[[Playing the Hard Questions: A Review of Blocked In by Anastasia Salter and John Murray]]
by [[Caleb Andrew Milligan]]Anastasia Salter and John Murray introduce their hybrid Twine hypertext platformer game <a href="http://hyperrhiz.io/hyperrhiz21/games/5-blocked-in.html"; target="_blank">*Blocked In*</a> by citing Roger Ebert’s infamous argument that <a href="https://www.rogerebert.com/roger-ebert/video-games-can-never-be-art"; target="_blank">“Video Games Can Never Be Art”</a>; in this inaugural issue on “Digital Essayism,” we should ask then, but [[can a video game be an essay]]?
Salter and Murray present one playable way in which scholarship can be presented in the internet vernacular as part of *Hyperrhiz*’s special issue called “Buzzademia,” edited by Anne Cong-Huyen, Kim Brillante Knight, and Mark C. Marino. *Blocked In* is a brilliant, if all too brief, exemplar of [[an essay one can play.]]
[[Caleb Andrew Milligan->Title Page]] is Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities in the Writing and Digital Media Program at Pennsylvania State University, Berks College, where he specializes in electronic literature, embodied rhetorics, game studies, and media archaeology. His relevant scholarly work is published in *Computers and Composition Online*, *Paradoxa*, and *Hyperrhiz*. He is currently at work on his first book, *Novel Media: The Book, the Novel, and Post-digital Literature* for Cambridge University Press' new Elements in Digital Fiction series.If we will indulge the language of cinema that Ebert thinks is so superior, then let's recall the essay film, popularized by legendary filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. Or if we'd like to keep it in the internet vernacular, let's go with the more contemporary term of video essay, perfected I would argue by Taylor Ramos and Tony Zhou at their popular YouTube channel <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1GXv2C7vwX0"; target="_blank">Every Frame a Painting</a>.
Ramos and Zhou offer this advice for would be filmmaker: “Remember, video essays aren't essays. They're films.” So, in turn, we should strive for a videogame essay to *be* a videogame. Leaving Ebert's arguably wrongheaded opinion aside, let's declare that videogames can be art, and that artform may take the shape of an essay.
Scholars before Salter and Murray, <a href="http://cconlinejournal.org/milligan.html"; target="_blank">myself included</a>, have done the work to answer yes, a videogame can be an essay. But their game *Blocked In* uniquely combines both hypertext aesthetics embraced by the e-literati with more traditional platformer logics historically beloved by “gamers” to not just ask the hard questions about videogames but encourage us as [[readers to play them.->an essay one can play.]]
*Blocked In* begins by asking the reader-player a question which has [[historically torn games studies in two]]: “What is a game?” Is it [[“a set of rules and obstacles with a way to win?”]] Or is it [[“an experience, with worlds to explore and characters to encounter?”]]
Whatever option one may choose, the game then launches players into a traditional platformer that requires reader-players to navigate their avatar through brief stages of variously perilous pixels and pitfalls, earning green blocks that unlock further passages of their argument’s main text. It from there embraces its hybridity as both text-based and pixelated platformer game, alternating between and often combining clickable lexias that spell out Salter and Murray’s argument and jumping puzzles that perform it. It is a fascinating piece from two of electronic literature’s leading figures advocating for the continued integration of e-lit and game studies, one that merits a quick play and longer ponder.
In this short review, I discuss the considerable strengths and occasional weaknesses of *Blocked In* as a videogame essay worth spotlighting in line with the mission of *the digital review* to advance born-digital scholarship. Different links above allow reader-players to access different routes this review may take toward arriving at [[a potential conclusion.]]
Salter and Murray in part have made *Blocked In* to look back on the infamous debate within games studies circles concerning narratology vs. ludology. Should games be studied as inventive new medial ways to present storytelling experiences, or be studied first and foremost for how they're made and played? This debate has played out in divisive and even ugly ways, especially as the gender politics of who's on whose side become more clear: it often ends up being a default patriarchal position to focus on games from a purely ludological perspective.
Which is why Salter and Murray make quick moves to dismiss the strictly ludological approach through both [[game design->“a set of rules and obstacles with a way to win?”]] and [[narrative organization.->“an experience, with worlds to explore and characters to encounter?”]]*Blocked In* as an exercise in game design is a fun, rewarding, and ultimately thought-provoking experience that gets reader-players to consider what they're reading through how they're playing.
Regular readers of electronic literature, if not browsers of the internet in general, will quickly know to click hyperlinks to advance the portions of the game composed in Twine. As for the parts designed to proceed like a traditional arcade-style platformer, controls are relatively simple to pick up for most anyone familiar with the arrow keys on their computer keyboard. Right and left keys move the reader-player's pixleated block avatar right and left, while up prompts the block to jump, an essential mechanic to [[completing Salter and Murray's videogame essay.]]As an experience in storytelling, *Blocked In* presents a fascinating argument that deftly connects the disciplinary aftermath of debates over narratology and ludology to larger cultural ramifications in the field of game studies. Whether reader-players chose the ludological or narratological answer to the question “What is a game?” (or even the third option available: “A game isn't either of those things”), they proceed to say that, “Some people look at games through the lens of narrative.” From here they make sure to clearly prioritize that storytelling is a crucial part of the videogame experience, intimating that any methodology less is at best “ludo-centric” and at (its often) worst “ludo-fundamentalist,” in <a href="https://web.archive.org/web/20160301012646/https://normallyrascal.com/2015/01/13/why-i-said-ludo-fundamentalism/"; target="_blank">the words of Stephen Beirne</a> which they helpfully hyperlink out to.
