Empathy is both a simple and a complex thing. It can feel beautiful, earnest, and genuine, or attempting it can just feel patronising.
Games and interactive media have often struggled with conveying the experiences of those in difficult situations, and the results often vary wildly. How can you encapsulate such a singular experience, and how can the player every really hope to truly understand how someone else feels through experiencing an interactive abstraction of those feelings? Gabriel Helfenstein of Outlands, the person with whom I recently had a conversation that can be read below, very much subscribes to the view expressed by Anna Anthropy, who has stated that she “[respects] games too much to see them relegated to a way for the privileged to opt out of their responsibilities, to allow them to become the trendy new format for afterschool specials” . In other words, art needs to be complicated and multifaceted, not a simplified version of edutainment that makes those far-removed from situations like gender dysphoria or depression feel better about themselves. Whether or not you agree with that perspective is, of course, up to you, but there is an undeniable truth in the idea that attempting to find a simple, crowd-pleasing message from a complicated topic can feel, for want of a better word, cynical, and perhaps even cheapens the topic being discussed. I’ll leave you to think it over in your own time. I still am.
I was introduced to the oeuvre of Outlands – a two-person team made up of the Berlin-based French-born Tristan Neu and Gabriel Helfenstein – through their two-thousand-and-sixteen work NORTH. Though the term is often misused, it’s a game that could genuinely be described as Kafkaesque in nature, being, as Jeroen D Stout deemed it, a “very strange thing” that’s “quite harsh on you”. It’s a work that could be said to be heavily inspired by the ongoing Refugee ‘crisis’ (more a crisis of governmental failure and popular apathy rather than a crisis caused by the refugees themselves, both within Europe and around the world). This influence is apparent both in the work’s content, as well as in the fact that a portion of the game’s profits go to the organisations Refugees On Rails and Refugee Open Ware – but, as Helfenstein is quick to remind me, it is not an ‘empathy game’.
NORTH almost feels like the video game equivalent of Beckett’s Catastrophe – it’s a piece that unsettles in an indefinable way, a piece that forces its audience to view a figure being manipulated for purposes that will remain permanently unclear, a piece that darkly amuses in its absurdity. Yet, unlike Beckett’s tribute to Havel, NORTH’s paean to the stateless unpersons running for their lives lacks any display of defiance, however materially futile, any display of resistance, however small. The player character must be oppressed and must meet the state’s demands, always without any ability to fight back, to plead their case, to even slightly display any real kind of disquiet with what is being asked of them (they can’t speak the language, after all, and the world around them is governed by a series of systems that seem deliberately designed to obfuscate, baffle, and leave one feeling unwelcome).
In presenting such a confusing, hopeless reality, and without ever openly referencing or attempting to convey the modern-day crisis, NORTH faithfully conveys the plight of the refugee. They are without statehood, defined by the nationality of a nation that they have been forced to flee, and trapped behind the language barrier. How the government of the nation they flee to responds, and how the people within it view them, makes all the difference. Their lives are in the hands of the state; they are socio-politically powerless. They must WORK, otherwise they remain trapped at the lowest level of society. They must be SEEN; everything they do must be observed by surveillance cameras, and even their dreams must be forensically inspected by medical professionals. They must CONVERT; but in the eyes of G-d, the people, or the state itself? They must be TESTED, asked if they recognise the faded images of ‘terrorists’ that they have never seen before. It’s all very deliberately absurd, and at certain points it almost seems as though the game itself is laughing in your face. When objectives are achieved, an almost Zelda-esque achievement sound blares, completely out of place in relation to the rest of the game. Whenever the appropriate documents are acquired for one to further their desperate quest for asylum, there is the sound of canned applause, seemingly coming from nowhere. Basic hallmarks of games are being mocked, and thusly made hollow. Nothing makes sense, because if it were to make sense you would have some semblance of control. NORTH could be said to be a confluence of various themes and topics that Outlands has explored over the years. It has echoes of the bleak absurdity of their state-sanctioned-torture simulator Dämmerung, as well as of the quiet, haunting, and worryingly-familiar horror of Breeder and Pictures of a reasonably documented year – mixed in with the Dadaist terror so often seen in the output of Ice-Pick Lodge.
To my great fortune, Gabriel Helfenstein agreed to sit down with me (in a digital sense) and discuss his and Tristan’s body of work – his co-developer was unfortunately unable to participate. Our conversation veered from denunciations of machine-generated empathy and nationalism to expressions of admiration for Lavelle and Márquez alike. His answers are wonderful, thoughtful, and brimmed full of real humanity (and his English is incredible), and I hope you enjoy reading through them as much as I did.
[RIGHT MOUSE to feel the irony]
Why do you make games?
