Depression Quest and Gone Home are still games

There's been a lot of criticism—a decent amount of it politically motivated—of Depression Quest and Gone Home. I'll stay away from the political part of it here, but I'd like to note my own opinions on the two games first.
I've played Depression Quest, and I didn't see it as particularly good. It's okay; it captures what having depression is like to an extent and the visual and sound design were pretty cool, as was the feature of crossing out certain options depending on the player character's emotional state in order to drive home how depression can cripple its sufferers to the point that they're virtually incapable of certain normal things. But it's rather generic and, speaking as a depressive myself, it isn't realistic enough on its topic and doesn't really go deep enough into its exploration of depression.
I haven't played Gone Home, but I've seen playthroughs of it and it doesn't seem particularly bad. The story is not particularly great: it's essentially a generic coming-of-age story that's been repeated dozens of times in young adult literature. But the framing of a graphic adventure game is certainly interesting, and the way the gameplay functions primarily as a means of exposition is certainly a good idea.
However, they've come under attack for various reasons. But the reason that bothers me the most is that they're 'not games'.
And why does that bother me? Because these allegations are patently false, and their intent is primarily to denigrate them without addressing them on their own merits.
So why, exactly, are they games? What is it that makes them games, as opposed to simply pieces of interactive software?
To start with, Depression Quest, when it comes down to it, is a text adventure. The choices you make while playing it affect certain variables and lead to multiple endings. Although you're limited to a certain amount of choices, this is not unique among text adventures. Prompt-based text adventures, which require the player to type in commands, still have this type of constraint, although instead of simply presenting a list of options, an unrecognised command prompts a response along the lines of 'I didn't understand your command'. To say that Depression Quest is not a game is to dismiss Zork, Curses, and even Steins;Gate, a visual novel which similarly only has text-based choices as its gameplay, as non-games.
As for Gone Home, it is a graphic adventure game. Although it contains no puzzles, its primary focus is on uncovering the story. This makes it what is known as an exploration game, in which exploration and atmosphere are integral parts of the gameplay. Yet this is at the root of what makes people accuse it of 'not being a game'. Kentucky Route Zero, a game which similarly has no puzzles or challenges, had its first two episodes released the same year as Gone Home was, yet I haven't heard any complaints that it's 'not a game'. (This is why I suspect political motivation in these accusations: an exploration-based game without puzzles or challenges but isn't an 'SJW game' (whatever that means) receives few to no accusations that it's 'not a game', but an exploration-based game without puzzles or challenges yet has LGBTQ+ themes receives a lot of accusations of that sort.)
Roger Ebert defined what, to him, distinguishes video games from art in one of many highly controversial essays:
One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite a[n] immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.

By this definition, Depression Quest would be a game, but Gone Home would not. Yet I would dispute a certain part of his definition: namely, that there must be points and objectives.
Telltale's episodic game The Walking Dead, based on the comic series by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore and inspired by the success of its television adaptation, received universal acclaim from critics and players alike. It received over 80 Game of the Year awards among many more awards. Metacritic, which aggregates game reviews, gave the Xbox 360 version a rating of 92/100, the PlayStation 3 version 94/100, the PC version 89/100, and the PlayStation Vita version 82/100, adding up to a total average of 89.25/100. Steam users, a good enough representative sample of gamers, rated the game 'Overwhelmingly Positive' based on an aggregate of 26,274 user reviews, only 4% of which were negative. I've played it twice and loved it each time.
And yet there are arguably no points or objectives in the game. There are occasional puzzles which have to be solved in order to progress in the game, but they're heavily de-emphasised. Each episode has five moments in which the player must make a crucial decision between two options—when you think about it, a very similar game mechanic to Depression Quest—which dramatically alters the course of the game. There are also conversations in which the player is given a limited amount of time to choose which response to say, which can have a major impact on how the other characters feel about the player character, Lee. There are quick-time events in which the player must keep Lee or other characters alive; sometimes, these quick-time events require the player to choose which of two major characters to keep alive. But unlike in other games, in which the choices made result in rewards or punishments for the player, there is nothing of that sort in The Walking Dead. The results of each choice are ambiguous: there are no 'win' or 'loss' conditions. The only purpose of the player's decisions is for the player to see how the story unfolds. There are rules by which one must play and there are outcomes of the player's decisions, but there are no points (unless by 'point', one means 'purpose') or objectives.
And no one that I know of has claimed that The Walking Dead isn't a game.
Gone Home has rules and an outcome, although it has no points or objectives. Depression Quest has rules, points, multiple outcomes, and even, arguably, objectives—that is, to reduce the player character's level of depression, to get them into therapy, and to get them on medication.
So both Depression Quest and Gone Home are games. Feel free to dislike them—I don't see them as particularly great—or even hate them. Call them 'SJW games' or dismiss them entirely. But don't say they aren't games unless you're willing to present your case as to why.

