On this edition of Play It, we look at a deeply personal biographical game. The experience is all about using the form of video games to create a sense of familiarity with a less discussed subject. Dys4ia has been getting a lot of press, for better or worse. The concept receives praise even if the execution has been criticized. I'm willing to argue that issues that people have with control and style are an essential part of the gameplay process.
Anne Anthropy, aka Auntie Pixelante, makes art games. Dys4ia is her online video game memoir. Anne is a trans woman who faced a lot of struggles to transition from medical, psychological, and social perspectives. She stresses that Dys4ia is not a reflection of every transgender person in the world.
That last statement is the key to understanding and appreciating Dys4ia for what it is meant to be. It is a computer simulation of one woman's life experience. The fact that Anthropy is willing and able to share her individual story at this level of detail and receive positive attention is reason enough for people to play this game. She is not a statistic or novelty. She is a person whose story deserves to be told.
Dys4ia is broken into four levels, each comprised of multiple mini games. These include tasks such as fitting an odd shaped peg into a too small hole, avoiding detection in a public restroom, and keeping your blood pressure down while a doctor lectures you on you why you aren't a good candidate for hormone replacement therapy. The controls are explained onscreen before each task and you advance in the game no matter what happens.
This last element, the automatic advancement, is the one that has created the most controversy in discussions of the game. Is Dys4ia still a game if you can't lose? Should it just be called a simulation or interactive video instead?
There are a number of reasons why I believe this is a narrow-minded view of video games. For one thing, there have been big video game titles in the past where you can do every task right and still fail in the end. It's an intentional decision on the part of the game makers to create a novel experience. Why can't the opposite also be considered a valid strategy to tell the same story? I feel like some games could benefit from a more realistic view of the world. No one ever succeeds at everything they try, so why should a game based in reality be discounted for reflecting that?
Second, just because you fail the task the first time and advance doesn't mean that it serves the story to do the task again immediately. The structure of Dys4ia is built on the conceit of challenges and setbacks. Just because you fail the first time does not mean you won't try again later. It just means that you might need more experience to know how to best handle a situation in the future.
Most importantly, this game is Anne Anthropy's experience. She knew that she was going to transition no matter what. She faced setbacks and challenges that she learned to overcome. She was going to finish her journey no matter what. The only way for that mindset to truly be shown in a video game was to have the game move on whether you were ready or not.
The result of this auto-advancement in Dys4ia is a beautiful and memorable game experience. It will be hard to shake off Anne Anthropy's story after you finish. Best of all, you, too, will most likely be compelled to share the game experience. Anne may not represent the experience of all transgender people in the world, but she is giving the actual experience of transition an accessible voice.
Thoughts? Love to hear them.