Okay. I get it. A lofty title, a lot of pomp, a hefty claim: The Future of Games™. It’s clickbait, but you’re hook-line-and-sinkered here, so let’s all just play it cool. The Future of Games™ is a lot of responsibility for a five-minute, free-to-play, made-in-48-hours game from this year’s Global Game Jam to carry. But if Fitz Packerton has anything, it has enough baggage to carry that weight.
“A theatrical game about a man and the things he carries,” is the only description we are given, and the disassociating and gendered language aside (Who’s to say I’m Fitz? Who’s to say that I, Fitz, identify as a man? The theatrical game of the performance of a gendered identity is carrying Judith Butler through her tenure y’all), it is all we need. Let the theatre begin. Letz Pack-em-in:
I.i: [I, Fitz, arrive and see:]
A bed (monochrome: not for packing). A table (same). A rucksack (orange: bingo).
I.ii: [I, Fitz, pack:]
A low-res pair of Wario/Waluigi masks (kid). Walkie-talkies (a kid with friends). An egg-timer (a kid with no friends). And – batteries? A box of batteries? (Prepared? Kid?? error)
[The curtain rises]
II.i: [I, Fitz, cross the stage and see:]
Orange minivan (soccer mom). Duffel bags (sleepover). Hacksaw (oh). Rifles (huh).
[And so on]
I’m not going to spoil it for you, you dunces. It’s free and it takes five-minutes. Go. Play it. Come back. I will still be here. Great.
Welcome back. Resume.
How Fitz Packerton manages to convey its entire narrative through the sheer process of collecting items astounds me. Yes, the assistance from environment and audio is helpful (ah, the sound of gunshots and unrelenting bass lends urgency I say to myself) but the game is unflinchingly a game about things. A theatrical game about things, no less. I am struck by this word, “theatrical.” Yes, there are Brechtian reveals, a Stoppard-worthy cleverness, and Mamet-like unease in its surface simplicity – but its theatre lies in something beyond that.
In 1967, art-critic Michael Fried wrote a fiercely opinionated essay in response to the sculptural works created at the time by the likes of Donald Judd and Robert Morris – minimalist sculpture. Boxes. Bricks. Spheres. Things. Fried sneered at these pieces, cautioning against the minimalist work’s theatricality. To him, it was nothing other than “a plea for a new genre of theatre; and theatre is now the negation of art.” Fucking savage, Fried.
Good Old Boy Mike Fried was so pissed off by these minimalist objects because they refused to play nicely. These sculptures weren’t beautiful naked Grecian ladies harkening back to a more beautiful and aesthetically-pleasing moment frozen in time; they just were what they were. They were Things, and the Things performed and addressed viewers directly, forcing them to recognise the space they and these Things occupied, as well as their relationship to the environments they occupied with those Things. It was all about the mechanics of a relationship between viewers and Things laid bare-ass naked (and not David style). Minimalism didn’t want to be like the showy abstract expressionists that came before it, with screaming colours and over-emotional gestures which felt art at you but didn’t involve you. These Things, though, they knew you were there and they wanted to say, “Hello.”
We’ve been imbuing objects like these with meaning for time immemorial. Humans are meaning-making pattern-detecting machines. Exchange these paper notes with the queen’s face on for goods and/or services. This wedding ring means I am legally bound to another human being. Eat creme eggs on Easter. Why am I eating this Vegan No-Added-Sugar chocolate egg from Holland & Barrett on Easter? Because we’ve said that Creme Eggs are Easter Objects, and dammit, even if I’m a 20-something ass-hat vegan, I’m gonna eat a Creme Egg. Objects tell stories about people, and there’s almost nothing more satisfying than putting together the puzzle of a person by connecting the dots of the things they carry. “Ah,” you say. “That woman is eating a ‘No Added Sugar alternative to milk Chocolate Egg with sweetener Xylitol Dairy Free treat’ in a Holland & Barrett box.” Connect the dots. One. Two. Three. “I hate her.”
Fitz Packerton is aware of this multifaceted relationship between objects and people. It respects you, the player, as someone who can put pieces together just as well as you can put things into bags, and delight in that process. That’s the whole point. Every time you pick up a new object and classify it/codify it/pack it up, there is a clever wink from a dev saying, “I know you think you know what this means, but I also know that you’re going to put this all together again differently later.” These Things are performing for you, and you are letting them dance a strip-tease, feathered-boa and all.
This is what makes Fitz Packerton a herald of The Future of Games™. The gameplay is about what the game is about. If minimalist sculpture was a response to the chaos of abstract expressionism in its finger-on-its-nose performativity, Fitz Packerton is a quietly subversive storyteller in among the masquerade madness of Fallout 4 (“’It’s An RPG This Time, We Swear!’ Says Bethesda”) and Tomb Raiders (where I seem to raid very few tombs???). It slyly tells you a story by how you play the game, not in some didactic diegetic cinematic ick model. It recognises the unique strength of games to tell a story as a multi-layered dialogue of process which can go back on itself and in on itself and knows that you’ll be there to pick up the pieces because you’re not an idiot. Yes, it’s only five minutes long, no, it’s no AAA game-changer, yes, The Division still exists, no, I don’t know what Jonathan Blow is working on now. All I’m saying is if it’s me connecting the dots, Fitz Packerton is a snapshot of the changes to come, and those which I will welcomingly carry.