Michael Lutz’s work can be difficult to write about because it makes such an excellent case for itself. It is subtle, but also makes itself perfectly clear. The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo is different from Lutz’s earlier work in that it has several paths that lead to different end points. I think this strengthens the game’s critique of the culture that inspired it. As both horror and critique, UWWFN is strange, full of tenderness and reflection.
A year ago, I wrote that Lutz’s earlier Twine game, Tower of the Blood Lord, reminded me of Spec Ops: The Line, but only because of the way that it addressed everything that Spec Ops couldn’t. Where Blood Lord excavated, Spec Ops only scratched lines in the sand:
“I’m not sure whether the volume of criticism Spec Ops has inspired suggests that we assume it is possible for a commercial game, produced under the conditions of the triple-A publishing model, to fulfill the promise of thoughtful, nuanced, even subversive critique, or if we just want this to be possible. Perhaps our longing for an expensive, smart shooter highlights an emptiness in our media consumption that is bigger than videogames.”
Recent events have spotlighted this emptiness underneath the placeholder that advertising has long referred to as a “culture.” For decades, an idea of culture has been peddled, a new culture, different from those produced by books or film. This ‘culture’ continues to reveal itself as nothing more than consumption, and a vicious willingness to defend and justify the hobby of consuming for its own sake.
UWWFN, without blinking, looks into this emptiness that continues to occupy the space where more human impulses, empathy and conversation, should have been. The sly anesthetic comfort of repetition is emphasized throughout. Looping fragments of videogame soundtracks offer respite from the otherwise creepy audio landscape. Your friend, whom you name at the beginning of the story, retreats to a console. You are frustrated that she continues to avoid what seems to be a real and necessary interaction. It’s as if your friend’s house, unreliable and inconsistent, is interchangeable with the vaguely hostile, impenetrable game world your friend seems to prefer to your company. When you manage to shake yourself out of this loop and discover a real conversation, the ensuing jolt is significant and powerful.
I never had this exact experience of playing games with a friend, but I remember fantasizing about the day I would finally convince my best friend to play one of the tedious single-player JRPGs that I liked. He was utterly disinterested in anything that wasn’t a sports game. I imagined us both playing together, both of us somehow equally invested in one of those number-crunching odysseys. In reality, what would have happened is I would have played, and my friend would have watched for a while, then probably would have tried to talk to me about something else, at which point I would have tried to deflect his attention back towards the game.
I had another friend in sixth grade who would call me up just to make stuff up about the Pokemon universe. He enjoyed how gullible I was, how easy it was to persuade me that we had discovered some secret that no one else had. He must have seen in me a dissatisfaction with the packaged game experience, a desire to consume something bigger yet somehow more exclusive. Or maybe, in his own way, he was trying to talk about something that wasn’t in the game world, and I was ignoring him. Myths are what we use to fill up space, explain fear, sanction desire. Based on the title, Lutz’s game sounds like it’s about those benign myths that children make up. But really it’s about what these myths cover up.
An image is revisited throughout The Uncle That Works for Nintendo: two kids sit in a room, presumably having fun. A murmuring game console is the most reliable constant. The console is useful for passing time, especially if you want to avoid dealing with the inevitable thing that will eventually happen. Interaction is difficult. There are one or two real conversations buried in the other more mundane ones that you usually get, ambiguous summaries of rumors or secrets, ways to avoid talking about school.
I don’t have much connection to horror as a genre. I’m scared of being scared. I agree with Emily Short when she says, “If more horror were like this, I would be a much bigger fan of horror than I am.” I don’t mean to suggest this game isn’t scary because it is.
My favorite thing about this game is that it is an apology, not a satire or parody. An apology, done right, is perhaps the most damning kind of critique. It breaks your heart. I am sorry. And I know it’s not enough.
Thanks! It’s interesting to hear how folks actually picked. It always turns out to be influenced my so many interesting factors in the player’s life, their memories, etc. I admit the strategy I outlined in the previous ask was a little crude, due to having to generalize a lot, and to code in Twine in a way they felt feasible.
This is a good question, and it’s a design decision I thought about quite a while. The release of the game and some responses to it have allowed me to reflect on the effects of that decision, and I’m not sure it was the “correct” one, but I can at least provide my rationale. Forgive me, but it’s a bit long.
An acquaintance of mine once explained the idea of privilege as consisting, 95% of the time, as not having to know something. I think that’s a pretty accurate take. So I decided the game could model that privilege, without the player necessarily being aware it was doing so.
