10 Mississippi is a first-person photographed game about a daily routine. You can play 10 Mississippi for free here. There’s an HTML5, desktop compliant version as well as a couple of downloadable versions.
This ‘artist statement’ is less a statement of intent than an amalgamation of my evolving thoughts on 10 Mississippi. I didn’t have a clear vision for what 10 Mississippi was, precisely, when I began working on it. I’m often asked what 10 Mississippi means, but it’s difficult for me to speak of intent when I never really had one. I entered the project invested in the process, not the outcome.
Through this process I found myself examining how we conceive of and construct first-person games. Ultimately, I came to believe that when it comes to understanding the interiority of another person vis-à-vis first-perspective experience, games are often failures. Through creating 10 Mississippi, I found myself puzzling at how to construct a clear and authored perspective in photographs.
To begin with, I was inspired by Chris Marker’s 1962 film La Jetée. 10 Mississippi is quite distinct from La Jetée. I don’t think the connection is totally clear on its face. La Jetée has sci-fi bent to its narrative, voiced narration, and rarely implies motion via photographs. 10 Mississippi has a mundane plot, lacks much in the way of human representation or voice-work, and its central mechanic relies on sequential images conveying motion. They both use photographs and that’s where the obvious similarities end.
From the first, that was my main inspiration: to create a game only using photographs. But, La Jetée also inspired me for how it took an idea central to film and denied it. A movie, by name, refers to sequential images flipping so quickly that our minds trick us into seeing motion. Moving. La Jetée just… doesn’t do this. A single photograph may stay on screen for 30 seconds, but it remains as dynamic and thrilling as if we were observing the characters stride across the screen.
I found myself channeling that spirit in 10 Mississippi, particularly in regards to how we expect motion and action to work in videogames. In a game, we expect the press of a button to have a single, discrete impact on the game world. Pressing ‘A’ makes Mario jump and Samus shoot. At the tap of a finger, the Flappy Bird Bird wobbles into the air. Even an incomprehensible sentence will at least return a “I don’t understand that” in Zork. The difference between two sequential frames can be counted in a few pixels. In 10 Mississippi, player interaction changes the entire screen.
If first-person digital games are composed of figurative, programmed cameras set upon a ghostly capsule collider, then you can think of 10 Mississippi in more literal terms. There was an actual camera, usually affixed to my head, and I carefully recorded my perspective in photos. This direct connection between first-person view and narrative perspective sparked my desire to force intimacy – to author an experience and my body through my own eyes.
As I looked towards other first-person videogames, I found that they erase the body in service of the player and the player’s agency. This erasure is not just an unfortunate byproduct of physical perspective of in-game cameras, in which a nameless, footless being is our in-game operator by virtue of necessity. There are absolutely games that feature first-person cameras with characterization and disembodied capsule colliders with inexplicable hands at appropriate moments. But if anything, hand-waving attempts (pun intended) to apply a character or physical embodiment to the first-person person viewpoint in-game are all the more bizarre for their idiosyncrasy. 10 Mississippi eventually became a critique of the prioritization of player agency. First-person physical perspectives in games subsumes the authored experience of another in favor of the Truth of the player’s experience, an idea that is antithetical to how we may expect the first-person perspective to function otherwise.
We can observe another character, we can listen to audio logs, we can look around our rooms to learn more about “ourselves” but ultimately, these forms of environmental storytelling always position the player as the central viewpoint and any character as other, including that of the first-person perspective “character”. I cannot empathize with a first-person character because I am only experiencing their reality in the second-person perspective. The ubiquitous “you” of early text adventure games was never forgone, it was merely made implicit.
In Gone Home, I’m controlling Katie. I’m not Katie. I move Katie’s body, so I can walk in Katie’s house, look at Katie’s things, learn about Katie’s sister. I see Katie’s old school assignments and note her clean handwriting. I puzzlingly discover qualities about Katie, about the body I control, as I walk through her family’s new home. I may glean that “Oh, Katie is smart and organized and accomplished” from seeing Katie’s old trophies and grades. When I see the family portrait in the family’s foyer, I think “Oh, Katie is white and blonde and so is the family.” Her body is my tool but her character and whatever her character’s thoughts on the situation may be are dispossessed in service of my experience.
I don’t want to appear to be raging against first-person games or make it seem as if I feel Gone Home is doing something wrong. I’m not and it isn’t. Katie is a device through which we engage with the world of Gone Home. I get it.
We tend to speak about games in a very personal way, that center on what we do, what I do, but we also posit them as uniquely suited to lead us through unfamiliar worlds and contexts. These modes of experience are utterly at odds with one another. I find it troubling when we name our game world tool, expect them to contain the presence of someone else through which we act in a world while defanging the reality of lived experiences. We imply there is another person there when we name them or watch their hands levy a gun or speak someone else’s words into a walkie talkie, but these are ultimately mise-en-scene – trappings of the game world.
Typically, the strengths of the first-person are authorship, intimacy, our tenuous relationship to truth, and the experience of someone else. The Sound and the Fury is dreamy and uncomfortable for how little the reader ever truly knows. Characters speak in the first-person with their bias, predilections, and previous experiences which inform that narration. The book cycles through the perspective of each character in the Compson family, but each narrator has a stake, impetus to lie, to smudge details. Even when Faulkner changes to the third-person omniscient perspective he does so to convey that character’s lack of agency. Junot Diaz often plays with voice and perspective in his writing – with the alienation of second-person and the intimacy of the first. This isn’t to say that games do not deal with perspective in clever ways (Dragon Age II, Heavy Rain, Cibele, and Dear Esther come to mind), but I believe that, on the whole, intimacy, identity, and embodiment are rarely focused on in games.
This is all to say that I want to force intimacy in 10 Mississippi. Over time, 10 Mississippi became a reclamation of uncomfortable intimacy and voyeurism, of looking and how we look in digital space. Rather than cultivate a world or a real story, each scene is an interstitial point in a given day that’s from a clearly authored perspective. Unlocking my door or brushing my teeth are important for their mundanity – we rarely get to see another human being in these vulnerable moments.
As a caveat, I don’t want to conflate my desire to flatten the distance between perspectives in games with the realm of nonfiction. I’m always a little on edge when someone asks if 10 Mississippi is personal, a word that feels like a well-worn totem for people discussing games made by women. All games are personal. I mean, yes, the body in the game is mine and, yes, I do have egregious amounts of student debt and, yes, I take the subway to work. The game undeniably reflects some of my experiences, but it’s not a nonfictional recollection of my everyday. My interest lies less in revealing some truth about myself, than in forcing you to observe any clear, authored perspective – in this case that perspective is a fictionalized version of my own. And occupying ‘my’ perspective means giving up some of your own control.
Reducing player control as a critique of agency is a trope in art games at this point, I know. But I want to make you do what I do. There are no branching paths or meaningful choices because this is my perspective. I want to make you look at me as I dress. Make you watch me masturbate, make you shave my legs, and when I’ve decided you’ve seen enough I will make you move on.