“Dys4ia” and the Disruption of Norms

Tom Bissell once wrote that playing videogames turns us into bigger assholes — a claim which certainly has some merit. Videogames can indulge the player in phantasmal expressions of power, treat opposition as something to be overcome or destroyed, and obscure, marginalize, or altogether remove concepts such as failure, contingency, and finitude. But what exactly would it look like to create and play a game which subverts these tropes of player agency and power and replaces them with mechanics of failure and weakness?

It looks a lot like Dys4ia, Anna Anthropy’s brilliant and provocative Flash videogame qua interactive fiction. At the highest level, Dys4ia is an autobiographical account of Anthropy’s gender dysphoria and hormone replacement therapy which is told through a collection of mini-games. The centralizing of this narrative is one of many steps that the game takes to disrupt cultural and industry expectations of videogames and prioritize marginalized narratives and mechanics.

Dys4ia insists on its autobiographical nature from the outset and as such reminds the player that this story does not belong to them and is not theirs to tell. Player agency is restricted to controlling movement via the direction pad, but several segments only allow linear progression, thereby restricting the player’s control. Perhaps most disruptive of all is the game’s insistence on the mechanism of failure as the key gameplay design.

It’s easy to recognize re-skinned gameplay mechanics from classic arcade games such as Tetris, Pacman, Pong, Space Invaders, and the like. The pixelated visuals recall an earlier time in game development and help render these connections more visible. But, these traditional gameplay mechanics are all undermined through their place in the narrative and through the inability to succeed at them. Tetris-like pieces have no space to fit, shields fail to stop projectiles, and so on. Perhaps most compelling is the ways in which apparent successes are coded as failures within the game — for example: successfully removing all of the pixelated facial hair in the shaving mini-game results in a jarring animation of one’s face being cut by the razor.

The irony that could and should animate future game design is this: Dys4ia’s success is rooted in its embrace of failure. By prioritizing failure, Dys4ia reminds us that videogames can be about more than the individual player’s hopes, dreams, and ambitions; and they certainly can be about more than fantasies of unlimited power. Sometimes, they can offer the chance to see another person’s story and experience their moments of anxiety, weakness, and fear. Dys4ia succeeds at replicating a feeling that the player may never experience themselves and communicates it with such clarity that the player may empathize with a person and a narrative that they have never known. This radical empathy is, perhaps, Dys4ia’s greatest success.