Problem Attic is a game by Liz Ryerson that you can read about and play (for free!) on her website.
Any designed work can be decomposed into two different kinds of features: Intrinsic features and extrinsic features. An intrinsic feature is something we judge to be a non-reducible atom of actual value that the audience wants and the work provides—that is, the work’s purpose—while an extrinsic feature is anything that exists solely to realize that purpose, providing no actual value in itself. To design something we must first decide which intrinsic features we hope to provide and then do so as efficiently as possible by devising and iterating on a set of extrinsic ones. Here is a quick example: The intrinsic features of a hammer include ‘delivering impacts to objects’ and ‘inserting/removing nails from rigid structures’, and to best realize these we might iterate on any number of extrinsic ones (such as the hammer’s shape, the materials of which it is composed, or its manufacturing cost).
A product, which is a special kind of designed work, has at least two intrinsic features. One is to perform the task for which it was made; the other is to convince you to buy it. (The next time you hear the phrase ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ ask yourself whether the dissonance you’re discussing might actually stand between ‘what marketing decided would generate money’ and ‘what the designers defiantly attempted to produce’.)
Iterations on a design’s intrinsic features are transformative; they change what the work is on a fundamental level by changing what it does. (A hammer that cannot deliver impacts to objects is no longer, ontologically speaking, a hammer; it has become something else.) Iterations on a design’s extrinsic features are merely ameliorative; they make it better at fulfilling its purpose without changing its nature. Thus we only value extrinsic features insofar as they improve a design’s ability to give us the things we actually want, and we are quite content to discard them as soon as we find more effective ones. Walmart would stop selling hammers if they could figure out how to to market telekinesis. Google would stop making iPhone apps if they could perfect the horrifying spider drones that burrow into your brain through your nasal cavity and telepathically communicate bus directions to you.
The intrinsic features of Art media like literature or film, unlike those of hammers and map APIs, are not easily reducible into language. Whereas to design a hammer involves finding ways of realizing features whose value is readily apparent, to make Art is to search for value lying beyond the edges of our understanding: To capture something we know is important to us even though we cannot quite say why. This is what makes ‘Art’ so famously difficult to define, and why we speak not about ‘novel designers’ or ‘film designers’ but about the authors of these works. Authors are a specialized type of designer who work to realize feelings, concepts or moments; often they attempt to connect in some fashion with our shared humanity. We cannot fully express what their work is for because its value transcends understanding. Thus while conventional design undoubtedly remains useful as a means of iterating towards our authorial objectives (the language by which we communicate mood during a film, for example, is the product of very sophisticated design work) it tells us nothing about what our authorial objectives should actually be nor what our Art becomes when we realize them.
Videogames inherit a little from Art but mostly from product design, which has been kind of a problem for us. As an industry we put faith in the idea that there is intrinsic value in the games we develop, although we don’t think very expansively about what that could be; instead we abstract it, using ugly words like “content” as placeholders for value without ever proving that it truly exists. We then set about designing incredible machines that shuttle players towards these placeholders with extremely high efficiency, which as designers is really what we’re good at. We make the interface as usable as we can because players need it in order to learn the rules. We teach the rules very carefully because players need them in order to grok the dynamics. We shape our dynamics strategically because enacting them is what will stimulate players to feel the aesthetics. Somewhere at the core of all this, we suppose, lives the “content” players are attempting to access: That which we have abstracted away so that we could hurry towards doing safe, understandable product design rather than risky, unfathomable Art. In game design we enjoy paying lip service to aesthetics. What, then, shall we say are the aesthetics that we can package up into 5–60 hours of intrinsic value? Challenge? Agency? Story? Fun? Is ‘Mario’ an aesthetic? How do we stimulate the Mario part of the brain? Oh hey, wait, look over there! Someone is confused about what that UI indicator represents! TO THE DONALD NORMAN MOBILE.
The more time I spend examining my professional work and that of my peers in the games industry, the more I come to believe our near-sightedness has crippled us. We have avoided building sophisticated pleasures that demand and reward the player’s investment, preferring instead to construct concentric layers of impeccably-designed sound and fury over an empty foundation of which we are afraid and at which we can hardly bear to look. We gamify our games, and then we gamify the gamifications, so that many different channels of information can remain open all at once, distracting the player by scattering her attention across a thousand extrinsic reward systems that are, in themselves, of no value whatsoever. We delay the realization that our true goal is not to deliver some fragment of intrinsically valuable “content” rumoured to reside, like a mythical unicorn, in the furthest reaches of our product; our true goal is instead to find something, anything to mete out over the course of 5–60 hours that will somehow account for the absence of real instrinsic value. It is not, therefore, the content that truly matters to us; it is the meting out.
