Oikospiel, the new experimental game from David Kanaga and Ferdinand Ramallo, wants to make sure you’re paying attention. It doesn’t want you to get wrapped up in its story or relax and have fun playing a game. It’s constantly trying to jar you out of any trance or flow state. At every turn its controls, imagery, and format are designed to remind you that it’s a game and point you towards the real world. In this way, Oikospiel is part of a long tradition of politically-minded art, somewhere between the political surrealism of dada and the socialist avant-garde realism of playwright Bertolt Brecht.
A lot of art aspires to tell truths about the social conditions of the community it was made in. These social realist works aspire not just to represent, but to reform. Jacob Riis’s 1890 study of New York City tenements, called How the Other Half Lives led to reforms in the city and nationally within a few years. In 1935, as part of the New Deal, the US government paid for a documentary photograph project to demonstrate the need for programs to combat rural poverty. Photographs like Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother humanized that need at the time and still serve as icons of the Great Depression. In the Soviet Union, Socialist Realism in plays and paintings contended that the poor could be elevated best through a redistribution of wealth, and that realistic portrayals of everyday workers supported an optimistic and revolutionary patriotism—with those workers proudly supporting one another.
These themes of desperation and solidarity run through Oikospiel, too. The videogame opera centers on a team of canine programmers working on a videogame opera adaptation of the 1759 novel Tristam Shandy. Their exacting publisher, Donkey Koch, has cancelled their project after they fell too far over budget and behind schedule. At the same time, the newly formed United Animal Workers (which shares an abbreviation with the real-world union, United Automobile Workers) stage a general strike for universal income. In one of the early stages of the game, the player controls several different animals—one after another—running along a road and passing out union registration cards to each other. Here, the animals share a control scheme, and no character stands out as a protagonist.
Oikospiel is one of very few games that takes the time to examine the politics of game-making. It’s not the only one: The Writer Will Do Something (Tom Bissell and Matthew S,. Burns) criticizes design by focus group and the disregard some big studios seem to have for writers. But it’s Oikospiel with its team of dog-developers that covers the economics and especially the emotional struggle of producing something broken and unfinished. Representing this in a simulation like Game Dev Tycoon is one thing, but players still seem able to dissociate those from reality. Layoffs and losses are part of the game, they don’t force players to reflect. When players who pirated Game Dev Tycoon (Greenheart Games) discovered their fictional studios were failing due to piracy, they asked for tips on forums. The enveloping fiction of the game prevented them from stepping outside of it to reflect on their own participation in the system the game represent.
But here’s where Oikospiel borrows from Brecht for its own benefit: it’s a game that tries very hard not to be immersive. Brecht’s plays make use of an “estrangement” effect, where actors might break the fourth wall by delivering conversational lines into the audience, or where harsh lighting might rob the stage of its theatrical magic. This allowed Brecht to deliver direct and unmediated messages about his own political context. In Oikospiel, the player is often kept at a distance from the action: the camera switches from first to third to second-person, it’s somewhat difficult to control your character, it’s not always easy to tell what you’re expected to do, models clip with one another or they animate in unsettlingly weird ways. It doesn’t feel especially good to play, which leaves a player thinking about what it is like to play it. Instead of fighting the weirdness of control, it embraces it, the jerky camera and abrasive transitions become part of the game’s aesthetic. Apart from the sound, Oikospiel’s assets (along with the plugins that run its events and dialogue) are all purchased from other artists, some from Turbosquid, some from the Unity Asset Store.
When you walk through the mist and see the character model for Donkey Kong standing in for Donkey Koch (who shares initials with developer David Kanaga), you are held at a distance from the story the game intends to tell. The immediately recognizable symbols in Oikospiel are surprising and funny. They’re so full of meaning already that they push the player to think about why they’re here: Have I seen this before? Will he get in trouble for this? Koch like the Koch brothers? Hasn’t David Kanaga been plastering DK all over the game so far? And the D is the Disney D?
In his Nuovo Award acceptance speech at the IGF and in an interview with Gamasutra, Kanaga describes a sprawling vision of Indie Game Patriotism and developer welfare intended to solve pervasive problems in the industry. Numerous independent developers fail to make enough money to keep working in the field, and those who succeed often reshape their creative visions around what they expect will be profitable. Throughout the industry, long hours and crunch time are standard. Layoffs and shutdowns—even of seemingly successful large studios like THQ and Irrational— put developers in precarious situations, struggling to support families and moving across the country (or the globe) to follow the work.
SAG-AFTRA, the union for actors, is currently in the middle of one of its longest strikes ever, driven by complaints by voice actors against eleven video game companies. In many cases, criticism of the strike is centered around the idea that developers and designers don’t have these kinds of protections, and that the strike might harm their creative pursuits. When the pro-union hashtag #PerformanceMatters was trending, Nolan North spoke against the strike, saying that the performance of developers was important too. There are unions for workers of all kinds who contribute to film, television, and stage performances, but voice actors are expecting labor standards from these other artistic endeavors to apply in a space dominated by the startup culture idealism that leads to 85 hour work weeks and burnout.
The moment from Oikospiel that keeps coming back to me is one spent in the Koch office with the dogs with CPUs in their hearts. It’s a complex metaphor for the love and danger involved in a career in making games, and in this scene it’s made literal. The dogs move from treadmill to whiteboard to keep their internal computers pumping on programming problems. One acknowledges the threat of the chip zapping them to death. Their bodies are there to serve the work they do, and at the same time this art can only be produced through the effort of their hearts. The dogs have differing opinions about the forming union, but each expresses a desire to preserve a livelihood for their children and their children’s children.