is two bedroom ensures that even sharing a bedroom with two brothers does not tell the player to be a particular gender. Similarly, the art was created with an eye for identification. The player sees the home. They do not see the people who live there. This is intentional. Meadows explains an avatar as “an interactive social representation of a user” (23). In this case, the game’s creators do not want you to see some child. They want you, the player, to see yourself. DeMarle notes that “[w]hen gamers talk about playing…they talk about what they did or felt when facing a specific moment in the game. They tell their own immediate-level story” (78). Yes, the second person is jarring. However, this affordance also removes some of the space between player and character. We, of course, recognize that the character is not us. However, getting the player to buy into this fiction, even for a little while, puts some space between the player and their own stories, asking instead that they believe this happened to them.

None of this is to say that this is the perfect approach to getting anyone to think about the ills of the world. “The Television Crew” is very specifically asking the player to think about poverty. Asking the player to see poverty through the eyes of a child who has lived it and knows nothing but it felt like an appropriate approach. Having said that, pretending that there are no racial elements to poverty would of course be unbelievably naïve. Both creators of this game are white and created “The Television Crew” with all the lived experience of being white. This is to say that we absolutely have blind spots. However, creating an environment in which the player can assume that this family looks like them feels like a way to engender identification without intentionally excluding people. Returning to DeMarle. “game writers are co-writing stories with people they never meet: the players” (71). We want the player to paint themselves into these experiences, and not telling them what these people look like is a sincere (imperfect) attempt to invite people to the table.

There is an increasing push in our collective consciousness for polarization. The outcome of this is that there is an us, and there is a them. This kind of othering has the unfortunate consequence of categorizing people in terms of whether or not they hold a particular set of beliefs which are either complimentary or opposed to one’s own. However, we lose something in the shuffle when we do this. We tend to forget about the people. It is very easy to say that people (in the abstract) should get out there and work hard. It is easy to say that poverty (in the abstract) is the result of people doing something wrong. When it is this family, with specific problems, real relationships, and visible suffering, it suddenly becomes much more difficult to arrive at a value judgement about their character. By asking for empathy, by asking the player to believe that this is their family (even for the span of time it takes to play the game), we hope that players will feel something which challenges the status quo which we all carry around. If this work accomplishes only one thing, we sincerely hope it is a move away from the abstract notion of people in favor of treating individuals as such. The individual is complicated and nuanced, and we know this. We know it when we drop everything for a loved one whose life is falling apart. We know it when sifting through a burnt home in the faint hope of finding just one family photo. We know it when the love of our lives squeezes our hand because the doctor can’t find the right way to say cancer. However, when we forget this simple truth, we close the door to empathy. Hopefully, this work, in some small way, helps us to take a breath when making assumptions.

References

Cassiman, Shawn A. “Of Witches, Welfare Queens, and the Disaster Named Poverty: The Search for a Counter-Narrative.” Journal of Poverty, vol. 10, no. 4, 2007. pp. 51-66.

DeMarle, Mary. “Nonlinear Game Narrative.” Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames. edited by Chris Bateman, 1st ed. Charles River Media, 2007, pp 71-84.

Friedhoff, Jane. “Untangling Twine: A Platform Study.” Digital Games Research Association Conference. 2013.

Gee, James Paul. “Stories, Probes, and Games.” Narrative Inquiry, vol. 21, no. 2, 2011, pp. 353-357, Accessed 15 December 2018.

Juul, Jesper. Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. MIT Press, 2011.

Kuznetsova, Evgeniya. “Trauma in Games: Narrativizing Denied Agency, Ludonarrative Dissonance and Empathy Play.” Thesis, University of Alberta, 2017.

Meadows, Mark Stephen. I Avatar: The Culture and Consequences of Having a Second Life. New Riders, 2008.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. “From Narrative Games to Playable Stories: Toward a Poetics of Interactive Narrative.” Storyworlds: A Journal of Narrative Studies, vol. 1, 2009, pp. 43-59.
Salter, Anastasia. “Playing at Empathy: Representing and Experiencing Emotional Growth through Twine Games.” IEEE International Conference on Serious Games and Applications for Health, Orlando Florida, pp. 1-8, 2016.

Schott, Gareth. “That Dragon, Cancer: Contemplating Life and Death in a Medium that Has Frequently Trivialized Both.” Digital Games Research Association Conference, vol. 14, no. 1, DIGRA, 2017.

Van De Mieroop, Dorien. “Identity Negotiations in Narrative Accounts about Poverty.” Discourse & Society, vol. 22, no. 5, 2011, pp. 565-591.

Zagal, Jose P. “Heavy Rain: Morality the Quotidian, in Inaction, and the Ambiguous.” Vice City Virtue: Moral Issues in Digital Game Play (2011).