Going back through Problem Attic

Liz Ryerson put together a list of some writing on Problem Attic (graciously including my own piece).1 I'd read Chris Priestman's article before writing mine (even before finishing the game - when I was stuck a bit over halfway through) but the rest were new to me.

Kim's piece4 drew my interest because her tone and conclusion match mine closely (or that's how I read it, at least). She has the same inability to find words to describe the base elements. But her interpretation of the "contents" of the game is the exact opposite. I saw a world of complex "accreted details"; she saw "decay" and "collapse".2

First, I think that particular symmetry is interesting - that the same material reads as overbuilt and collapsed is itself worth some reflection. But it also points to two fundamental ways to make sense of the game. As it relates to Problem Attic specifically we might also be focusing on the two halves of the game.

To make sense of an overly-complicated system, you need to strip it down. As a programmer I know that the rules of any given level of Problem Attic can be expressed as a dozen or so lines of code. I played the game trying (mostly unconsciously) to see the rules at that level.

The approach Kim suggests is an alternative I didn't see (likely because I am a programmer). If the world is in a state of decay you make sense of it by finding and mentally inserting the parts that are missing. We understand the function of the the Roman Forum not because we can strip it down to constituent marble and grass with well-understood physical properties but because we can add imagined orators and produce stalls.

And this isn't exclusive to Problem Attic. All game mechanisms are in some way reducible to something formally "simpler" than they are visible as in the game. A rule book is easier to understand than just watching a game, or it's failed as a rule book. And all game mechanisms are in some sense incomplete with regards to the richness of objects and interactions in the real world.3

What might be special about Problem Attic is the way it resists explanation from both sides. Nothing in our daily experience prepares us for Tetris or Pac-Man but we grasp and can re-explain a sufficient set of rules quickly. At the other end games like Animal Crossing or The Last of Us have rule systems that contain so much code they're beyond formal explanation by any one person but we can understand them via their presentation, even when it bears only a cursory resemblance to the real-world objects we are using to understand them. Problem Attic admits neither straightforward instruction manuals nor analogies - as I half-described before, it's only "comfortable being a videogame".

  1. For a game I struggle to find words for, I'm sure writing a lot about it. 

  2. This different frame extends even to Liz's music. I've described the sound as "excessively layered" to a friend. 

  3. Or even their virtual worlds. It makes perfect sense to ask something like "what's Isabelle's favorite song?" but the formal systems in New Leaf prohibit this even though Isabelle, songs, and favorite songs are all things in the game. That doesn't stop us from understanding the game through analogy with the real world though. 

  4. Since removed from any site I can find. :(