As we’ve mentioned recently, DIY art and game space Babycastles has been working hard to offer alternatives to the often exclusionary world of video games, showcasing work by indie game designers and artists who reveal that yes, there can be more to video games than mindless shooting and the Mountain Dew-guzzling men who often play them.
The previous exhibit on view was Toronto-based Kara Stone’s The Mystical Digital, offering a witchy and introspective take on games, with selections like Techno Tarot, where a robot gives you a detailed tarot reading, and Cyclothymia, a narrative exploring connections between emotions and astrology.
Another Canada-based game designer and programmer, Mx. Dietrich “Squinky” Squinkifier, has similar wishes to disrupt the tired norms in video games and video game culture. Rather than appealing to one’s inner mystic or the Bushwick dwellers who frequent places like Catland, Squinky’s games are more familiar to those who might stay in on a Friday night, presenting playable stories of awkward social interactions and small Claymation creatures of indistinct gender.
The Montreal-based artist’s second solo exhibition, Squinky Hates Video Games, is a compilation of work from the past three years in the form of ten different games, some of which were created during a stint at UC Santa Cruz’s Digital Arts and New Media MFA program. Squinky completed the program in 2015, and was recognized by Forbes that year as one of 30 Under 30 in Games.
For all its silliness, the exhibit is filled with moments of poignant commentary on the human experience. One game, Interruption Junction, places you in the shoes of a person at a table full of chatty folks. Of course, you’d like to join in, but it’s not always easy. To contribute to the conversation, you must press a button. If you only press it once, you’ll just say “Well” or “Um,” so in order to string full sentences together you must take a note from days of yore when you played fighting games you didn’t really understand, and mash that button like there’s no tomorrow, lest you literally fade into nothingness. This is a lot of work to maintain. If you even so much as lag for a moment, the others around you will take over the conversation and you’ll have to start the process all over again.
This was the first game of Squinky’s that I played, while feeling anxious and alone by myself at this art opening surrounded by strangers. This simple game, with only one button to press and some 2D cartoon drawings, somehow managed to be on the same page as me. Playing made me feel stressed, but at the same time I was glad that someone thought to make an entire game about how even basic social interactions can be taxing.
“It was really important to me that the act of talking [in the game] felt physically exhausting,” Squinky told me. “One thing I like to do is have my game mechanics correspond to whatever emotions you’re supposed to be feeling. Games are marketed to be these fun things that feel good to play, and that’s all very valid and stuff, but sometimes I want to have both positive and negative emotions associated with what you do.”
As a physical representation of how experiences are created in Twine, one of Babycastles’ walls was opened up for anyone to add to an ever-growing web of narrative using colored tape, Post-Its, and markers, resulting in an occasionally absurd conglomeration of thoughts and ideas.
“I like the idea of being able to have a dialogue with my audience, and in storytelling thinking of multiple possible worlds,” Squinky said. “As a storyteller, I’m not necessarily thinking of one way that things go but many different permutations. So I find that to be a really interesting exercise and this very postmodern way of storytelling that fits more with what this generation has to say than any other before it.”
It turned out that was far truer than I even initially perceived—when I played the autobiographical Conversations We Have In My Head, I watched two characters speak with each other, and my experience was that of viewing an animated short film. I assumed that was how the piece worked, but Squinky told me there are actually ways to restructure this conversation using the controller. In a way, these games act as a test of the player’s independence and agency, where you’re invited to experiment with what is possible without necessarily being instructed.
All of these games are relatively simple to figure out, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t challenging. “Challenge as it’s usually meant in video games means a particular kind of literacy,” Squinky noted. “I’m not necessarily interested in that, I want to create fewer barriers to literacy but still have challenging material in my work.”
Text-based game 36 Questions is a fine example of this. It invites the user to interact with Squinky through trading answers to each of the 36 questions designed to inspire love while it becomes clearer and clearer that the apocalypse is looming. At the opening, one person was raptly absorbed in it, furiously typing the entire time I was there.
The title of the exhibition, Squinky Hates Video Games, is meant to be ironic but also speaks to the issues Squinky has with a lot of games: “I’m pretty fed up with a lot of the culture around video games, as many people are, so I speak up against it by creating my own things.”
These games are wholly their creator’s own, a vibrant result of many different mediums all folded into one. “I get to write, I get to make visual art, I get to compose music and code. Putting those things all together and making something greater than the sum of its parts is really cool for me,” Squinky said. “I do think one of the problems in video games is we don’t reach out to other art scenes enough, and we definitely should.”
There’s also a colorful blanket fort in the lofted section of the gallery, where there are two autobiographical narrative games: the aforementioned Conversations We Have In My Head, and the choose-your-own-adventure text story exploring belonging to many cultures and not quite neatly fitting into any of them, I’m Really Sorry About That Thing I Said When I Was Tired and/or Hungry.
Apparently members of the game dev community in Montreal like to have blanket forts at events, as chillout zones. The fabric for this one came from the Garment District’s Spandex World, which Squinky calls “a magical place. I like colors and shapes to be garish and loud, almost a little painful to look at. I feel like my aesthetic has more in common with performance and conceptual art than it does with other games sometimes.”
Ultimately, Squinky hopes visitors to Babycastles will “laugh, think, and feel. Maybe relate, even. I always love it when people say they can relate, because that’s kind of the reason why I do these things anyway, why I turn my experiences into art: to find people who can relate.”
Squinky Hates Video Games is on view until August 17 at Babycastles, 137 W 14th Street, Chelsea. More info here.