2016, Games Criticism, and The Inescapable Madness of BUY2BILLIONFOLLOWE
Keyboard. Paintings. Wires. Window. I return to these objects again and again as I circle the dark room. Besides myself, they are the only thing between these four towering walls, the only clues as to the room’s purpose and significance. I brush up against the desk on which the keyboard is resting, behind which glowing blocks bearing my messages are carried up towards the ceiling and off to who knows where. I curse my inability to jump, to touch, to see more than a few inches into the impenetrable black that is smothering me, choking out my hold on reality.
I return to the window often, out of which I can keep track of the time of day as I attempt to see past the end of the long cables that jut out from wherever I am being held. This could only be a prison. Not because I am unable to leave; a few taps on my real, physical keyboard and I am once again looking at my familiar desktop. No, this is a prison because it is without hope, and even when I exit the game I can still feel its pull.
Matt Surka describes BUY2BILLIONFOLLOWE as “a one-puzzle game;” an experience that may be “pointed, meditative, or haunting.” His site explains that in developing the game he hoped to tap into a particular mood, one brought about by the compounding despair that seems to have personified 2016. Its title seems to cheekily poke fun at social media culture and the race to the bottom of people attempting to bolster their self-worth by inflating arbitrary numbers. Inside the game, wall panels tell of futuristic human endeavors, all of which are ultimately spoiled by our selfish impulses that we so often mask as altruism. The ascending blocks in the center of the room feature garbled sentences that seem to touch most often on death and Animal Crossing. You can add your own words to these blocks, or allow the game to generate its own indefinitely.
I bring all of this up as a self-defeating exercise in attempting to work through my own thoughts on BUY2BILLIONFOLLOWE. I can go over the mechanics of the game at great length. I can describe the graphics, attempt to put words to the booming bass notes of the game’s soundtrack. I can throw up my hands as so many do and call this a pretentious ode to one’s own elevated tastes and intellect. All of this is pointless. Because BUY2BILLIONFOLLOWE is not just what is in the game itself; it’s also what you bring to it.
If you have ever taken a college English course, one of the first concepts that will be discussed are the various methodologies for interpreting and critiquing literature. Within an enormous variety of disciplines, no two are more directly opposed to one another than formalism and reader-response. The former, predictably, emphasizes the text itself above all external elements, from social and political context, to the author themselves. The later places most importance on the role of the reader, and the ways in which we cannot help but use elements from our personal histories to inform how we understand literature.
We are moving away from “how does this game play,” to also consider “how does it make me feel?”
It is a ridiculous and futile task to attempt to argue which method is best, but for the sake of this piece I feel it pertinent to state that I have long favored methods of reading which take into consideration the lives and histories of the reader, and believe it is impossible to divorce ourselves from the media we consume. I also believe it is important to recognize reader focused criticism as valid because it’s how most people think about media. Whether or not you believe it’s the right way to do so, it is foolish to discredit the ideas and feelings of so many people purely for the sake of academic rigor.
An interesting thing has happened in games criticism over the last few years where the conversation has slowly begun to shift from more formalist writing to writing with a greater consciousness of both what a game says about the social and political context it is released in, and what it says about the person playing it. In short, we are moving away from “how does this game play,” to also consider “how does it make me feel?”
Again, I am not here to attempt to argue for or against either writing style (though I think it is difficult to say that games writing as a whole hasn’t improved exponentially in recent years). My recommendation is to figure out what you like to read and find places that cater to it. You’ll be well served either way.
The point of this long, meandering tangent is to bring up another trend that has been less commonly vocalized but has gained similar traction alongside and in some ways as a response to new forms of games writing. Namely, a style of game that not only relies heavily on the player putting themselves in the game, but that positively demand it. Games like Mountain (2014) which was derided as nothing but a screensaver, and yet has received immense critical acclaim from outlets not known to even regularly write about games, largely because its approach to game design was less literal than we typically expect. Mountain thrived on interpretation, a digital rock inviting all form of metaphor and symbolism.