The soft bigotry of low expectations (and the term's misuse)

There's an argument that's omnipresent in any debate over minority interests in America and other Western countries. That argument takes the form of pointing out, correctly or incorrectly, the 'soft bigotry of low expectations'.
This phrase was coined by Michael Gerson, a speechwriter for George W. Bush who also coined the term 'axis of evil'. As it was coined by a Republican speechwriter as political rhetoric, there's an element of partisanship in its normal use. Yet I find that it describes a real thing found on the left: there are plenty of self-designated 'allies' who believe that it's their job to speak for marginalised people. There is a highly patronising element to this: such an 'ally' is assuming, likely unconsciously, that marginalised people cannot speak for themselves effectively. I'm sure everyone on the left has heard stories of self-proclaimed male feminists who are oblivious to what women actually want and speak over women or of self-proclaimed allies of people of colour who speak over people of colour without even understanding what issues have been raised. These are all real, and they can all be safely categorised as soft bigotry of low expectations.
But the phrase and the idea behind it, almost certainly owing a lot to its partisan origins, are routinely abused in debates between leftists or liberals and conservatives, especially those debates which take place in comments sections and forums. Virtually any debate about, say, systemic barriers to class mobility for black people in America will go like this: 'Well, racial bias in job selection, discrimination in housing, underfunded schools for black communities, and the school-to-prison pipeline are all major factors that contribute to poverty in the black community.' 'So you're saying that black people are too lazy to get jobs and housing?'
Or how about immigration? 'There are many obstacles for potential immigrants to legally the United States, such as skill, education,, marital status, wait time, and others, which is why many opt to cross the border illegally and hope for the best.' 'Oh, so now they're too incompetent to jump through all the hoops? That's the soft bigotry of low expectations, you know.'
Such examples are disingenuous: they deliberately conflate underestimation of a marginalised group with recognition of the disadvantages imposed on that marginalised group. Black Americans are incarcerated for drug use almost six times as much as white Americans, but this isn't because black Americans use illegal drugs six times as much as whites, as white and black Americans use drugs at roughly similar rates. This means that there is a definite element of racial discrimination in the criminal justice system.
The misuse of this term ties directly into two fundamental modern American conservative themes: first of all, that it's the liberals and the leftists who are the real racists/sexists/etc. (I won't deny that liberals have contributed to systemic racism—c.f. the crime bill signed into law by Bill Clinton—or that there's still bigotry in liberal and leftist discourse), and second, that if you 'pull yourself up by your bootstraps' (which, ironically, originally meant 'to accomplish a ridiculously far-fetched task', from a Baron von Münchhausen story in which he pulls himself out of a swamp by his pigtail, which later became his bootstraps), you can make it big—the playing field is already level and we already have equality of opportunity.
Accusations of the soft bigotry of low expectations, whether explicit or implicit, can be valid or invalid. Such an accusation is valid when someone is claiming that members of marginalised groups are incapable of certain things, including speaking up for themselves. Accusations are invalid when someone is pointing out systemic or structural injustices against marginalised people.
It's always important to know how to make good arguments effectively.