Though the products we design ought to provide value for players and money for us, they currently only pretend towards the former function while actually performing solely the latter one. This deception permits us to continue making intrinsically simple products, avoiding transformative changes to our designs that we fear would render them less digestible; we instead rely upon a pattern of amelioration by technical advancement wherein we deliver as few intrinsic features as possible (and the same ones over and over again), but with intricate fashions heaped upon them. We have abandoned game literacy in the process, and as a result we now find ourselves trapped in the business of making increasingly-elaborate pop-up books.
Problem Attic is an unfashionable game. It does not aspire to resemble that which currently exists but with a cool twist, nor to stuff all its value into the margins of a popular genre format. It is not a product whose purpose is to convince you that you want and need it. It is not a pop-up book. It is challenging not only in videogame terms, but in the literary sense of the word: It requires time and agile thinking to process in a satisfying way. It is authored, rather than just designed; its intrinsic features take the form of complex and multifaceted statements that it realizes at all levels of the modern videogame, from core systems all the way up to the user interface. It is messy and, therefore, alive.
Fundamentally Attic is a game about prisons of belief and behaviour, and learning how to escape these constructs so that you can be free. The game world consists of one large hub, the eponymous ‘attic’, and its ~8 different rooms; these spaces represent different aspects of the protagonist’s internal self, some rather specifically and others more abstractly. We return to the attic, and five of these rooms, over and over again as we complete the game’s three acts. Each time they are different; like disused buildings, they become overgrown with the passage of time.
Everything we see is built from colourful, patterned tiles. Although there are perhaps twenty or thirty different kinds, most are not mechanically distinct from one another; all space is partitioned into two contiguous parts, ‘wall’ versus ‘not-wall’, with each patterned tile corresponding to one of the two. Our first instinct is to label this a poor design choice because its affordances are unclear. (Why should the player have to learn through physical experience which tiles can be traversed and which cannot when it could be made visually obvious?) This, however, would be a mistake. Conventional thinking conditions us to believe clear affordances are unequivocally good because we view videogame design as an exercise in catapulting people towards the mythical content unicorn lying beneath all of our systems; this belief becomes invalid, however, when unclear affordances better support some other intrinsic purpose lying elsewhere in the structure of the work, and that is the case here. The environment of Problem Attic models the mind of the protagonist, and the walls represent the tangled mess of every habit and belief he has ever internalized. Each person possesses such walls; they are the reason why we act against our own best interests, making the same mistakes over and over again. Anyone else would look inside of us and see an absurd, incomprehensible, hopelessly compromised mess; we ourselves would see nothing, of course, but the way forward, oblivious to the myriad hidden assumptions that shape our every behaviour. So it is in Attic: Though taken aback right at first, we soon learn which tiles are which and begin to see composed passageways rather than a cluttered mess of colour and shape. We learn to navigate the world as the protagonist does, enjoying a rare excuse to practice empathy in a videogame.
I find the tiles beautiful in addition to functional, though I have read the internet disagrees. The attic’s beauty is, once again, the product of an unintuitive conclusion reached only through some measure of time and effort. It is impossible to evaluate the quality of this game’s graphics by looking at a screenshot; without actually feeling it beneath your fingers you lack the necessary information to decipher what you’re seeing. Attic’s graphics are not fashionable, which is to say they don’t look like what we have already seen, and as such they don’t stand to benefit from hundreds of years of accumulated artistic craftsmanship. What they are, however, is evocative, purposeful and thoughtfully designed. Their abstractness allows us to perceive more than is present in the pixels alone: A gnarly, desolate world radically different from ours but bearing many familiar tonal qualities. At times, these graphics combine with the staticky swells of Ryerson’s musical score to make the attic seem enormous, even sublime.
The game’s first act is primarily concerned with Cross Guys, little square beings who follow the protagonist around. When they collide with him the screen shakes violently, making it very hard to see, and a grating noise blares through the speakers. Our relationship to these Cross Guys is complex. At first they seem little more than an occasional nuisance, blocking the protagonist, knocking him from platforms and generally being a pain in the ass; through these qualities the game conditions us to avoid them. In the fifth room, however, this relationship begins to twist. We traverse a small maze of multi-coloured tiles (often disappearing entirely behind them) harassed all the while by Cross Guys. At the end of this maze is a switch that, rather than ending the stage as we might expect, causes an opening to appear in a row of blinking tiles on the ceiling. We must intuit that above this opening, in the hidden space outside our monitor’s view, is the exit, and that the only way up there involves jumping on one of the Cross Guys and enduring the shaky screen torment as its unquenchable desire to bump into us actually carries us to our escape.
