Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Fate of Documentary Games

My latest PopMatters article is now up: The Fate of Documentary Games.

I want to be clear that I believe there is a space for documentary games in the style of The Cat and the Coup and others, they can be valuable contributions to the medium while also addressing important historical events. The problem is the burden of documentary storytelling. As I see it, documentary games cannot satisfy player agency and present factual information about historical events without confining the game aspects from the documentary in critical ways. At which point, the entire experience becomes supplementary. Again, this is fine, but it relegates the genre to the outskirts of what games and documentaries can do alone.

As in the post, I differentiate between games about issues and games about actual events. Some experimental games might actually get us to a happy medium between the two perhaps. Simulations, if they can put enough pressure onto players to corral them through a documentary experience, can provide some interesting insight into the processes by which events actually occurred. Opera Omnia, a game Scott and I discussed during our 2011 GDC roundup, might offer a glimpse at some weird experimental design elements that can play with history in unique ways. Omnia is essentially a game about historical revisionism, in which players change the logic of the past to change the justification for why the present exists. If we were to plug real historical information into that process, it might commit the greatest historical sin and allow players to rewrite history as they wish. However, if we were to set the puzzle perimeters such that they demand a complex understanding of a historical process, if players had to correct history and therefore understand, then maybe a game like Omnia could overcome some of the burdens on documentary games.

All that aside, I am actually looking forward to playing The Cat and the Coup. Frankly, I am less interested in the gameplay than I am the very idea of the game. I may have put a glass ceiling on documentary games, but I still think there are not enough of them. I actually think a murder mystery style game could be really interesting enriched with documentary information. David Fincher's Zodiac, for example, is a dramatic retelling of historical events that takes a great deal of historical liberties while also drawing tons of information from actual case documents. With some factual fluidity, games can do amazing things with real world contexts. Zodiac is one of my favorite mystery films, and if games aimed as high as Fincher, I'm certain I would add documentary-game-ish experiences into my favorites list.


  1. How documentary games should operate really seems to depend on what the aim is. Is it to convey the historical facts of an event? To explain the situations and context behind an event? Or to make the event meaningful in a dramatic or narrative way?

    The first would require a linearity that would seem to deny the possibility of the meaningful interactivity that defines games as we know them. The second would seem best served by simulations using historical data, but also needs to place that data into historical context. The third, the approach of Hollywood dramatisations, would necessarily need to prioritise narrative or dramatic meaning over historical accuracy.

  2. The interactive quality of games has always struck me as the trouble with this genre but also its potential. There are troubling games like Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, which speak to troubling events, actually represent some real research on the "characters" involved, and then thrust the player into the role of killer, potentially making him consider what the events mean while occupying that role (

    Similar issues potentially arise in JFK: Reloaded ( and the initial development of 9-11 Survivor (, which had the goal of placing you in the role of victim (not perpetrator), however (I don't think this game was ever produced?).

    This latter concept (allowing the player a possible wish fulfillment fantasy with documentary-style materials--the possibility of surviving the 9-11 incident?) also is possibly somewhat mimicked by the cancelled Sonderkommando Revolt (,7340,L-4003438,00.html), a holocaust revenge game (a la Inglourious Basterds) based on the Wolfenstein engine. I saw screens and teaser videos of this one when it was in development and they were mixing Wolfenstein-style shooting and graphics (sometimes used to create cutscenes) with documentary footage from the Holocaust. It looked kind of interesting, if potentially tasteless (I'm not sure that it exactly intended to be so, though). Unlike Tarantino's Jewish revenge fantasy, this one was not to be (though it clearly defies the "typical" sense of what documentary is supposed to be--however, it does speak to the idea of "inhabiting" a role in an ostensibly "historical" event in a manner somewhat similar to some of the earlier games that I mentioned earlier.

  3. Ian Bogost writes about this very thing in Persuasive Games, actually, arguing that video games have created a new form of rhetoric: "procedural rhetoric".

    As the name implies, the idea is that the kinds of information and arguments that video games are best suited to delivering are procedural. He mentions several games along these lines, but he specifically mentions "The McDonald's Game" ( and how it uses a sim game to make an argument about the fast food industry. The beauty of its style of argument is that it doesn't just TELL the player the argument and the evidence. The player discovers the arguments (plural) and evidence through the procedural experience the designers have engineered.

    Omnia sounds like a similar sort of experience, where the player isn't just reading/hearing another person's reasoning on historical revisionism... they are being given the opportunity to perform the revisions. Of course, the designers still have control over the rules and consequences of in-game actions, which is what makes the experience a form of argument.

    I suppose it's sort of like letting players use games to experiment with the Socratic method and hypothesis testing with/on themselves.

    It's easy to think of other scenarios where this sort of "procedural argument" and "procedural learning" might take place. For example, we could design a game that explained how the stock market works by letting players experiment with buying and selling. But it also seems like there might be other arguments that video games would have a difficult time making, such as any argument explaining (asserting) what Hamlet was about.

    It also raises the question of the difference between mere procedural experiences and "games". Let's face it, the stock market one might be informative, but would it be fun? Does that matter? Are documentaries SUPPOSED to be?

  4. I wrote a longer version of this comment, but then I deleted it :(

    So, terse version: I'd rather see games that focus on systemic forces in history than linear adventure games. I don't think that conveying very specific pieces of information is what games are best at. (There are exceptions, of course.)

    I'm also concerned that games should not make history seem inevitable in retrospect. Some events/shifts/movements would have happened in some form in any imaginable case, but others were spectacularly unlikely, the unpredictable results of many chaotic elements interacting.

  5. Talking about very specific points in history usually leads to gameplay that is one sided. Who want to play a game as the Nazi Forces when you know that eventually you will fall to your doom! Though, it has worked for Halo: Reach which started off with the destruction planet Reach.

    Mystery is something that is needed in order to keep gamers on their toes. If you are going to do a historical game maybe feature a point and time that people might not have any idea about. One could also form a game around a historical end but insert a non fictional story line that leads to the same historical end.

  6. Excellent and thoughtful comments all around. Thank you all so much.

    @ Adrian

    Spot on. Which is exactly why Doc. Games are trapped.

    @ Chris

    I share your concerns with interactivity in the genre. The examples you mention are interesting experimentations with the format, but they still fall into the "supplemental experience" category for me.

    'Super Colombine Massacre,' while grotesque, is probably the most interesting case. By swapping between complicity in the violence and observing factual information about the event (the actual eulogy for one of the victims for example), the player is forced to contemplate the entirety of the event. While less of a documentary, it does probe interesting territory by exploring ones own feelings toward an event as its main purpose.

    @ Matthew

    Ah, Persuasive Games is my go-to text these days. I absolutely adore the concept of procedural rhetoric and it fuels my own research into serious games. The problem with documentary games and procedural rhetoric is precisely what Adrian mentioned in his comment - a documentary game cannot maintain historical accuracy/linearity while also conveying meaning procedurally.

    The sort of systems learning you're talking about could be educational, engaging, and even fun, but that is still distinct from documentary game design.

    @ Max

    I agree on both sentiments. This, of course, gets into systems literacy (or fluency, which I like better) and games learning, which you know far more than I about.

    @ Gaming

    I think mystery is probably the best angle to approach documentary narratives of events. Maybe asking players to make their own documentary is a good way to examine history interactively. (Although even in this case, I would say the game elements are still supplementary.)