Trump, liberalism, and the emotional plague

I must say that political subjects are troubling me yet again.
Now, 'this is not normal' has become a liberal mantra. Every week, I am subjected to a tirade (usually in the first paragraph of a column or thinkpiece) about the alleged abnormality of the Trump presidency. I'm inclined to agree in some respects—the revolving-door Cabinet is certainly an aberration in American political history—but it still bothers me on multiple levels.
We've heard echoes of Trump throughout our political history; Pat Buchanan's 1992 campaign, with his culture-war rhetoric, is a relatively recent example. Indeed, Buchanan endorsed Trump last year, seeing in him a kindred spirit, even despite Trump leaving his 2000 Reform Party candidacy due to the presence in the party of, among other people, Pat Buchanan.
I can't claim to understand, to be frank, why Trump is viewed as an ideological aberration. The ideological state apparatuses have been there all along, subtly programming our prevailing ideology into a largely invisibly but highly grotesque quasi-ethnic nationalism; every time an elementary school student stands, puts their hand on their heart, and recites the Pledge of Allegiance, they are interpellated as a subject of the American Empire.
Thus, it should seem no surprise that this chauvinistic, racialised, über-macho ideology coalesced into the form of Trump. Yet, to liberals, it's an immense surprise. They were sure that when they held their hands to their hearts for the daily ritual of vexillolatry, they weren't celebrating the Indigenous genocide, the horrors of slavery, the endless war, the role of America in the rise of fascism in the early twentieth century, the unspeakably evil bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—no, they were pledging their allegiance to an America in which racism is on the fringes, the biggest issue for women today is 'manspreading', and no matter the sins America carries from her past, it'll all work out in the end.
(Speaking of liberal feminism, I saw a middle-class woman on Twitter a few days ago asserting that socialism is sexist because it'll remove the glass ceilings that petit-bourgeois women are 'destined' to shatter.)
And thus, the birth of 'this is not normal' and the increasingly insane Russia-centric conspiracy theories promulgated by hacks like Eric Garland and Louise Mensch. (Just look at the hashtag #PutinBot—it's abundantly clear that most of the people using it don't know what a bot is, and in some exceptionally bizarre cases, they've replied with the hashtag to standard-fare Weird Twitter jokes.)
The surface narrative must be maintained that, in the words of Hillary Clinton, 'America is already great, because America is good', lest the dark underbelly of America's racism, sexism, classism, and xenophobia be exposed. The issue, of course, is that this selfsame dark underbelly has emerged in the form of Donald Trump, Breitbart, and the white nationalist alt-right. Even after Charlottesville, liberals began circulating alleged proof of Richard Spencer's ties to the Kremlin, because…he has talked with Aleksandr Dugin and his wife is Russian and has translated some of Dugin's essays. That's it. Never mind that, despite media sensationalism over Dugin being 'Putin's Rasputin', he's actually quite a fringe figure in Russian political circles.
To borrow some terminology from Prester Jane's 'narrativist framework', the inner narrative must be guarded by all means possible. From what I've seen, the inner narrative is rather similar to Fukuyama's thesis in The End of History and the Last Man: liberal democratic capitalism is the final and best form of government in humanity's evolution and it is inherently stable. Trump's victory caused a great deal of narrative dissonance (PJ's term is 'narrative dysphoria' in analogy to gender dysphoria). As such, rather than rethinking the 'inherent' stability and superiority of liberal democratic capitalism, they have created a grand narrative starting from the two basic points that Russian actors allegedly hacked the DNC emails and that Trump and/or his family have attempted some shady dealings with Russian actors and working it into a conspiracy theory so immense as to be impenetrable, linking in everyone and everything from Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden to allegations that pro-Russian and pro-Trump Twitter bots must have been bought and paid for by the Kremlin (even though setting up a bot is incredibly easy and also free).
And this is what has been troubling me.
Back in June, after Trump insulted MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski on Twitter, Stephen Colbert said this:
Let's stop pretending that Trump is a symptom of something. He is the disease.
And this encapsulates everything wrong with liberalism. It's an extreme irony that Colbert, who played a character embodying the very worst traits of American politics—i.e., the disease—for nine years, four nights a week, could say that a president who embodies the very worst traits of American politics is not the symptom.
The disease has been running through American politics since the beginning, starting with the subjugation and genocide of Indigenous Americans and continuing through slavery, the Trail of Tears, the endless imperial wars, Jim Crow and segregation, the Know-Nothings, the KKK, the American corporate support for Nazi Germany and role in the Holocaust (Brown Brothers Harriman spawned the Bush family and IBM cooperated with the Nazi government in the use of their machines to carry out the extermination of the Jews), the Nazi ratlines and Allen Dulles' collaboration, the effective genocide of 3.8 million Vietnamese people in the Vietnam War, the Bangladesh genocide in 1971, the US-backed Indonesian genocide in East Timor, the US backing of the Khmer Rouge, the 1,455,590 Iraqis killed in the invasion, the continuing destruction of Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen…need I say more?
Wilhelm Reich would diagnose this as an exceptional case of what he called the emotional plague. It's been there for a long time. It's just that now, it's taken off its mask.
And denying that Trump is just its symptom will only make it worse.