Here is another unfashionable choice. Punishing us for touching the Cross Guys even though that is exactly what we must do to proceed reeks of poor affordances; it seems to place the design at cross purposes, obfuscating the rules of the system and causing us to form an inaccurate cognitive model of how the game works. Again, however, Attic demonstrates that clear affordances are not unequivocally good. This game is about human beings, who result not from mythical content unicorns but from a roiling maelstrom of culture and fraying DNA. The Cross Guys are characters, not mechanics, and the game characterizes them as simple-minded horndogs who give no consideration to the protagonist’s goals and, in fact, seek solely to gratify themselves at his expense. In their role as the protagonist’s jailers they must usually be avoided; in their role as the wielders of power, however, it is occasionally necessary to exploit them even when this does us harm. (The mechanics deceive, in other words, because they model deceptive power structures.) That the world forces some among us to use the ugliest of personal traits to their advantage would, in any other context, be considered a thoughtful bit of hard-won wisdom that speaks to the human condition. In videogames we are, for many discomforting reasons, unaccustomed to receiving such wisdom.
Our relationship to the Cross Guys twists further in the sixth room, which is a distressingly vivid recreation of Hell. As part of yet another unfashionable choice, this room intentionally sabotages the responsiveness of the jump button by inserting a random delay between us hitting the key and the protagonist responding. (Often the jump will simply not fire at all.) Demons murmur in the audio track; the background image, which I am convinced is a mashup of different fleshy textures from Doom, pulsates menacingly. A single Cross Guy haunts the main body of the stage. Being far faster than all others it seems more dangerous, attacking the protagonist violently and rebuking any progress within its domain. It has the bearing of a rapist, feeding on the protagonist’s momentary vulnerability and serving only to inflict pain. We may not confront the Cross directly; it cannot be destroyed or pacified. We must instead discover a circuitous route through a maze of nearly-invisible wall tiles, the room’s muddy platforming permitting us to feel the protagonist’s paralysing fear. Interestingly, pressing the magical ‘R’ key here does not reset the stage as it normally would, but instead fades the world to black before casting us out to the attic’s entry point. This particular stage, I hereby surmise, is not a place for trial and error, to learn or to grow; it is more like a wound that won’t heal, a nightmare to which the protagonist returns nightly. We players, at least, never have to visit it again; for this I am thankful.
Hell represents a turning point in the game’s tone. Our return therefrom grants us little relief, for though we arrive in familiar surroundings we immediately discover that the static noise underlaying the attic’s soothing synth music has become a blaring roar. The world is becoming uninhabitable, as if overcome by the traumas that live inside it. The game guides us to a strange monolith residing atop the attic, which lets us inside. It grants the protagonist an epiphany: Why not start over again, now that he has learned a little about the nature of this place? Somehow, the monolith rewinds the game for us; once more we must press ‘x’ to begin.
Pressing ‘x’ launches the game’s second act, a potent mix of revelation and self denial. The opening screen has become glitchy, as if it were experiencing psychosis. Is this still Problem Attic, a videogame by Liz Ryerson? It seems to think so, though we begin to doubt its resolve. The protagonist is falling apart; his world has literally turned upside down, threatening to become unrecognisable. Its walls and platforms, which served previously to imprison him, now begin to degrade; he discovers he can travel through them in halting spurts of noclip mode, glitching off the edges of the screen to find new ways forward. We notice several instances of the game’s third character, the Square Girl, roaming about in the periphery of the game’s mechanics. We are not permitted to touch it lest the room restart itself abruptly, as if the very notion of Square Girlness were unthinkable; ours is a prison of unspoken discontent.
Falling upwards into space and unable to use the jump key to our advantage, we manage at length to access and complete glitchy versions of game’s the first five rooms. The attic becomes stranger with each victory, drifting further and further into the abstract. We find ourselves once more at the gates of (on the shores of?) Hell, unsure of what awaits us therein. The only person who wants to go back in there less than us is the protagonist; fortunately for everyone, then, a remarkable thing happens. The protagonist has learned to transcend the narrow passages through which his mental prison has shuttled him time and again, and he now chooses to reveal this power to us. As we attempt to touch the glyph that we know will carry us into Hell, we instead wind up noclipping into the walls that surround it. The glyph becomes unreachable, but we may now navigate upwards in a new direction, careening once more past the monolith and into a second rewind sequence. We hereby leave Hell (and the rapidly-disintegrating attic) behind for the remainder of the game.
