By Alison Witte
I would definitely not say that I am a gamer. In fact, if I’m totally honest, I’m terrible at video games. The more complicated the games become—the more details I have to remember and consider and the more buttons I have to push to accomplish an action—the more likely I am to be awful at a particular game. But, my children are really into video games right now, particularly the tycoon-style games where players build empires of theme parks, restaurants, or any number of businesses.
So, I’ve begun to attend to what makes video games so compelling to players. Video games, it seems to me, are compelling because they often give players a sense of control—without the real life ramifications of making a poor decision. Games contain both verbal and visual cues to players about what options they have a various junctures in the game, but leave the choice up to the player. Well-designed games are, in fact, built around the premise that players will learn from their mistakes and adapt their behavior to achieve a different outcome on the next opportunity and eventually locate the path that helps the protagonist accomplish whatever goal has been set forth in the game’s storyline.
However, The Adventures of Frank Little project turns the idea of learning through experience to achieve a different outcome and eventually satisfactorily finish the storyline on its head. As you’ll discover, if you haven’t already played the game, there are only two possible outcomes for Frank Little—death or life in a dystopian society. No amount of learning from experience changes the outcome of the game, it only delays the inevitable. No matter which path a player chooses, Frank Little ends up dead or living in dystopia—the game, it seems, is unwinnable. There is no way to help Frank Little succeed in his bid for fair and safe working conditions. He can save his life and live a sad existence or he can pursue his ideals and face certain death. This sad set of options for completing the game fly in the face of the genre expectations for a video game; the protagonist is supposed to be able to successfully complete the assigned tasks such as defeating the villain, finding the treasure or saving the day.
Because of this disjuncture between what I expected from a video game and the experience the game actually provides, I was initially disappointed. I wanted to find a way to win—to accomplish Frank Little’s goal. But perhaps, as I thought about it a little more, I was approaching the game all wrong in the first place.
The Adventures of Frank Little masterfully utilizes that need to learn from mistakes to win the game to demonstrate how complicated the real Frank Little’s life and situation were and to communicate how few outcomes were actually possible, despite numerous possible solutions. The game, while not winnable in the sense of completing the story satisfactorily, is extremely successful at bringing the historical experiences of Frank Little to players.
The goal of the game, I posit, isn’t to win—it’s for the player to get a sense of what it was like to be Frank Little, to make the decisions he made and to see what the outcomes would be. The game meets the genre expectation of allowing the player to choose the path of the character, but simultaneously complicates that choice by giving the player no truly viable options to accomplish the goal of the game. This game offers a very real depiction, at least in my own estimation, of what Frank Little must have actually experienced. He was not successful in starting and sustaining labor unions, and he did end up dying for his work, suffering many frustrations and complications along the way—much like many players of this game will face trying to win the unwinnable and solve the unsolvable.
That, to me, makes the game fascinating and makes the choice of a video game to tell Frank Little’s story most appropriate and compelling.