DomPam2: Art, politics, and Brecht

I’ve been wanting to write a post about Brechtian influences on DomPam2 for a while now, but with trying to wrap up course work this semester and dealing with other life things, it’s been hard to focus on things that don’t have immediate deadlines. My general stress level has, in part, been heightened by last month’s US election, which affects us here in Canada pretty significantly, even though I honestly am glad to be back.

In times like these, I believe it’s more important than ever for artists to engage with politics in their work, even as some folks seem to get all bothered about it. “Artists are supposed to make people smile, not think.” “Games are supposed to be fun.” That sort of thing. And, well, sure, what I want to do is not going to make me popular or garner me a lot of Steam sales, because most people who play videogames seem to want to have fun and feel good, at least as I understand it.1 And yet, I’m at a point where I can’t not make games that express the things I’m thinking and feeling.

So, Brecht. I first encountered Bertolt Brecht‘s work sometime after I released DomPam1, when people much smarter and more well-read than me started comparing it to The Threepenny Opera, and Weimar Germany-era cabaret theatre in general. So, of course, I eventually started to look into the stuff I was being compared to, and found it resonated with me in a big way. I mean, gee, I can’t imagine why, in this current political climate, I’d find a lot in common with a playwright who worked during the rise of fascism pre-WWII, but there you have it.

Brecht is perhaps best known for creating what he calls a Verfremdungseffekt (often translated as “alienation effect”) in his plays, meaning that he intended for the audience not to experience immersion in the story or identification with the characters, but to look at what was happening on stage with a critical eye. In theatre, you create this effect by breaking the fourth wall, singing and playing instruments off-key, and generally doing everything you can to convey the unreality of what’s going on to the audience.2 In games, you can do similar things, while also making use of play-specific interventions such as interrupting flow.

In DomPam2, specifically, this entails making the following design decisions:

  • Instead of playing as one player character, you play as multiple copies of the same player character. Furthermore, the line between player character, voice actor, and game designer gets more and more blurred as the game goes on.
  • Most of the scenes you play are shown in random order, in a manner similar to a game I made 8 years ago, “DREAMING” (short for “Des Rêves Élastiques Avec Mille Insectes Nommés Georges”).
  • The UI and “rules” of the game occasionally switch up: in one scene, you’re in a visual novel; in another scene, you’re in an FPS; in yet another scene, you’re in a Twine game. (See also: Frog Fractions.)
  • The dialogue (both spoken and sung) is unskippable. In fact, the entire game is practically an unskippable cutscene, except with a few clickable things here and there. Sorry. (Not sorry.)
  • And, of course, the same sort of slightly off-key singing in funny voices you’ve come to expect from DomPam1.

So, why would you even break immersion, anyway? Players love immersion, and escapism, and identifying with their characters! I would argue it’s for the same reason folks like Anna Anthropy problematise the idea of the “empathy game” — there is something about games from marginalised perspectives that create a sense of entitlement on the part of the privileged, who think things like “now that I’ve played a game by a trans person, I now understand what it’s like to be trans!” Except, no, it’s not as simple as that. DomPam2 isn’t going to teach you what it’s like to be queer, or nonbinary, or ace, or a person of colour, or any of the things that I am. It might give you an insight into why everything feels like a mess in my head, but it also invites you to think about what’s going on in the context of your own life, and in the world right now.

Which brings me to another important aspect of Brecht’s work: that it be explicitly grounded in a particular time, place, and context. We think of “great works of art” as having this ahistorical universality, when in fact, everything is a product of its time. And so, like everything I create, DomPam2 is a time capsule of who I am now, today, in the year 2016, at age 31, uncertain of everything as ever, and living in a world that feels like it’s falling apart, and has been for years now.

  1. It’s a good thing my primary source of income, at least at this point in time, isn’t game sales.
  2. I’d argue that this also has a lot of parallels to camp, and to the practice of queering in general.