Monday, April 20, 2015

You Gain Brouzouf: Interaction Literacy and E.Y.E: Divine Cybermancy

     Video games, if you weren't aware, get kind of a bad rap among the other art forms. In one of the more famous (infamous?) defamations in the last half decade, the late Roger Ebert railed on the medium as a whole, opening with the line, "Video Games Can Never be Art".[1] This, and the many criticisms like it, led me to adopt an interesting defense; anytime someone questioned games' artistic potential, I'd replace "video game" with "book" and see if the logic behind the argument still held up (outside of Ebert's own piece, this rarely happened).

     That idea eventually matured into something I call "interaction literacy", the notion that most non-gamers don't know how to "read" games and hence don't understand them, just as a language illiterate person would be unable to fully comprehend books. This idea, as it turns out, is not one that only I hold. In an RPS interview with Charlie Brooker, he expressed the idea rather eloquently, so I'll just link it (note: strong language, most relevant part towards the bottom) rather than give you an arduous, long-winded explanation myself. (EDIT: I lied, I wrote one after all) The point is: a lot of people don't really "get" video games - as in, they don't actually have the necessary training and experience to understand them.

     All this to say, much of the populace find games weird, and this explanation helped me understand how. Video games are an interactive medium, and more importantly an interactive art - they only show you their best when you're in the actual act of interacting with them, of playing them. Without that understanding, they devolve into a mere curiosity, a banal mess of game mechanics and art assets and sounds and programming; some putrid undead creature, its form a pale reflection of the chunks of rotting flesh that compose it.

     Let me tell you: I get it. I totally get it, and it's all thanks to one game. One weird, weird, French, independent cyberpunk-dystopian-grimdark first-person-shooter-RPG-action game. Allow me to introduce you to the bizarre, eldritch existence that is E.Y.E: Divine Cybermancy.


     There are two things I should tell you about my experience with E.Y.E:

          - First, I've beaten the game, in the sense that I completed every level it gave me until it took me back to the beginning.

          - Second, I DON'T UNDERSTAND IT. It's so weird. It's SO WEIRD.

     I'd never been so confused by the quintessential essence of a video game before. Just. . .what is this thing? I asked myself that question many times while playing the game and even more after I'd beaten it, and I never could find a satisfactory answer. Then, one day it hit me: This is what it must feel like to not understand video games. E.Y.E: Divine Cybermancy is a game that made me interaction illiterate.

     Perhaps the issue, just as with books, is one of mistranslation. As mentioned above, E.Y.E is made by an independent French developer, Streum On Studios, and NOTHING IN THE STORY MAKES ANY SENSE. You're part of a secret society of psychic warrior-monks called E.Y.E, but E.Y.E in turn works for the Secreta Secretorum, which is. . .the Illuminati I guess? And the primary antagonists are the federals, who I guess are the government? And also there are cybernetic implants and psychic powers and werewolves and demons and you fight like a war on Mars over some runic teleporter technology or something and E.Y.E is split into the medieval-western Culter Dei and the oriental Jian Shang Di and it's completely uncohesive and looks like an alternate Warhammer 40K universe and your character has amnesia and the main character arc is about killing your mentor (his name is literally Mentor) but also not and nothing anyone says makes any sense, and, and, and. . .

     It's weird. A big part of it is the literal translation, of course - conversations don't quite make sense, words and phrases are. . .off, and none of the allegorical depth that characters love hinting at comes across. The translation issues go beyond just the words of the game, though - every facet of your character's stats, every mechanic, feels so inscrutable.

The aesthetic is pretty awesome, though.

     For instance: E.Y.E has a hacking minigame. Except it's not really a minigame; you do it through a menu interface while the rest of the game continues on around you. And it's not really hacking, either, not in the traditional sense. You can hack basically anything, from computers to (human) enemy soldiers. You can hack the doors on a level. YOU CAN HACK DOORS. And by hack, I of course mean telepathically steal their cybernetic energy, just kind of dominate their mortal essence (yes, the mortal essence of a DOOR), or possess them. You can hack-possess DOORS. And then the actual minigame itself is this weird real time JRPG-esque battle system that's completely incongruous with the rest of the game, and if you lose, the object hacks you back (you can be hacked by a DOOR), and you can hack yourself to make the negative effects go away faster.

     Let me stop for a second. Does any of this make sense to you? Because if not, trust me; you aren't alone.

