NOTE: As usual, please wait for some of the GIFs to load properly. Thank you for your patience. Have some cakes and a hot chocolate drink, while waiting for everything to load up 🙂
A bit about “Narrative Through Video Games”
I’m huge a fan of games that went out their ways to tell stories really well through its mechanics. It gives a whole different dimension of playing video games by simultaneously experiencing a story whilst playing the game.
It basically puts you in the “seat” of the character/hero/object(?) you controlled in their respective “worlds”. It makes you feel like you’re not this “being” that takes controls of an avatar sometimes and watch things play out. You are that “avatar”.
It’s highly immersive. It’s highly engaging. And as a filmmaker, and as an enthusiast of this ever-evolving medium, I believe it is one of the most brilliant way to let players/audience “experience” the “world” what you’ve created and envisioned. Because they’re participating in the narrative.
With that being said, I am not saying that all video games should have their narratives being told mainly through its mechanics and environments only. Sometimes, the complexity or the scope of the “experience” you want players to have, are too big that you can’t help but to fall back to something more familiar and more conventional.
As the main title of this blog suggests, “Dys4ia” is a game that I believe to be a game that tell its story really, really well through its game mechanics. But there’s a twist:
It’s a personal story or an “experience” taken from game developer’s life. But before we can discuss more about that, let’s talk about a “genre” or a “modal” that is not often heard in video games.
“Autobiographical game”? What is it?
I won’t go into too much detail about this. But before we can talk about “Dys4ia”, we have to at least talk a bit about autobiographical games. It’s a new genre. It’s fantastic. And it is starting to get a firm hold in the mainstream gaming audience.
What is an “autobiographical game” isn’t clearly define. Pretty much like how you want to define what is a “game” itself. But according to my limited research (I wish I have more time to research this), it is a “vignette” or “vignettes” of the game creator’s life or experience, being “told” or “realised” in a form of a video game.
To put it simply, imagine a stylised, interactive version of “Gandhi” movie from 1982, but Gandhi himself designing that interactive experience. Wow, wouldn’t that be something to play?
SIDENOTE: A Youtuber called ‘GameStudiously’ did a fantastic video called “Autobiographical Fiction In Games (Cibele; That Dragon, Cancer)”. This is a must watch to those who wants to figure out more about autobiographical games. (video link here)
What is “Dys4ia”?
“Dys4ia” (pronounced as “dysphoria”) is a short autobiographical game created by Anna Anthropy. It is a game about her dysphoric experiences with hormone replacement therapy. And how it was “told” is through series of “WarioWare-like” mini games within the game.
And many other autobiographical games, the catch of the game is not to “win” it, but to “experience” it.
“Dys4ia” and its Contextual Mini-Games
As I have said/written above, “Dys4ia” uses collection of mini-games to “stylistically tell” Anna’s experience with hormone replacement therapy. Visually (and soundly) it was presented in a form of a retro 8-bit Atari-like game, with some obvious liberty on its animations, colors and of course sound as well.
The only controls you have in this game, are your directional keys. From deflecting insults coming towards her by using a shield (that I assumed to symbolise Anna’s “belief”), to making sure her nipples didn’t touch what are probably the hairs on her chest (I honestly can’t tell), all are done by only using the directional keys.
Each mini-game is presented with a text to provide context of the mini-game that you’re playing. And each level that you progress throughout the game also shows Anna’s progression or state throughout her therapy. And some of the mini-games are also revisited and “evolved” to show her progression in the game.
Level 1 (left) versus Level 4 (right) “MA’AM” mini-game (“Dys4ia”, 2012)
It’s about “Progressing”, not “Winning”.
Gamers or players are quite literate with games. Just with few signs and symbols, we immediately understand what is needed to be done, in order to progress through the game. “Dys4ia” effectively utilise this understanding, to “tell” its story through its minimalistic gameplay.
After playing “Dys4ia”, I realised that “progressing” and “winning” are two different things. “Winning requires at least a “fail” condition, and “Dys4ia” doesn’t have that. Some mini-games in “Dys4ia” can even be completed without ever need to fully completing the objective.
Example of the mini-games without “victory” condition (left) or “fail” condition (right) (“Dys4ia”, 2012)
As to why it was designed that way, it goes back to this magic word; “Experience”. To a huge degree, It is a faithful representation of not just Anna Anthropy’s personal experience with hormone replacement therapy, but every other things that surrounds it . In her situation, it’s not so cut and dry. She can’t win them all. And with that understanding, she wants you to experience it through the mini-games.
“Dys4ia” and Anna Anthrophy
I went into this game without knowing what this game about and who is “Anna Anthropy”. To be honest, I don’t really have to. But after playing and “experiencing” “Dys4ia”, it made me want to know more about her and her journey.
And I did.
“Dys4ia” gave me a “vignette” of Anna Athropy’s life or experience. With that, it has made me feel something that I rarely feel in a video game; Empathy.
Video games are just like any other medium, it can be used as a tool to tell a story. A story that could invoke a certain emotional response. But video games allow you to “experience” a story in a way that many other medium couldn’t; That 1:1 interaction with the story, or at least an effective illusion of interacting with it.
Combine that with a modal or a genre like “autobiographical games” and it becomes a very very powerful narrative piece for a gamer, a player or an audience to dive into. And I being completely being honest here, as a filmmaker.
And as for how deep this “rabbit hole” of autobiographical games would go, who knows.
1. Dys4ia – Anna Anthropy
2. Anna Anthropy itch.io front page
3. Auntie Pixelante – Anna Athropy
4. “SUPERHOT: STORYTELLING THROUGH GAMEPLAY” – Stephen W. Gee
5. “Five Greatest Storytelling Moments Told Through Gameplay (Spoilers!)” – Tay Kinja
6. “Gameplay as Storytelling: A look at “Character Inhabitation”” – Gamasutra
7. “MASTER OF PLAY – The many worlds of a video-game artist.” – THE NEWYORKER
8. “Gaming to cope: how developers are tackling real life” – The Telegraph
9. “Dys4ia: an autobiographical trans video game about changing gender” – The Georgia Straight
10. “Storytelling in games: How it should be done” – Game On Canada
Images(Some of the gifs were made from the videos/gameplay using a GIF-making software)
Videos(Some of the gifs were made from the videos/gameplay using a GIF-making software)
1. “Autobiographical Fiction In Games (Cibele; That Dragon, Cancer)” – GameStudiously
2. “Wario Ware Inc. Gameplay – Nintendo Stage (9-Volt’s Stage)” – 128-Up
3. “”Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver” HD Intro” – HampsterStyleLives’s channel