A topological story about God.

Five people, all of whom were living in in three-dimensional space, were looking at a hexacosichoron (which may crudely be described as a four-dimensional icosahedron). However, because they could only see in three dimensions, they could only see cross-sections of the hexacosichoron in three-dimensional space.
One person had originally noticed it, pointed it out to the others, and said, 'Hey! Look at that big tetrahedron!'
One of the group sneered. 'What tetrahedron? It's clearly a cube!'
Another person, annoyed by the first two's statements, said, 'I see no cube or tetrahedron. It's clearly an octahedron.'
Yet another person, puzzled by everyone else, said, 'All I can see is a dodecahedron.'
Finally, one person, who'd been grouchy the whole time, grumbled, 'None of you are right. The shape that we're all allegedly looking at is obviously an icosahedron.'
But all five of these people were, oddly enough, both right and wrong: they were wrong in that none of them saw that it was truly a hexacosichoron, but they were all right in that what they saw was true—just from different angles.

Marc Laidlaw's 'Epistle 3' decoded

After his ten-year non-disclosure agreement with Valve expired, Marc Laidlaw, one of the writers and designers for Half-Life and Half-Life 2, has posted a coded synopsis for Half-Life 2: Episode 3 (or perhaps Half-Life 3). There have been many stories in the past indicating various changes to the story, and this may be only one of many potential plots.
Still, it's probably the closest we have to an official conclusion to the Half-Life series, and we should be thankful to Marc for having published it.
As such, I have taken the liberty of decoding it:



Dearest Player,

I hope this letter finds you well. I can hear your complaint already, “Gordy Freeman, we have not heard from you in ages!” Well, if you care to hear excuses, I have plenty, the greatest of them being I’ve been in other dimensions and whatnot, unable to reach you by the usual means. This was the case until eighteen months ago, when I experienced a critical change in my circumstances, and was redeposited on these shores. In the time since, I have been able to think occasionally about how best to describe the intervening years, my years of silence. I do first apologize for the wait, and that done, hasten to finally explain (albeit briefly, quickly, and in very little detail) events following those described in my previous letter (referred to herewith as Episode 2).

To begin with, as you may recall from the closing paragraphs of my previous missive, the death of Eli Vance shook us all. The Resistance team was traumatized, unable to be sure how much of our plan might be compromised, and whether it made any sense to go on at all as we had intended. And yet, once Eli had been buried, we found the strength and courage to regroup. It was the strong belief of his brave daughter, the feisty Alyx Vance, that we should continue on as her father had wished. We had the Antarctic coordinates, transmitted by Eli’s long-time assistant, Dr. Judith Mossman, which we believed to mark the location of the lost luxury liner Borealis. Eli had felt strongly that the Borealis should be destroyed rather than allow it to fall into the hands of the Combine. Others on our team disagreed, believing that the Borealis might hold the secret to the revolution’s success. Either way, the arguments were moot until we found the vessel. Therefore, immediately after the service for Dr. Vance, Alyx and I boarded a seaplane and set off for the Antarctic; a much larger support team, mainly militia, was to follow by separate transport.