Salter and Murray encourage us to think of videogames as much more than just fun, but as important cultural artifacts up to the snuff of great art (with all due respect to the memory of Ebert) or, in this purview, [[the best of electronic literature.]] Their argument is certainly brief, and *Blocked In* feels too short, but it manages to pack more punch than any fighting game to make a necessary argument that the future of game studies needs to work against reactionary tendencies “for rejecting change, for rejecting the weird, the narrative, the serious, the boundary-breaking in games.” As game studies allies itself with e-lit, maybe we can [[make that change start to happen->one last page offering the reader-player options of different free tools for making their own games.]] at various scale and in various spheres of influence.Ultimately, *Blocked In* is both videogame and essay in ways that demonstrate future potential for how each medium and genre can complement and enhance the strengths of one another. Salter and Murray speak to the future of games by saying it “isn’t just an academic argument: it’s a forum debate, a Twitter hashtag, a successful Steam Greenlight campaign and a failed Kickstarter.” They claim that is a future “we are defining…through not only what we play, but…most importantly what we make.” The game concludes then by asking [[“What will you make?”]], a question which hyperlinks to [[one last page offering the reader-player options of different free tools for making their own games.]]Using such a free tool, I have composed this review in Twine to take up the challenge that Salter and Murray proffer to fields such as e-lit. While *Blocked In* feels in some ways too short and too linear for a game that is part hypertext, it still does the incredible work of not only asking the hard questions, but performing them— and even calling upon the reader-player to perform it with them as active participant in the videogame experience. Salter and Murray show us that academic scholarship about born-digital media such as videogames and e-lit needs more critical-creative making to better engage with the changing narrative and ludic logics of the made.
Their videogame essay exemplifies the kind of work we can and even must continue to do going forward, the kind of work that *the digital review* will continue to promote [[for the good of the field(s).->Title Page]]Example softwares they mention include <a href="http://twinery.org/"; target="_blank">Twine</a>, Inform 7, Unity, and more. To their list I would like to humbly add <a href="https://ledoux.itch.io/bitsy"; target="_blank">Bitsy</a>, pixel grid-based editor for making small, retro graphic inspired games. Any of the tools they and I mention would be great for teaching the importance of analyzing born-digital media to students through practice making it themselves.
I have taught students how to use and make games in Twine and Bitsy in classes on topics such as electronic literature and digital humanities because I, like Salter and Murray, think there's something important about the work of getting behind the screen to better understand all that we access on its various forms— especially concerning videogames and game studies. *Blocked In* works well as a perfect example to show to students what kinds of important works of e-lit and e-crit [[we can make->“What will you make?”]] with easily and freely accessibly softwares. Salter and Murray utilize ludic components to great effect throughout their game, sometimes even frustratingly so. It is their express purpose to make sure the “player cannot move forward in reading without making it past simple platformer puzzles – thus, the act of interpreting and engaging with text demands participation, and even frustration for those not comfortable navigating the jumping and hazards.” This scheme is put to powerful subversive effect in one section that strands reader-players in a seemingly lava filled layer that they cannot really advance through or complete. The point becomes then *to lose* as each subsequent failed attempt unlocks passages of text that complicate our relationship to our pixelated block avatar and ask us to reevaluate our stance toward the games we play.
Sometimes [[all that losing and failure]] though can prove too frustrating to be enlightening, especially in those where the game expects reader-players to succeed to read further. *Blocked In* is a feat of impressive game design that is allowed to demand a certain level of proficiency from those engaging with it, like any videogame would, but some more precise and more generous work could have only helped hone its impact. Some of its directionality ends up feeling a little sluggish especially where jumping feels less intuitive than it needs to for certain jumping puzzles. And more importantly, as a videogame essay, it hints toward some of the most troubling tendencies of indie gaming and e-lit practices to eschew any form of tutorial or instruction that would make the experience more accessible than less.
Salter and Murray intentionally immerse their audience in the paradox of failure that Jesper Juul discusses in <a href="https://www.jesperjuul.net/artoffailure/"; target="_blank">*The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Videogames*</a>, in ways that work more than they don't at least. Videogames make us unhappy when we lose, but we keep playing them anyway. When we play *Blocked In*, it's to [[keep learning more from their incisive argument->“an experience, with worlds to explore and characters to encounter?”]] moreso than it is to [[finish and win.->a potential conclusion.]]If there were any small issue to be had with *Blocked In* as a written experiment in hypertext storytelling, it would be to critique just how linear the game turns out to be. Like some of e-lit's greatest works composed in various softwares such as Storyspace or Twine, Salter and Murray's game could have ventured into more avenues of nonlinearity, making it more possible to advance throughout in more meaningfully (and less arbitrarily) different ways. I would have even loved to have seen more play with the expectations of the essay genre they're gaming by including multiple or even contradictory conclusions.
But these points are more ruminating than reprimanding, as Salter and Murray have given us something special and worth emulating in future [[critical-creative]] making practice. Their videogame essay [[ends->a potential conclusion.]] up being a fascinating piece of born-digital scholarship, a playable artifact of what we might even call “e-crit.”My thanks to Sarah Laiola for [[this specific theoretical formulation.->the best of electronic literature.]]