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Rohrer, Kafka, and Madness

When I was sixteen I had a dream about a boy and a girl who rode an elevator up to heaven. When I woke up I didnʼt understand it, but I knew it was important because I couldnʼt stop thinking about for the next week. The dream began to escape my memory, and I eventually decided to put it to paper in an effort to make some sense of it before it became too muddled in my mind. I would come home from high school and immediately plod down to my laptop in my bedroom for hours to fish more out of my murky mind.

When we discuss art, we rarely discuss the artist as vessels of the art. Thereʼs a lot of talk about plot and narrative, and we analyze character development and setting ad nauseam. But the least vocal part of that discussion is the artist, who often plays afterthought to his own creation. We know Shakespeare wrote some of the most appreciated stories in humanityʼs history, but what about Shakespeare the man? What of Faulkner? What of Bay?

Franz Kafka wrote a short story while in the hospital recovering from tuberculosis that dwells on the author, called “A Hunger Artist”. In it, he depicts a man who fasts in a cage before the public for as long as he can, purely in the name of art. Though the interest in public fasting has diminished over the years, the hunger artist would sit in his cage and watch himself be watched, enjoying the attention of strangers who got close enough to see that he really did not have any food. Permanent watchers began fading away to only a handful of assigned butchers, whose job it was to ensure the hunger artist was not somehow sneaking food, an accusation that drove the hunger artist crazy - his code of honor would never let him do this. Sometimes he would sing while those policing him had their backs turned to prove he couldnʼt be eating anything, but they still tended to doubt him. How could someone live so many weeks without eating? The hunger artist was the only one who truly knew that he had not swallowed a single morsel.

Kafkaʼs story is about the pain an artist feels when being criticized and misunderstood when creating art. There is some art that is created not for the purpose of being accessible or for simple communication, but for the purpose of art itself - sometimes art is so finely tuned that itʼs only intended to be understood by a certain group of people, but it will inevitably be picked up by the public at large and criticized for being too cryptic or too off-putting, or any other criticism that will drive the artist mad. Some creations are so purposeful that a plague of public attention is detrimental.

In “A Hunger Artist”, the artist is controlled by an impresario, or essentially an agent, who schedules his fasts in certain areas and forces him to fast no longer than 40 days since the impresario finds public interest to wane after that. But the hunger artist would gladly continue for longer; in fact, it frustrates the hunger artist that he must bend his art for the sake of his viewers. I think it speaks to the struggle of an artist who is trying to live off of his love and his expression - when you conflate the need for money with the desire to express something, the result can sometimes be ugly.

A game I found that reminded me of the focus on the artist in “A Hunger Artist” is called Gravitation, a downloadable freeware game for the computer made by Jason Rohrer. Gravitation is a five minute game that begins with the pixelated main character, a brown haired man in a modest shirt and khaki pants, standing next to a warming fireplace amidst a snowy landscape. Initially, I was encapsulated by crippling darkness. Black surrounds most of my character, impeding my visibility. You see your only visible choice is to move to the left, and you find a little blonde girl holding a tiny red ball. As she began to throw the ball toward me, I instinctually jumped up and mushed my blocky character up against the ball hoping to hit it back. When I hit back to the little girl, she looked happy. A heart appeared over her head for a few seconds. She threw it up again and I continued to hit it back. We were playing catch together.

As I did this, the shrouding darkness began to recede, I began to see more of my environment, and the snow began to melt. I could see that I was in a small room with an opening in the roof that led into an earthy maze. To get there, I would have to make a tremendous out of the ceiling and onto the roof of the room. Luckily, the more I played with the girl, the higher I was able to jump and stay in the air. I played with her so much at one point that my hair caught on fire, and I was easily able to leap out of the room and jump hundreds of feet into the labyrinth of platforms.

When I reached the farthest height I could jump, I landed on a floating dirt platform and saw a blue star a couple platforms above me, since the blackness had virtually receded to the edges of the screen. I jumped up and touched it, watched it plummet back down towards where Iʼd begun. I started making my way up, touching as many blue stars as I could, until eventually the darkness began to encroach my vision again. The summery environment began to snow, I couldnʼt see very much. Eventually I could only a few feet in front of me, not nearly enough vision to navigate the maze for more blue stars. I trekked downward until I reached my little house with the girl, who was now alone and barricaded by a wall of ice blocks, presumably corresponding with the blue stars Iʼd pushed down earlier. I started pushing the ice blocks into the fireplace, where they would melt and turn into points, measured at the top of the screen with a point counter. While working to push the blocks, the little girl continued vying for my attention, constantly throwing her ball at me, hoping to play. When I ignored her in favor of my work at hand, I could see her distressed. I tried to juggle both tasks: pushing the blocks and periodically jumping up to hit the block, but it was taxing my work. I was a bad aim at hitting the ball, and the longer I took to push each block into the fireplace, the fewer points they became worth when they finally melted. It got a little messy. I repeated this process once or twice before the game ended.

Gravitation is about “mania, melancholia, and the creative process,” Rohrer wrote. Itʼs the struggle of the artist, balancing his work and his family, and the dynamic between the two. Work and family can detract from each other in Gravitation, or they can benefit each other depending on how the player moves through his five minutes. There is no way to lose, no way to die, no way to succeed. You donʼt move through a progression of levels, and you donʼt unlock anything for performing well. You only move through a progression of emotions depending on your choices. For this reason, Gravitation is one of the most interesting experiences Iʼve ever had. Itʼs a game where every dynamic is built with meaning, so although there is no prescribed story, there is a narrative the player is free to explore where every action is going to effect a collection of emotions.

Whatʼs interesting about looking at these two works is how I connected more with the experience in Gravitation than Kafkaʼs well written short story. Though Kafkaʼs story is built on allegory and interpretation as well, Rohrerʼs work feels like something special because I had a meaningful experience despite my initial fumbling with the controls and my hazy understanding of what was going on. It makes me wonder where the future of video games lie. There is a honest potential for games to become something hugely expressive, and we only have a handful of examples of how to tap into that capacity. Iʼm ready to see more.


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