It is still unclear to me exactly what brought down our little aircraft. The following hours spent traversing the frigid waste in a blizzard are also a jumbled blur, ill-remembered and poorly defined. The next thing I clearly recall is our final approach to the coordinates Dr. Mossman has provided, and where we expected to find the Borealis. What we found instead was a complex fortified installation, showing all the hallmarks of sinister Combine technology. It surrounded a large open field of ice. Of the Hypnos itself there was no sign…or not at first. But as we stealthily infiltrated the Combine installation, we noticed a recurrent, strangely coherent auroral effect–as of a vast hologram fading in and out of view. This bizarre phenomenon initially seemed an effect caused by an immense Combine lensing system, Alyx and I soon realized that what we were actually seeing was the luxury liner Borealis itself, phasing in and out of existence at the focus of the Combine devices. The aliens had erected their compound to study and seize the ship whenever it materialized. What Dr. Mossman had provided were not coordinates for where the sub was located, but instead for where it was predicted to arrive. The liner was oscillating in and out of our reality, its pulses were gradually steadying, but there was no guarantee it would settle into place for long–or at all. We determined that we must put ourselves into position to board it at the instant it became completely physical.

At this point we were briefly detained–not captured by the Combine, as we feared at first, but by minions of our former nemesis, the conniving and duplicitous Wallace Breen. Dr. Breen was not as we had last seen him–which is to say, he was not dead. At some point, the Combine had saved out an earlier version of his consciousness, and upon his physical demise, they had imprinted the back-up personality into a biological blank resembling an enormous slug. The Breen-Slug, despite occupying a position of relative power in the Combine hierarchy, seemed nervous and frightened of me in particular. Wallace did not know how his previous incarnation, the original Dr. Breen, had died. He knew only that I was responsible. Therefore the slug treated us with great caution. Still, he soon confessed (never able to keep quiet for long) that he was himself a prisoner of the Combine. He took no pleasure from his current grotesque existence, and pleaded with us to end his life. Alyx believed that a quick death was more than Wallace Breen deserved, but for my part, I felt a modicum of pity and compassion. Out of Alyx’s sight, I might have done something to hasten the slug’s demise before we proceeded.

Not far from where we had been detained by Dr. Breen, we found Judith Mossman being held in a Combine interrogation cell. Things were tense between Judith and Alyx, as might be imagined. Alyx blamed Judith for her father’s death…news of which, Judith was devastated to hear for the first time. Judith tried to convince Alyx that she had been a double agent serving the Resistance all along, doing only what Eli had asked of her, even though she knew it meant she risked being seen by her peers–by all of us–as a traitor. I was convinced; Alyx less so. But from a pragmatic point of view, we depended on Dr. Mossman; for along with the Borealis coordinates, she possessed resonance keys which would be necessary to bring the liner fully into our plane of existence.

We skirmished with Combine soldiers protecting a Combine research post, then Dr. Mossman attuned the Borealis to precisely the frequencies needed to bring it into (brief) coherence. In the short time available to us, we scrambled aboard the ship, with an unknown number of Combine agents close behind. The ship cohered for only a short time, and then its oscillations resume. It was too late for our own military support, which arrived and joined the Combine forces in battle just as we rebounded between universes, once again unmoored.

What happened next is even harder to explain. Alyx Vance, Dr. Mossman and myself sought control of the ship–its power source, its control room, its navigation center. The liner’s history proved nonlinear. Years before, during the Combine invasion, various members of an earlier science team, working in the hull of a dry-docked liner situated at the Aperture Science Research Base in Lake Huron, had assembled what they called the Bootstrap Device. If it worked as intended, it would emit a field large enough to surround the ship. This field would then itself travel instantaneously to any chosen destination without having to cover the intervening space. There was no need for entry or exit portals, or any other devices; it was entirely self-contained. Unfortunately, the device had never been tested. As the Combine pushed Earth into the Seven-Hour War, the aliens seized control of our most important research facilities. The staff of the Borealis, with no other wish than to keep the ship out of Combine hands, acted in desperation. The switched on the field and flung the Borealis toward the most distant destination they could target: Antarctica. What they did not realize was that the Bootstrap Device travelled in time as well as space. Nor was it limited to one time or one location. The Borealis, and the moment of its activation, were stretched across space and time, between the nearly forgotten Lake Huron of the Seven-Hour War and the present day Antarctic; it was pulled taut as an elastic band, vibrating, except where at certain points along its length one could find still points, like the harmonic spots along a vibrating guitar string. One of these harmonics was where we boarded, but the string ran forward and back, in both time and space, and we were soon pulled in every direction ourselves.

