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Kosmosis – Procedural rhetoric gone wrong (as usual)

kosmosis_gameplayMolleindustria recently created a new game prototype called Kosmosis: “A COMMUNIST SPACE SHOOTER AS AN ARCADE GAME FROM AN ALTERNATE PRESENT WHERE NON-DEGENERATED SOCIALIST VALUES ARE HEGEMONIC.”  The game was created as an entry for the Experimental Gameplay Project competition titled “Unexperimental Shooter.”  Molleindustria are known for tackling controversial subjects including free culture and religious hatred and are some of the few people who create games from the “message up” (i.e. design with procedural rhetoric in mind).

Interpreting game mechanics is a passion of mine and thus I have strong opinions about the faults and outright failure of most attempts at wrangling procedural rhetoric.  Unfortunately, Molleindustria ‘s recent attempt at creating a shmup that subverts the war machine ended up with unconvincing and problematic procedural messages that almost completely rely on verbal rhetoric (i.e. skinning as usual).

In Kosmosis, the player controls the “vanguard” that is controlled with the arrow keys.  The vanguard can touch passive members of the proletariat and awaken them to follow his movements.  The group is held together by a flocking behavior where as the group grows bigger the cohesion to the vanguard’s movements weaken (thus giving incentive to not move too fast or suddenly).  Other passive entities in this universe are green diamonds which are said to represent the “reactive war machine.”  All prolets which are touched by these war machines are destroyed.  At any point, the vanguard/player can press the space bar and turn the amassed prolets and himself into a swirling yellow cyclone which can destroy the war machines.

First of all, I really want to stress how much I appreciate Molleindustria ‘s repeated attempt at representing theories through abstract game mechanics (see their Free Culture Game for another example).  Also, because of the game’s highly abstract representation layer, I forgive the outright description of the game’s message and entities (much like how Rod Humble’s The Marriage is best after reading the intended meaning first).

That said, even once I assume the assigned roles and meanings of the colored shapes, the game hardly presents a hegemonic set of non-degenerated socialist values and actually has the player enact several (almost cliché) criticisms of socialism.

All space prolets are floating through space and take no action until they are touched by the vanguard.  This idleness, along with the ease to which the vanguard can awaken the prolets, gives the sense that the player is more powerful and important than the thoughtless prolets.  The prolets will stray and follow a different vanguard if the player moves too fast.  It isn’t clear to me what this symbolizes, but here are some possibilities: the prolets don’t want to be pushed around, or maybe that they are lazy and don’t want to run too fast, or perhaps this even symbolizes how human beings don’t like to know they are being influenced and require a sneaky ideologue to determine their actions (thank god that sneaky manipulator is you!).  The process of unleashing the power of the masses for an attack also promotes the same follow-the-leader message as the proletariat conversion process.  All in all, the game appears to promote the idea that man is helpless without the right leadership (which the player represents).  This comic comes to mind.

The mechanics involving the war machines lead to more confusion and unintended/unconvincing messages.  The war machines are said to be reactionary, but are actually just as immobile as the unconverted prolets.  Avoiding them is trivial.  In other words, they hardly represent a horrible insidious war machine that one would want to amass an army of brainless masses to destroy.  They are more akin to blackberry bushes in a wide open field.  Not even that; blackberry bushes grow out of control and need to be trimmed, these green diamonds just slowly float by.

The game excelled at communicating about leadership in general, but failed to actually make any worthwhile claim about the supposed dangers of capitalism, the war machine or socialism.  The last is forgiven as the game did set out to take these values for granted in an alternate reality (i.e. no worthwhile statement necessary).  But all that is known about the war machines is that you need to destroy them.  At least in America’s Army the faceless enemy is trying to kill you.

All in all, the message of Kosmosis is: use your abnormal special abilities to amass an army and destroy the enemy.  In other words, it is a lot like every other war game.  The game set out to present non-degenerated socialist values but only managed to procedurally express only the most degenerated of messages through gameplay.

Designing procedural messages is hard!  I admit that there are many other ways one could understand this game, but these (mis)interpretations were not that hard to make.  Despite my critical review, I think Molleindustria are pioneers and love how they are pushing their agenda.  I send major high fives for creating a game that even provoked discussion of this sort in the first place, but I still hang my head in sadness that there are so few example of games that effectively utilize procedural expression.

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