Since Mountain (and certainly before, though Mountain likely remains the most visible of its lot and was undoubtedly a turning point), other games have sought to capture a similarly poetic style of interaction. People began to think about games not solely as things to be done, but things to be a part of; places to exist in, for no other purpose but to attempt to feel what the game’s author was trying to say. These games represent radical departures from not only traditional game design, but media in general, and perhaps that’s why I find them so fascinating. Games that allow the player to read history off the wall, wander through halls where the architect’s handprints can still be easily seen, and experience something so small and personal that it often feels like looking into somebody’s soul. To say it is profound and intimate would be an understatement.
It is important that BUY2BILLIONFOLLOWE released at the tail end of 2016. November 7th, to be precise. It is not a game that could exist in a time of boundless optimism and good spirits, as its tone is so dark and the atmosphere to oppressive that to experience it in a state of positivity would render it trite and cynical.
BUY2BILLIONFOLLOWE had to release when it did, as the universe was metaphorically and literally burning to the ground. It needed an audience striving to feel connected to a world that seemed increasing alien, who would accept anything that helped them feel less alone. It needed, in short, people who had been hurt.
It may seem odd, to those who have played BUY2BILLIONFOLLOWE, to suggest it could in any way act as an agent of healing, so I should stress that in no way am I arguing anything of the sort. BUY2BILLIONFOLLOWE is oppressive and claustrophobic, a maddening collection of discarded technology and agonizingly vague history. I wandered around its tight enclosure for what felt like an eternity, desperately trying to get the game to do anything, to react to my presence, to be something I could control.
I am still uncertain if anything exists in BUY2BILLIONFOLLOWE beyond the single room with a keyboard I witnessed. I think, though, that I would prefer to not know. At some point between staring blankly out the window and typing nonsensical messages which then disappeared into the ceiling, it finally clicked with me that the game was never going to relent to my pleas for it to change into something I could understand. BUY2BILLIONFOLLOWE is not a game to be won and consumed. It is, as its creator said, “an attempt to capture a mood.”
BUY2BILLIONFOLLOWE is powerful not because its digital bowels are somehow more profound that those of any other collection of pixels, just as a novel isn’t more profound because the ink it is printed with holds special significance. Like Mountain, BUY2BILLIONFOLLOWE is in many ways a shell to be inhabited and filled. If we refuse to allow ourselves to fully inhabit the game, the experience is empty and meaningless. BUY2BILLIONFOLLOWE, perhaps even more than Mountain, requires that we invest in the game as more than entertainment, and allow ourselves to fill in the blanks with what we believe should go in them.
BUY2BILLIONFOLLOWE’s success, then, is in its unpleasantness. The way it gets under your skin and inside your head until you are positively screaming and you don’t know why. It is not a horror game, but it is scary. Scary in how it makes you feel so small, how it strips you of the power you expect a game to give, and renders your only means of interaction – words typed into a physical and digital keyboard – nothing but unheard yells into a void you can’t even see. Whatever may be read into the game is crushed by our own frivolous attempts to understand the intentionally opaque.
If BUY2BILLIONFOLLOWE was a game about 2016, it is also one meant to stay in 2016.
Perhaps BUY2BILLIONFOLLOWE is meant to be read as an analogy to social media, and how our attempts to be heard only seem to quiet us further. It feels more likely, though, that BUY2BILLIONFOLLOWE is about feeling lost. In a world that is more connected than ever, it is remarkable how alone we often feel, isolation leading to depression leading to desperation.
In this way, BUY2BILLIONFOLLOWE is a game which perfectly encapsulates the mood of 2016. It is messy. It is uncomfortable. It alienates you even as it puts you in a cage. It allows you to connect with others but neglects to mention that nobody is listening. BUY2BILLIONFOLLOWE is a game which trades in despair the way most games trade in skill points and seems antithetical to all the ways we typically think about games as being fun and empowering.
What is important, though, is that BUY2BILLIONFOLLOWE is never cruel. It does not set out to disgust the way a game like Hatred (2015) does. Rather, it reads as one person’s attempt to understand the sort of mundane tragedy that affects us on a day to day level. We are invited into the game not to provide or obtain answers, but to observe and depart. If BUY2BILLIONFOLLOWE was a game about 2016, it is also one meant to stay in 2016; a sort of wordless elegy suspended indefinitely in digital space. We may visit from time to time in order to remember the mistakes we made lest we repeat them, but inevitably we must leave, hopefully discarding our despair along the way.
BUY2BILLIONFOLLOWE may not be a game for healing. But perhaps it can be one of resolution.