[Marxism] Coming to Video Games Near You: Depressed Towns, Dead-End Characters

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Feb 16 10:39:50 MST 2017

NY Times, Feb. 16 2017
Coming to Video Games Near You: Depressed Towns, Dead-End Characters

In the coming video game Night in the Woods, a young woman named Mae 
decides to drop out of college and return to the former mining town 
where she grew up. It’s a place where there is little opportunity and 
most people are struggling to make ends meet.

Mae, who is an anthropomorphic cat, drinks too much, shoplifts and likes 
to break things in parking lots with baseball bats. As she meanders 
through the fictional town of Possum Springs, players of the game are 
confronted not only with her memories but also the sense of a place 
whose better times are behind it.

“I grew up in central Pennsylvania, and my town was a steel town,” said 
Bethany Hockenberry, one of the three independent game developers behind 
Night in the Woods, which is being released for personal computers and 
PlayStation 4 on Feb. 21. Alongside Scott Benson and Alec Holowka, Ms. 
Hockenberry drew on her hometown experience to create a game with an 
aesthetic that the developers describe as “Rust Belt Gothic.”

Night in the Woods is one of several video games in recent years that 
tapped into themes that came to the fore during last year’s presidential 
election campaign: the decline of working-class towns and what it feels 
like to be crushed by debt or left behind by the economy. In the games, 
players explore what it means to be in those situations through 
role-playing and storytelling, in contrast to the shoot-’em-up and 
sports titles that dominate the games industry.

Night in the Woods gets part of its inspiration from Kentucky Route 
Zero, a continuing and episodic PC adventure game from the independent 
studio Cardboard Computer. That game, which debuted in 2012 and whose 
most recent episode was released last year, follows an aging deliveryman 
named Conway as he travels the back roads of Kentucky in search of a 
secret highway that will allow him to make his final delivery.

Last year, a game called Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor imagined the 
daily grind of a trash collector living hand-to-mouth on the fringes of 
an alien society. And Cart Life, which was released in 2011, takes a 
hard look at the poverty line by simulating the stressful and precarious 
life of a food-cart vendor.

These games do not aim to make players feel successful and powerful as 
conventional video games do, and instead challenge people to look at the 
world in a different way. Creators of the games said they were more 
interested in showing the complicated lives of the people and places the 
world has left behind, as well as the economic realities that inevitably 
circumscribe their stories.

“We want to create stories and mythologies about the places we’re from 
and the people we know, and that includes addressing the economics of 
it,” said Mr. Benson, one of the Night in the Woods developers. “If you 
don’t, I think you’re not getting the whole picture.”

Some of the games have been critically acclaimed. Kentucky Route Zero 
won the best narrative award at the Game Developers Conference last 
year, while Cart Life took home the grand prize at the Independent Game 
Festival in 2013. Sales of these games do not come close to those of 
matching blockbuster titles, though they can still sell in the hundreds 
of thousands. Kentucky Route Zero, for instance, has sold around 250,000 

Jake Elliott and Tamas Kemenczy, who created Kentucky Route Zero, began 
making the game in 2010 when the country was still reeling from the 2008 
financial crisis and the collapse of the housing bubble. Mr. Elliott 
said the feelings of frailty that emerged from those times, along with 
the rise of esoteric financial concepts like “shadow banking,” helped 
inspire the game.

“When we started working on the game, I was thinking about exploring the 
mystery of that relationship, of being a person in a precarious 
financial situation and trying to grapple with these forces that seem 
almost supernatural,” Mr. Elliott said.

In Kentucky Route Zero, the two developers mixed together magical 
realism with the everyday financial difficulties that people were 
encountering. Players find not just foreclosed houses and abandoned 
mines, but also giant eagles, ghostly mathematicians and tugboats 
powered by mechanical mammoths.

Conway, the game’s main character, is put through numerous tough 
situations that evoke economic despair. In one scene, after he suffers a 
serious injury, his leg is replaced by a gleaming skeletal prosthetic, 
and he is vaguely informed that he owes money to a corporation. In 
another, he descends into a subterranean whiskey distillery staffed by 
animated skeletons, whom he learns are doomed to toil endlessly for 
debts they can never repay.

With one more installment of the game to come, Mr. Elliott said he was 
thrown by the presidential election and the backlash of racism and 
xenophobia that accompanied it. He wondered how to incorporate that into 
a story that reflects contemporary working-class life. Although there 
had been subtle references to racial inequality in the game before, he 
and Mr. Kemenczy now plan to make them more evident.

“I don’t know that it’s responsible to continue to treat it as though 
it’s simmering under the surface anymore,” Mr. Elliott said.

Still, these games are not all doom and gloom. Night in the Woods game 
is leavened by its cartoony aesthetic and the animal characters. At 
times, it can be downright cheerful, as Mae bounds through the streets 
of Possum Springs throwing colorful autumn leaves into the air.

“People want to typify the Rust Belt as the most depressing, dead 
place,” said Mr.

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