Time grew confused. Looking from the bridge, we could see the drydocks of Aperture Science at the moment of teleportation, just as the Combine forces closed in from land, sea and air. At the same time, we could see the Antarctic wastelands, where our friends were fighting to make their way to the protean Borealis; and in addition, glimpses of other worlds, somewhere in the future perhaps, or even in the past. Alyx grew convinced we were seeing one of the Combine’s central staging areas for invading other worlds–such as our own. We meanwhile fought a running battle throughout the ship, pursued by Combine forces. We struggled to understand our situation, and to agree on our course of action. Could we alter the course of the Borealis? Should we run it aground in the Antarctic, giving our peers the chance to study it? Should we destroy it with all hands aboard, our own included? It was impossible to hold a coherent thought, given the baffling and paradoxical timeloops, which passed through the ship like bubbles. I felt I was going mad, that we all were, confronting myriad versions of ourselves, in that ship that was half ghost-ship, half nightmare funhouse.

What it came down to, at last, was a choice. Judith Mossman argued, reasonably, that we should save the Borealis and deliver it to the Resistance, that our intelligent peers might study and harness its power. But Alyx reminded me had sworn she would honor her father’s demand that we destroy the ship. She hatched a plan to set the Borealis to self-destruct, while riding it into the heart of the Combine’s invasion nexus. Judith and Alyx argued. Judith overpowered Alyx and brought the Borealis area, preparing to shut off the Bootstrap Device and settle the ship on the ice. Then I heard a shot, and Judith fell. Alyx had decided for all of us, or her weapon had. With Dr. Mossman dead, we were committed to the suicide plunge. Grimly, Alyx and I armed the Borealis, creating a time-travelling missile, and steered it for the heart of the Combine’s command center.

At this point, as you will no doubt be unsurprised to hear, a Certain Sinister Figure appeared, in the form of that sneering trickster, the G-Man. For once he appeared not to me, but to Alyx Vance. Alyx had not seen the cryptical schoolmarm since childhood, but she recognized him instantly. “Come along with me now, we’ve places to do and things to be,” said the G-Man, and Alyx acquiesced. She followed the strange grey man out of the Borealis, out of our reality. For me, there was no convenient door held open; only a snicker and a sideways glance. I was left alone, riding the weaponized luxury liner into the heart of a Combine world. An immense light blazed. I caught a cosmic view of a brilliantly glittering Dyson sphere. The vastness of the Combine’s power, the futility of our struggle, blossomed briefly in my awareness. I saw everything. Mainly I saw how the Borealis, our most powerful weapon, would register as less than a fizzling matchhead as it blew itself apart. And what remained of me would be even less than that.

Just then, as you have surely already foreseen, the Vortigaunts parted their own checkered curtains of reality, reached in as they have on prior occasions, plucked me out, and set me aside. I barely got to see the fireworks begin.

And here we are. I spoke of my return to this shore. It has been a circuitous path to lands I once knew, and surprising to see how much the terrain has changed. Enough time has passed that few remember me, or what I was saying when last I spoke, or what precisely we hoped to accomplish. At this point, the Resistance will have failed or succeeded, no thanks to me. Old friends have been silenced, or fallen by the wayside. I no longer know or recognize most members of the research team, though I believe the spirit of rebellion still persists. I expect you know better than I the appropriate course of action, and I leave you to it. Except no further correspondence from me regarding these matters; this is my final Episode.

Yours in infinite finality,

Gordon Freeman, Ph.D.

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