Friday, February 10, 2012

Gothama: a game of non-attachment

The last weekend of January is quickly becoming a sort of annual holiday for me. It certainly involves sitting around and eating a lot, but that's not the focus. No, dear friends, the last weekend in January is the time of the Global Game Jam.

Sanctioned by the International Game Developers Association, the Game Jam is a mad dash to make a working game (usually, but not always, a video game) in 48 hours. Teams assemble on the spot based on appropriate balances of skills and abilities. Last year, I was sort of the utility infielder (writing, audio, and miscellaneous inspiration) of a team that already had an experienced game designer, but this year I ended up taking on the role. For someone who has read a ton about games, but not actually made many, this was tremendously exciting.

The theme for the year was an image of ourobouros, the snake that eats its tail. To me, it brought up associations of eternal recurrence, death, and rebirth. That brought me to the buddhist notion of Saṃsāra, and the suffering associated with endless fruitless repetitions of the cycles.

Which, in the context of video-gaming, instantly took me to thinking about stupidly-hard games of the NES era.

 These were games that forced the player to memorize complex geometric patterns and punished them for a single infraction. These were games that decided that the best way to increase replayability was to tell players after the final battle that their entire first run of the game was "a trap devised by Satan" and force them to play it over again at an even more difficult level. These were games where your entire motivation for risking virtual life and limb was proving that you were a bad enough dude to rescue the president. They may have had different surface trappings, but ultimately they were games about suffering.

Gothama was thus a loving tribute and a philosophical critique of classic 2D platform gaming. It is at its highest level a stoic/buddhist/vedic-inspired critique of the ‘little pleasures’ of videogaming: the jingle of coins, a satisfying stomp, a well-timed dash and jump. We relish the shot of dopamine we get, the ability to feel greater than ourselves, but to what extent do they lead us to towards the short-term and ephemeral rather than our greatest good? Gothama makes uses of the tropes of the genre to make a point about non-attachment.

What point, you ask? Well, I suppose you'll have to play it to find out.
Click here to download the special edition of Gothama.