     That's the thing about E.Y.E. It has all these things that gamers - the interaction literate, if you will - are familiar with: first person shooting with cybernetic enhancement a la Deus Ex, character stats like in an RPG, a research system lifted straight from System Shock 2, and inventory tetris like [insert game of choice here]. But it's all so unintelligible and arcane. Even the things the so-called "literate" know about games are obfuscated and warped, like someone re-arranged all the buttons on your web browser and replaced the icons with dwarven runes. One of the first things you notice when playing the game is a little message that pops up on the screen whenever you kill an enemy: "You gain brouzouf". It took me about 3 hours to realize that "brouzoufs" are just currency. How and where (and why) do you spend them? Give me another 3 hours, I'll get back to you.

     The whole game is like this. Starting weapons and are completely superseded - literally rendered useless - by other starting weapons, because of course they are. At character creation you select genomes that alter your starting stats, but it doesn't explain what anything does or how it affects gameplay. A character literally dies, comes back to life in the next level, then dies again with no explanation whatsoever. Nothing. Makes. Sense.

Except for the giant research tree that ends with "Streumonic Complementarity". That one's completely intuitive.

     But perhaps the most maddening thing about E.Y.E is that it might just be lost in translation. Maybe all the explanations make perfect sense, all the story elements and subplots tie together perfectly, maybe the allegorical bits of lore are really deep and interesting. Maybe setting is described better, maybe all the additional mechanics (hacking & research and such) are really straightforward and logical, and maybe your karma stat actually has some effect on the gameplay. Maybe everything makes sense in the game's native language. The thing is, I will never know. Just as learning French to read one book is impractical, learning French and devoting hundreds of hours to prise apart each individual mechanic is a ridiculous notion. I will never be literate enough to "read" E.Y.E (or to know what the hell a Divine Cybermancy is), and thus I will never know if it's a hidden gem, a weird, hot mess, or both. It's enough to drive a person insane, I tell you.

     Is E.Y.E a good game in the artistic sense, though? I find it supremely fascinating, to be sure; I've never seen a game so simultaneously rich, ambitious, broken, and confusing. I could write tens of thousands of words on the intricacies of individual mechanics and still have more to say. That said, however, I can't really give a definite answer, because I'm not literate enough. And that's the more important takeaway, I think; E.Y.E took away all my knowledge of games, all my understanding of the way they work, and tried to make me learn it all over again. While I lack the knowledge to determine whether or not it's art, E.Y.E taught me what it's like to not "get" video games, and that was a valuable lesson. For that, if nothing else, I think it deserves mention.

     Now if you'll excuse me, I have Brouzouf to gain.

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    1 You may also be interested in this follow up Ebert wrote a little more than a month after his initial piece.


  1. I think you were reaching for "late Roger Ebert." The current phrasing, especially in conjunction with evident disagreement, comes off as a bit cold, which you are not. I toe the line of agreeing with Roger, as a programmer I certainly consider my work to be creative, but it falls short of art. Yet a completed game has tons of artistic elements, so I think it toes the lines as art. An interesting facet of that debate happened during GamerGate, where a group of gamers - ostensibly the same people who want games to be considered art - railed against cultural critique and against game developers who push games into new directions. There's a constant conflict with whether games are really art or just a creative work.

    Anyway, I would posit that the enjoyment you felt from this game was in part due to learning. Though the game had familiar elements, it also had unfamiliar ones, such as the new combination of those elements and the off translation. To that, I offer you this short piece about learning in video games:

    1. Hi Dan, thanks for stopping by! Always nice to hear your thoughts.

      I appreciate the note on my wording; your suggestion sounds far less artificial. I'll make that change right now.

      There are a couple specific things I'd like to reply to. First is your statement on the conflict of games being artistic or creative works. I think you actually have a fairly solid way of looking at it, and based on that perspective the struggle is an apparent one. I do, however, have what I believe is a different way of viewing the medium as a whole, one that precludes me from agreeing with yours. It ended up being far too long so I pulled it into its own post. Hope you don't mind (though it is horrifically dense, so no offense taken if you opt to not read it).

      Second is simply a clarification on my part: You aren't wrong, but what I valued *most* about E.Y.E was that it took familiar elements and made them unfamiliar. For the most part, I couldn't learn them even though I wanted to - that was what made it so weird. I got through the entire game without really understanding its core dynamic, the. . .the thing that makes it "tick", if you will. In truth, I don't really understand if it even had one at all. It was that ceaseless confusion that made it such a singular experience. I get the feeling you somewhat understood that already, but I get hopelessly stuck on technicalities and wanted to make sure I was being clear.

      That's an interesting post, by the way. I see a lot of things I strongly agree with, especially #4.