This worked for my picture of the game because, as a young boy (I speak here from experience) you’re hyperaware of your overtly or implicitly competitive relationships with other boys, but not necessarily the ways in which you’re ostracizing young girls or being trained into a system that oppresses or excludes women. As feminist critics would rightly point out, however, a young girl’s perspective is one in which you simultaneously compete with other women for resources and spots in a social hierarchy, while you also constantly encounter various barriers to action and threats to your person from men because of your gender.
I kept separate paths for both genders in the game because I wanted to be able to reflect that kind of parallax experience. For both I wanted to explore the sort of subtle, self-degrading, passive-aggressive competitive bullshit I feel like commercial games culture propagates, and I also wanted to situate that realistically within the experience of misogyny for young girls interested in games.
Now here’s where I have to admit that I made a gamble that in a lot of cases I don’t really think paid off.
In my previous games, I’ve had very little change based on player action or choice. As I say in my author’s notes, it’s not a terribly interesting aspect of games or storytelling to me. However, I’ve always included multiple paths that allow you to arrive at the same places. This frustrates some players to no end, because they’ll retry the game and choose a different path and the endpoint will be the same. But the fact that there was a choice to many players always implies difference, and I thought I could exploit that here.
Here’s what I thought would happen: players would be more likely to first choose a friend of the gender with which they most closely identified.* After a playthrough or two, they would try choosing friends of different genders in the process of attempting to unlock different endings.
Now, what I hoped was the players who first chose male best friends (and, frankly, I bet these players were mostly men, and identify fairly strongly as such) would try a game with a female best friend, and suddenly confront an aspect of this situation that up until that moment they had been privileged enough not to see.
Responses I’ve read to the game, however, suggest many players who choose male best friends finish the game and aren’t even clued into the gender themes until they read my ending notes. There are probably a few reasons for this. First of all, you can indeed get all five endings (and the sixth, secret ending, and the author’s notes) with a friend of either gender. So there are probably some folks who see that listed of [LOCKED] endings and jump right into power-gamer mode, discarding all choices that don’t seem to to tie directly to opening up new paths.
So, for one thing, it’s interesting that it’s so easy to assume that gender choice doesn’t in fact block off content. I figured it would be obvious to try different genders as the player experimented in pursuing different endings, so much that I wouldn’t have to force it.
I think I was wrong. But after all, in mainstream games what does the choice of gender really affect? Most of the time, it’s who you can romance, but it never really seems to change the inflection of the entire plot.
So if I had to draw a conclusion here, it is that what I failed to really see was how utterly trivialized gender is by standard games, and how it would never occur to any given male player that playing as a woman might actually make a difference in what (or how) a game makes meaning. Instead of explicitly deconstructing the privilege I set my sights on, I sorta feel like I gathered my firewood and forgot to strike the match.
In retrospect, there would have been plenty of ways to approach this problem: making an ending dependent on switching the friend’s gender if the initial choice was male, for instance, or making the author’s notes dependent on such a switch. There are countless others. The fact of the matter is, I did not provide players with any explicit impetus to explore gender options, and I feel like the game is weaker for it.
So the beast is out there in the world doing what it does, and it’s sort of imperfect in meeting the goals I’d wanted to achieve. Rest assured I’m thinking through plans for an update (fix some typos, clarify some wording and paths, implement a new sound macro) and I am trying to devise good ways to address this issue. I think most of the people who will ever play it have played it by this point, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved for anyone who encounters it later.
But finally, I am very glad the game resonated with you in its treatment of female friendships and the experience of misogyny. It’s incredibly validating to hear women responding to my portrayals of these issues in such a strong way. Despite the fact that I didn’t quite pull off what I wanted to, I’ve received dozens of responses from folks of all genders who felt like The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo made a place for them, or the children they used to be. This has been one of the most affirming experiences of my life, both as an artist and as a feminist, and I really very sincerely thank you for your kind words, and hope that what I’ve said here answers your question in a way that doesn’t diminish that resonance.
*Gender is, if course, extremely complex and more than just binary. But I’m only one person coding this whole thing and have limited knowledge, time, and resources. I could not leave gender vague, or absent entirely — I knew it was something I wanted to tackle — and so I approached it and its issues specifically as they seemed to commonly manifest among 11-year-old children playing videogames in 1999.