The third act, which is my favourite, once more involves an odyssey through the familiar spaces of the game’s first five rooms. This time they are at their boldest and most alien: Glitchy jungles of colour and texture interspersed with earnest prose. Here the game’s themes begin coming together. We discover that Cross Guys and Square Girls correlate strongly to the cultural constructs of masculinity and femininity, lending some credence to my reading of the Cross Guys as instruments of rape culture, the Square Girls as its products, and the Hell Room as a traumatic recollection of rape. I am intrigued by the words “I HATE YOU” that flash above these symbols. Do they address the gender constructs rendered on the screen? Do they address the protagonist himself in an expression of self loathing? Do they address the Square Guy in the Hell room? Or do they perhaps address me, a privileged voyeur? I believe they address everyone involved; the text fills the world with the spirit of hatred, and everything becomes its victim.
While attempting to navigate this act’s version of the Yellow Room, I often became caught in an infinite, inescapable fall through space. As the protagonist reaches terminal velocity, colours and patterns whipping past incomprehensibly, these words plaster themselves across the screen without warning:
maybe you will wake up with your GUTS in a pile on the FUCKING GROUND!!!
The threat is vague and sordid, sparking the dark side of our imagination. The chaotic background makes it difficult to read the words at first, triggering a weird, prolonged jump scare as we gradually make them out. And then, after a few seconds, the level resets itself cleanly as if nothing ever happened. It’s bizarre and gross and kind of wonderful, like a violent downward mood swing. The world punishes us for our pursuit of a happier place; fortunately we have by now become resolute.
In a fascinating display of high-flying poetics, Attic’s climax takes the form of a ‘boss fight’ in which the protagonist attempts to flee from an army of advancing Square Girls that threaten to overwhelm him. He can no longer escape the truth that he had once hidden from himself; it has become loud, insistent and impossible to ignore. In an effort to escape he must leap into one of many terrifying vortexes present in the stage, which render him invisible to the Square Girls yet also split him into two ghostly forms. The game places each these halves randomly somewhere on the stage, yet both are controlled simultaneously such that pressing the move keys always causes one of them to run away from the other; to proceed, they must be forcibly reunited (via exploiting the level’s glitchy geometry) underneath a glowing neon sign that shouts “I DON’T KNOW WHO I AM”. No longer does the protagonist wish to dwell endlessly in binaries, a person split in two ever separated from the things he knows he really wants; as he stands reunified, the world derezzing around him and the game’s entire soundtrack swelling together into one, years of confusion at last coalesce into clarity. Clambering out of darkness the protagonist finds himself in a place called the ‘male/female passage’, and he chooses to travel through. On the far end is the final scene of Problem Attic, in which we inhabit a Square Girl’s body and move it from left to right across the screen; above us reads the game’s most poignant line of prose, once more directed at everyone and no one: “You’ve hurt me tremendously / but that’s okay”.
Problem Attic changed the way I think about videogames. I am now convinced that the virtues of clarity and craft, to which I had subscribed absolutely as a matter of course, impose significant limitations on our expressive potential that can be difficult to see until you play something like this. Like the attic’s twisted walls, they represent a host of unchecked assumptions about videogames that shape our thoughts without our realizing it. They are bound up in fashion, insisting that we borrow only from the most widely-spread metaphors and representations our culture has to offer; but how can we affect change while we remain so reliant on being almost identical to everything that already exists? They idolize the game system as pure and inviolable, forcing us to orient our every decision around clarifying its workings; but why should we, when the illusionary content unicorn thought to lie underneath this system provides no satisfying incentive for us to do so?
Problem Attic need not attempt to bury its value under a thousand layers of gaminess in the secret hope that we might become sated purely by slouching towards it; the game’s pleasures stand right in front of us, bursting through the monitor any place we care to look. I love the muddy miasma of the Hell Room’s jumping mechanics. I love how the Cross Guy subverts its own ludic purposes in pursuit of its crass desires. I love the sensation of falling upwards through the mangled root system of a troubled mind. Problem Attic does more interesting things in a single scene than many AAA game franchises manage over an entire console generation because it is aware of what value it hopes to convey and it does so free of all the senseless videogame dogma we’ve come to take for granted. There should be room in the world for challenging works of Art; as artists I believe it is our duty to create and champion them. Otherwise we shall all find ourselves making pop-up books until the end of time.
(UPDATE: This article is part one of a three part trilogy. Here is part two.)