As for many people of my generation, it was kind of a childhood dream. Then, growing older, I just assumed games were too complicated to make and abandoned the idea. I came back to it 2-3 years ago, when I discovered Unity. At the same time, everything I did before was related in one way or another to games – interactive fiction, web-documentaries, etc.
Apart from that, what I like about games is that they are a new medium. When you write literary fiction, for example, you have thousands of years of tradition behind you, which can be very oppressing. There is this sense that everything has been done before, that you are in constant competition with centuries of ghosts. Games are different because they are such a young art form. Basically you could come up with almost any slightly original idea different from the classical roguelike-survival-shooter and be pretty sure nobody ever thought of it before. That’s an incredible luxury for an artist.
“There is this sense that everything has been done before, that you are in constant competition with centuries of ghosts.”
Why do you choose to abstract the thematic content of your games: for instance, having ‘strange creatures’ in place of people in NORTH?
We didn’t want NORTH to be what is sometimes called an “Empathy game”. It’s a label I really dislike, and I can only recommend this article from Anna Anthropy on the subject. We didn’t want NORTH to be a game people would play thinking “oh, so this is what it’s like to be a refugee”. I don’t know what it’s like to be a refugee and even if I did, you cannot approximate the experience of a human being in a 30-40 minute video game. Trying to do so would be an insult to every refugee out there. The abstraction of people and places allows us to address the questions and challenges posed by massive migration and severe inequalities in a more universal way. It’s not about Syrian or Malian migrants, it’s about feelings of confusion, boredom and disorientation; it’s about the fear of unknown places and customs – something refugees feel for sure, but that neither constitute the whole of their experience nor is an emotional cocktail uniquely known to them. Also, this abstraction is a very common tool in storytelling – basically what a lot of science fiction authors do by rooting their story in a future world in order to be able to speak more freely about the contemporary one.
To me, your games often embody several of the core principles of Absurdism*. To what extent is that an accurate, or indeed fair, observation?
*NORTH in particular presents its player with a series of irrational and contradictory rules and expects them to be followed, punishing the player harshly for failing to meet its baffling list of demands.
In terms of atmosphere, design and language, our games definitely owe a debt to absurdist fiction. If you speak about absurdism as a philosophical concept, though, it depends.
The way I understand it, absurdism explores the impossibility of humans to find meaning in a world which is too complex for them to ever understand. That could be said about some of our games like Breeder and Breeder: Homegrown, wherein the player ends up confronting a creature so weird and powerful it defies every possibility of understanding. It could also be said about Dämmerung, where everything the player does ends up being totally devoid of sense.
But in NORTH, the absurdity of the environment is a product of humans (or whatever creatures populate its world) – a creation of society. So, if that doesn’t necessarily go against the principles of absurdism, I would say that the focus of the game, rather than to explore the inherent meaninglessness of existence, is to try to show how existence can seem meaningless, once it is controlled by a society that has access to every parts of one’s life (from religion to health to entertainment, etc.) and how this experienced meaninglessness is weaponised by states to corner their citizens – and especially refugees – into political inactivity.
The fact that NORTH is influenced by the ongoing refugee crisis is clear, both in its content and in the fact that a portion of a person’s purchase goes towards Refugees On Rails and Refugee Open Ware. With that in mind, if you were making NORTH now, would the end result be the same? Have things gotten better or worse in your eyes?
Things definitely got worse. We started developing NORTH in 2015 after having spent two years working on a documentary about European migration policies and, back then, the refugee ‘crisis’ just started getting attention in the media. Since 2015, not only did thousands and thousands of people die, end up as slaves, or were trapped in an endless limbo of administrative bullshit, but the idea of refugees as an invading force became such a huge leitmotiv in the media discourse and the political farce, that refugees unwillingly played a decisive part in the recent resurgence of nationalism. The way the neoliberal forces of Europe and the US handled the refugee crises directly killed people, but it also – rather ironically – corrupted and brought to its knees the very same system these forces were trying to protect.
I’m pretty sure that if we did a better job at taking care of refugees and did really try to address the problems that force people to flee in the first place, there would be no Brexit and no Trump. So, yeah, things got worse.
When it comes to NORTH, I think the game would be more or less the same. Probably a bit darker.
Does the former division of Berlin – and indeed of Germany – play a part in the narrative makeup of your games**?
**For instance, the focus on North and South (particularly, funnily enough, in NORTH), and the impact of that division.
Not really. We live in Germany but are French and were 2 years old when the wall fell, so the former division of the country is still something pretty removed from our own lives. You can see some relics of the separation scattered around Berlin, but the city changed so much since 1989 that those times feel more like a childhood memory nobody can really remember.
There are two of you in Outlands – who does what in the development process, or is it not that simple?
Tristan composes the Soundtrack and I write the story/text. I also do the programming even if I’m very bad at it. For the visuals, it depends on the game. For our 2D games, Tristan is in charge of the design/art while I’m generally the one doing 3D modelling and environments.
