The Beauty of Autobiographical Games
Updated: Sep 24, 2020
I'm sure you've seen numerous films starting with the words "Based on a True Story..." At the cinema, life stories sell. This is also true to literature. In libraries, I am always surprised at how big the memoir and autobiography section is.
This is not true to video games where designers tend to detach themselves from the stories by creating protagonists very different from themselves. To name a few amongst many, Asian American Robert Yang's queer erotic games always star tall white protagonists or Mohammed Alavi's work (Call of Duty, Apex Legends) has never portrayed any Iranian characters.
Video games are made for the masses. Incorporating personal stories creates a risk of loosing consumers that will not relate with the personal stories told in the game. Games often credit "teams" rather than developers, erasing the idea of personal or autobiographical games. Even Interstory's database credits the companies and not the creators of the games because this is how the games are published.
However since the rise of indie game development, designers can now have complete control other a game's production. Thanks to this possibility many "personal games" have emerged. Many people believe that games should be fun and that personal stories should be told in books and not games. I disagree, games offer storytelling opportunities that are perfect for autobiographies.
Mini games can be the perfect format to express the writer's stuggles. Dys4ia developped by Anna Anthropy tells her experience with hormone therapy and gender dysphoria. Through clever mini games, her feelings of not belonging anywhere and searching for her identity are shared with the player.
Consume Me by Jenny Jiao Hsia (also known as @q_dork) puts us in the mindset of someone with an eating disorder by creating games that make us have a mechanic approach to the act of eating.
These examples create an unique experience not possible for passive viewings. Through a frustrating gameplay, players empathise with the frustration of the authors. As Anthropy said in an interview, frustration unlocks “an entirely different level of empathy that most people simply cannot comprehend, and so the game makes this particular empathetic frustration available for all to experience.”
Some autobiographical games, like a subgenre of interactive films (Possibilia, KinoAutomat) create a story with a planed ending that will happen no matter your decisions or moves. Dys4ia progresses to the next scene no matter if you failed or not because whatever Anna does, her life continues. Mainichi (Japanese for “everyday”) has the player repeat the same coffee meeting day after day, with nuanced differences in how the protagonist performs and dresses — communicating the daily occurrences in the real life of developer Mattie Brice.
Some autobiographical games put you in the shoes of the protagonist, blurring the lines between game and reality such as Nina Freeman's Cibele. You face the desktop of a teenage girls and get to interact as she would. Nina Freeman's game called Lost Memories Dot Net follows the same principal. This is particularly effective to understand how character's internet lives can become all consuming for them. In Lost Memories Dot Net, our goal is to develop our blog, a popular activity for teenagers of the early 2000s. This action alone and the aesthetic of Freeman's game also create a feeling of nostalgia for the many internet users who used to blog.
Finally why personal games give us a unique insight in people's stories in a way that other mediums can not do not is because it can be much more abstract and still convey emotions through gameplay. That is the case of Syia and That Dragon Cancer.
These extremely personal stories come to life through feelings created by interaction rather than clear explanations. Author and game developer Olivia White wrote “auto/biographical games are the future both for personal catharsis and general education”. They expose issues of gender, depression and sexuality that people would not necessarily want to read about but maybe they would agree to discover through game.