I am discovering just how fertile a period the mid 2000s were for experiments in digital literature. As I said in my previous post, a couple of weeks ago I was at Story+, a digital media writing conference at the Brisbane Writers Festival, and there I discovered Jason Nelson. Nelson is a digital poet, a title that may sound pretentious but isn’t. Once you see his work you understand.
In 2005 he made this is how you will die, a slot machine game, where the pictures have been replaced by 15 five-line stories telling you the before, during and after of your death. It’s simple but clever and also includes audio and videos, which are both recurrent elements in his work.
But he made his most well-known game, called game, game, game and again game in 2007. It’s a platform game in which you are a hand-drawn little spidery scribble interacting in a landscape that is also hand-drawn. You have a red centre when you’re still and a flashing red and yellow centre when you move. Being a platform game, you need to jump as much as possible to get through the levels. There are 13 of them and they’re all named. You start at the fundamentalist and work through the faithful, the real estate agent, the buddhist, the tourist, the capitalist…. with drawings and text to match. Whenever you see the blue scribble, you must avoid it or you will hear the sing-song voice of the artist entreating you to “come on and meet your maker”. But dying has no consequence, you get put back into the game almost where you were, ready to interact again.
Most of the levels also have “click here” buttons to load “video proof”. These videos are snippets of long-ago super 8 home movies. Sound is layered on the videos, just as text and images are layered on the screen. And each level has a soundtrack that is often discordant.
The last level sends you back to an earlier one unless you’re very careful.
To my mind, this game is first and foremost a piece of art. But to many gamers, that will not be an ideal recommendation. A lot of people who play games are looking for sophisticated and challenging gameplay as their first priority, they would run away from the idea of playing art. And the gameplay in game, game, game and again game is very straightforward though I think there is a brilliance in the text and images that are revealed.
But even though I describe it as art, I also think of it as a game and as a piece of interactive literature. It is all these things to me. I loved it. I was inspired and delighted by it. The hand-drawn aspects, rough, almost like a child’s drawings, appeal to my love of lo-fi, but then there’s the incongruity of these images appearing in something electronic like a game. I had to play the game a second and third time so that I slowed down enough to read the text. And I didn’t get bored of it.
The only thing I didn’t like was the “big winnings” video on the very final page. That video is unlike the others in that it is not one of the old super 8 films but instead has Nelson himself talking to us. It’s about life with potatoes and milk and orange juice and capsules. I’ve played a number of Jason Nelson’s games at this stage and I’ve seen enough to realise that his videos don’t appeal to me. But his interactive work does.
In 2008 he made a sequel to game, game, game and again game called i made this. you play this. we are enemies. This time he uses webpages as backgrounds on which to layer his text and drawings. Again, I love the aesthetic though the game is not as satisfying as the earlier one.
His most recent work is called nothing you have done deserves such praise and was commissioned this year by New Radio and Arts Inc. He has numerous games and they should be played and read and explored. You can find them at his website.