This week I revisited an old game that I’ve known existed for a while–Every Day the Same Dream, a little Flash game developed as part of the 2009 Experimental Gameplay Project by Paolo Pedercini. Every Day is free online, and definitely worth the brief amount of time it takes to play. Every Day is a game I would consider part of the “serious games” movement, even if not deliberately so. The movement, in both education and game development, focuses on producing games with a point (which is not to say that AAA games don’t have a point, they do, but the whole point of “serious games,” if you will, is the point). One of the most noteworthy “serious games” is Brenda Braithwaite’s Train, in which players realize over the course of the game that they’re doing something horrible.
Every Day is not quite as horrifying as Train, but it nevertheless forces players to confront some pretty heavy stuff about life–their own, perhaps, or someone else’s, or both. The creator of Every Day described it as “a slightly existential riff on the theme of alienation and refusal of labor.” The game’s simple graphics and monochrome color palette immediately situate the player within a grim atmosphere, automatically producing a feeling of stress and discomfort in the vein of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt. Verfremdungseffekt, formulated as a part of Bertholt Brecht’s concept of Epic Theatre, is also known as the “distancing effect,” and is designed to make the audience feel remote or alienated from the protagonist(s) of a play–it’s something that also happens in videogames, particularly when the player-character does something that the player would never do and would never want to do (as opposed to something the player would never do but would fantasize about doing). In Every Day, the player starts out feeling something like the Verfremdungseffekt, but, over the course of the game, comes to empathize (or at least identify with) the unnamed player-character.
The game begins in what is ostensibly a bedroom, with the player-character standing beside a spartan bed, a wardrobe on the far side of the room. The only color comes from a flashing red light on what is presumably an alarm clock—a signifier which indicates a likely hostile relationship between the player-character and the alarm, one which is most likely an immediate source of empathy for the player. The player’s only choices—made using the arrow keys and spacebar—are to turn off the alarm (the red light stops blinking) and to walk to the wardrobe to get dressed.
The game is designed to take the player through the mundanity of every day life—and most players will play through “Day One” following the rules—getting dressed, eating breakfast, and so on. For a player following these social conventions, the game plays out as follows.
From the bedroom, the player-character moves into the kitchen, where he is greeted by his wife with the words “Morning, dear.” He proceeds to the elevator outside and pushes the button to summon and then enter the elevator. There is an “Elevator Lady” inside, who says, “Five more steps and you will be a new person.” Outside the elevator, the player-character proceeds to the parking garage, then drives to work through traffic. He passes a tree with a single orange leaf, then enters the office, where his boss tells him, “You are late.” On the wall of the office is a chart, in red, depicting a downward trend. The player-character walks past two and a half rows of identically-dressed office workers all moving their mice in unison before arriving at an empty chair, labeled “My Cubicle.” If the player clicks on the cubicle, the player-character proceeds to sit down and work. Then the day resets.
The player could continue this pattern, behaving as expected, and nothing about the game would change. The possibility of this endless repetition is designed to evoke a feeling of hopelessness and chronic boredom in players, to force them to consider whether or not they wish to continue to play. However, what is interesting about Every Day the Same Dream is its focus on, as Pedercini explained, a “refusal of labor,” or, put more specifically, the answer to the question, “What happens if we don’t follow the rules?” For example, the player can choose to go to work without clothes on (and is fired by his boss, leading to the day starting over). If the player then speaks to the woman in the elevator, she says, “Four more steps and you will be a new person,” a change which indicates that the game in fact wants us to break the rules.
The other deviations the player may take (in any order) include turning away from the parking garage and following a homeless man who says “I know someplace quiet” to a graveyard; getting out of the car to pet a cow; catching the falling fear; and (most drastic) jumping off the roof of the office building. Once the player has completed all five, the day starts over again—except that now there are no other people in the world. The wife is gone, there is no woman in the elevator, no cars on the road, no boss, no people in cubicles. However, if the player-character goes all the way out to the roof, there is another man standing on its edge, who looks—like everyone who worked in the office—exactly like him. As he approaches, the man jumps, and the game ends.
All of this leads us to question several things, including the meaning or intention behind the game—which is precisely the point. Every Day the Same Dream wants us to ask, like Hamlet,
Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them? (Ham. 3.1.58-61)
In other words, “Is this it?” Every Day the Same Dream puts players in a situation which is likely all-too familiar—a job that is dull at best, hateful at worst; a relationship that appears pleasant enough, but without passion; interactions with the rest of the world that are limited by the walls of cars and cubicles. Such a life is unremarkable and, the game seems to suggest, not worth living, just as the game would have no point at all if the player repeated the same day over and over without straying from socially acceptable behaviors.
Life, the game reveals, becomes interesting when we take left turns and dare to do something different. We need to talk to the homeless man on the street corner, to speak to the woman in the elevator, to pet the cow—to establish a human connection with other living beings, just as the player begins to develop that connection to the player-character as he is guided through these small—and large—acts of rebellion. But even that life, it reminds us, is all too brief, and, therefore, it is well worth our while to do something interesting with it, rather than wasting it with the colorless drudgery of the every day.