Who would you say are the most important developers currently active at the moment, if any, and why?
It’s very difficult to answer this question because there are a lot of people I would consider important: Brendon Chung, David Kanaga, Kitty Horrorshow, Ben Allen, Jack King-Spooner, Loren Schmidt, Strangethink, Nathalie Lawhead, Jacob Buczynski, and many many more.
But still, I think the most important developer currently active is Stephen Lavelle, aka Increpare, simply because of his incredibly vast body of work and eclectic gameplay ideas. I haven’t played all of his games and probably never will, but when I’m in need of inspiration, I sometimes simply pick one at random and I’m rarely disappointed. Also, Slave of God is one of my favourite games.
What would you say are the most important games ever made, if any, and why?
Of course, from a historical perspective, you have all those classical contenders: Pong, [Super] Mario, Doom, etc. But that’s not really interesting, because I guess everyone would agree. Instead, I will try to tell you what the most important games were for me:
[The first] Baldur’s Gate, Deus Ex and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time because they were my favourite games as a kid and deeply influenced me in terms of storytelling and aesthetic. Also because I very rarely play AAA games nowadays, mainly because I quickly get bored and don’t have time. So I still look back at my experience with these games to remember what it actually felt like to invest hours and hours and hours into a single game.
Every day the same dream [by Pablo ‘Molleindustria’ Pedercini]. Back when I [first played it], I was writing interactive fiction in flash and I thought that making real games was simply impossible for someone who didn’t study it. But then I found this game, and it seemed so simple and doable. I think it’s the first time I really thought about making games myself. Also, I like the political consciousness of Molleindustria’s work.
[Tale of Tales’] The Graveyard. I have a kind of love/hate relationship with Tale of Tales. On one hand I really don’t like their big “We are important artists” stance and I often find their games to be cringingly pretentious [not holding back, are we?]. On the other hand, I can’t deny that they had a huge influence on the early “Indie” scene and that their arrogance was probably needed at the time. For me, The Graveyard was important because it revived my fascination for games. Back then, I still had a lot of hope for the medium, but nobody seemed to be coming along with new stuff. The Graveyard – even if I’m not 100% convinced by it (the music sequence…) – still was a revelation because it was the first game I played which didn’t want to be “fun” or “scary” or whatever. It definitely showed me that it was possible to make games differently.
Slave of God by Increpare [aka Stephen Lavelle], and Road to Ruin by Tom Cooper. Both these games taught me that it is possible to create deeply emotional experiences with a very limited gameplay and almost no story at all. It was also somewhat mind-opening to see how beautiful these games were without any fancy AAA elements, just using simple colours and funny shaders.
What was the last game that you played – and did you appreciate the experience?
The last game I played was Islands by Carl Burton, and I loved it. I’m really interested in games which manage to convey emotions through abstract mechanisms and pure audiovisual stimulation. All the games we’ve made as Outlands are story-based and rely heavily on text, and even if I do like that too, I definitely want to explore and experiment more with non-verbal, sensual storytelling in the future. And I’m sure Carl Burton’s piece is going to be a huge influence for that.
What can you tell us about ‘A Violent Time’?
I would prefer not to release too much information before the game is out. Sorry.
You are to be stranded on a barren islet in a part of the ocean formerly used for nuclear testing that officially doesn’t exist. For an undisclosed reason, those stranding you – a trio of black-suited operatives who are all inexplicably called ‘Gideon’ – have allowed you to take one book, one film, one video game, one album, and one other item along with you to keep you company in your years of solitude. Which of each do you bring, and for what reason?
Book: Probably One Hundred Years of Solitude [by Gabriel García Márquez], because it contains so many books in itself.
Film: The Thing. Because it’s great, I guess.
Game: Dark Souls, because I never played it [me neither; wear the badge with pride]. In recent times, I’ve mostly played short free games, and when it comes to bigger games I’ve found myself enjoying more and more the “story-based/one-sitting/no difficulty” formula (like [Giant Sparrow’s] What Remains of Edith Finch, for example). But I know deep in my heart that I would love Dark Souls, and, stranded on an island, I would finally have all the time in the world to beat it.
Album: Sunset Mission, by ‘Bohren & Der Club of Gore’ – for the atmosphere, and because it would remind me of the city which I would surely miss.
Item: Pen and paper so I could write…if that counts as one item [it does]. If not, a musical instrument I’ve always wanted to learn; probably a piano, or a saxophone. Or maybe drums.
Pacman, or Space Invaders?
Thank you for reading! Please do consider buying and playing Outlands’ work; you’ll never forget it.
You can find and play all of Outlands’ works HERE.
You can follow them on Twitter HERE.
Their website can be found HERE; from there you can find out more about them, and donate to them to support their work!