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Are all games domination fantasies?


November 29, 2012 by Chris Whitman

So mcc says that Liz Ryerson says that all games are domination fantasies. OH NO SHE DIDN’T.

Anyway, the challenge was to write out all the games you’ve made and their plots/themes/what you do. I am going to do this while drinking vanilla tea and eating an entire bag of dried mangoes. Here goes!

Porta Lucis—You are obsessed with a nondescript door in the city. One day you discover it is unlocked. Passing through, you enter an endless, nightmarish basement where you must use your wits and pocket knife to survive against much more powerful monsters. Meanwhile, in a parallel narrative you are an inmate in a shadowy, dreamlike asylum. Can you escape? What is real? Domination fantasy? It’s hard to tell what this might be a fantasy of.

Famous Authors—Three games surrounding two brilliant, troubled writers and one exceptionally exhausted game developer. Biographical/Semi-autobiographical. You have to press X repeatedly. Domination fantasy? Probably not. Unfortunately no one ever really got the takeaway for this, which is that producing almost any piece of work, whether mundane or genius, basically boils down to a lot of pressing X repeatedly.

Merlin, Build Me a Castle—You play as either King Arthur or his brother King Brothur. Destroy your brother’s flying castle! The person with the tallest castle after fifteen seconds is declared the winner. Domination fantasy? Absolutely and without a doubt.

Run—A small, isolated farming village is struck by a three-year plague of darkness. A stranger, who does not appear in the game (and some speculate to be the player), tries to save the villagers by bringing light from the future through a series of meditations. Speculation on tools and the body, digital representation and the uncanny nature of city life. Domination fantasy? Possibly, in the sense that it’s definitely about using tools to dominate depersonalized, “natural” forces. On the other hand, it’s mostly about how the struggle to overcome something at all costs changes you irrevocably into something else, something defined and delimited by that struggle.

The Story of the Cat—Follow the humble house cat through its evolution from a single-celled cat, to an ancient cat-fish, to a modern day cat, struggling for survival against its natural enemies (vacuum cleaners). A meditation on the possible future of cats. Domination Fantasy? Yes, but that’s cats for you.

??? (Unreleased, very heavily WIP)—Domination Fantasy? Yes. The inverse of Run, in a sense. How an obsession with preserving the past ultimately changes the past, how all justifications, when gripped tightly enough, grow brittle and meaningless, how the will to dominate ultimately destroys the thing being dominated.

Here are some games I’ve worked on for other people.

Glitch— (R.I.P.) Explore the minds of seven giants in this off-beat, non-violent MMO built in the spirit of cooperation. Domination Fantasy? Pretty much intentionally the opposite.

Dungeons of Dredmor—The evil Lord Dredmor has returned from his n years slumber or whatever. Descend into the Dungeons of Dredmor, eat cheese, read funny item descriptions and try not to die. Domination Fantasy? Ostensibly yes, but really more like a masochistic fantasy. The game is almost impossibly hard. You are congratulated for dying.


  1. Cermet says:

    Mr. Whitman,

    The idea of deconstructing games around the concept of domination fantasies is an interesting one, and one that I have given much thought to over the years. The arguments that surround the topic seem to take on the quality of a nature versus nurture debate which is a fascinating way to break it down even further. To what degree does the gaming community itself determine how games are made? To what degree is it the nature of interactive media that pushes certain games to succeed and others to fail? Liz Ryerson’s original tweet seemed to indict the culture by sporting the #1reasonwhy tag; the responses from indie developers demonstrating that it was possible to have more variety in game design supports this view pretty strongly. However, much like the nature versus nurture debate, the state of video game design today makes more sense to me if it is explained as an interaction of the two elements (i.e., they have a multiplicative relationship that goes beyond the sum of their respective influences). The nature of interactivity lends itself to a number of design choices that the players are already receptive to which in turn become the increasingly entrenched norm. Video games have an unparalleled ability to draw people into a digital world by giving them control over their surroundings. When that control is stripped away criticisms like “this is just an interactive cutscene” are thrown around. I think of this as analogous to choose your own adventure stories – a break from the nature of the medium that is interesting in small amounts. The difference is that the mainstream playerbase does not look favourably upon such breaks from convention.

    This is where the interaction takes place: the medium determines the scope of standard conventions and the consumers determine the degree to which deviations are acceptable. Domination fantasies fall into this because players demand long games and long games need an ongoing conflict to keep the players engaged. I would add a second part to the classification challenge describing what your game might look like if it were made to last 20-30 hours. My guess is that the list would have a lot more domination in it. This is partly a result of interactivity – while a television show can rely on exposition for 20+ hours of entertainment, if a player feels like they are getting better at the game they will want to be able to see it lest they lose their sense of immersion and get bored. This is how I see the interaction playing out: players create demand for lengthy experiences (which you covered in depth in a previous post), developers who want to make money respond by striving to create those experiences, developers embrace the nature of the medium and use conquest as the hook to keep players engaged, and then players see this type of game as the norm and come to expect it while rejecting that which does not fit the mold. This is an important distinction because if this is the case then the problem is more complex than it is being presented as. The complexity makes it a more difficult issue to tackle wholesale, but also allows for more diverse roads to tackle it piecemeal. Say, by continuing to create amazing short length games like you (and other indie developers) are already doing. Keep up the good work and let us hope that the industry will continue to evolve in a way that will make us proud.

  2. Griffin Boyce says:

    Is it possible to find a copy of Story of the Cat? =)

  3. Cassie says:

    Okay, I’m looking through your blog for the first time, and the mere mention of Glitch is making me INCREDIBLY sad for not being able to play it anymore.

    • Chris Whitman says:

      I feel similarly about working on it! It was honestly a pretty crazy workplace, but I miss it in a lot of ways.

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