Poverty & Powerlessness Part 3 – A Postcard From Afthonia

A Postcard from Afthonia is a fitting work to end this essay on. Not only it’s aware of the arguments put forward by Three Fourths Home and Little Inferno, but, given that starting point, it focuses on what can be done to try to make things better, and what we can reasonably hope for. There is an ambitious vision behind the work, and, unlike our other games, it’s much more explicit about its political ideas.

Here you can find Part 1 (Three Fourths Home) and Part 2 (Little Inferno)

Afthonia AthanasiaThree Fourths Home was a descriptive game: it showed us the Meyers’ circumstances, but did not provide any real solution. Things could have got better for the family, or they could have got much worse after the tornado, but either way they had very little power over their future, hence the uncertainty and the general pessimism. Little Inferno provided a different perspective on similar issues: while poverty wasn’t as prominent in the world of LI, people were nonetheless powerless, and, as in TFH, perpetuated the systems that oppressed them by becoming part of them.

Those games focused their attention on people, though, not on systems, nor on politics or society; those things were in the background, they were implied or alluded to but never really discussed as such. The focus was on individuals who were dissatisfied with their lives, who were held back from realizing their potential and being who they could have been. And while LI indicates that a solution lies in a certain direction, it doesn’t describe this solution in any detail. Turning away from the Little Inferno is clear enough, but reality is more complicated than that: how many Little Infernos do we have in our lives, and can we afford to turn away from them all? And should we turn away, or can we learn to develop a healthier relationship with them, e.g. by learning to enjoy the warmth of the fireplace without for all that forgetting about the world? Finally, stepping out of society entirely is a very suggestive image, but it’s unclear what it amounts to in practice, short of living in the woods like Thoreau or like Alexander Supertramp. (a.k.a. Christopher McCandless)

Jonas Kyratzes’ political ideas in A Postcard from Afthonia (and in every work that is part of the universe of the Lands of Dream) are sharper and more detailed than in either TFH or LI. He is a Marxist, and it shows: the LoD games also focus on humble, powerless people and their stories, but they don’t shy away from socio-political analysis. Rather, people ground that discussion by constantly reminding us of what politics really is should be about: making the lives of people better.

APFA Kyon and KaterinaFor a work of its size, APFA features a very large cast of characters, although that is in part a consequence of it being set in a universe that has already been explored, especially in its predecessor The Sea Will Claim Everything. Still, it’s once again the people (and the animals, and the anthropomorphic animals) who are the real centre of attention: they are alive, concrete, they have deep inner lives, and above all, they’re very open and honest about themselves. This leads the player to empathize with them very quickly: we learn their fears, their desires, their doubts, their fragility, and all these resonate with our own, even when we don’t agree or when we haven’t had the same kind of experience. In short, and this comes down to the quality of the writing, the characters feel human.

Most importantly: the centre of attention is not just ‘people’, but ‘other people’, i.e. not us. In Little Inferno the plot arc concerns our liberation (the player character’s, and consequently, the player’s) and even in Three Fourths Home our point of view is close enough to Kelly’s, also thanks to the dialogue choices, that we come to identify with her, to an extent. In the Lands of Dream games, the meta-fictional device of the trans-dimensional portal bypasses the gap between player and player character, and we are directly part of the story. Paradoxically, this lets the game focus on its fictional characters. Whereas we feel Kelly’s pain via a mixture of empathy and identification with her, we don’t identify with anyone but ourselves in APFA, and we come to care about the characters the way we care about other real people, through empathy alone. If identification is, in a way, selfish – we care about a character because that character is ‘us’ – APFA requires a pure outward movement towards others as others, not towards an alter-ego.

APFA Kyon HelpGenerosity, empathy and reaching out to others are an important part of the philosophy that informs the game. Take, for instance, the ‘main quest’ (The usual videogame terminology feels very forced and inadequate in this context): to help a couple with their fears about their first daughter, by talking to the Oracle on their behalf. The keyword here is “to help”. In Three Fourths Home the world was circumscribed to the family: they helped one another, but nobody else existed outside of that very restricted circle, there was no help to be found anywhere else. Little Inferno was even more explicit about this feeling of isolation: Sugar Plumps comments repeatedly on the wall that separates her from the player character, and how she wants to tear down those barriers and get to know all kinds of people. By contrast, in the cold world outside, everyone remains indifferent to our words. Instead, APFA begins as a request for help from the characters to the player: “All that really matters is that we are friends, and that two good people need some help. […] We know you care” Niamh explains, if we say we are not familiar with the Fortunate Isles.

And this is not an excuse for a gameplay section, the way RPG quests often are: we’re not helping some random people on our way to saving the world, and we’re not doing it in order to level up or get some loot. This is precisely a world in which people help one another, to the point that we feel those characters would do the same for us. Even in the fiction of the Lands of Dream it wasn’t always that way. In The Sea Will Claim Everything, the player contributed to a popular insurrection that overthrew Lord Urizen’s lackeys. It’s tricky to sum up the plot arc of TSWCE without making it sound flat and superficial, but the short of it is that a sense of community re-awakened in the people. That is why, for instance, Kyon and Katerina, who own a tavern, are “organizing free suppers for the whole town”: everyone is contributing whatever they can to the community as a whole, bypassing the economic barriers that separate people in those who can and cannot afford certain things.

APFA Athanasia FamilyThe overarching theme of A Postcard from Afthonia is family. Interestingly enough, the goat Kostas Katsikas’ story about family is almost identical to that in Three Fourths Home: “My father was a hard-working goat. Did everything for his family. Sometimes I think he may not have left any space for himself in his life. My mother wasn’t much different. I appreciate everything they did for me, but sometimes I wish they had allowed themselves to relax more. But I suppose they wanted me to have a better life.” But, while most characters will simply talk about their literal families, and how they relate to distant, weird or problematic relatives, the turtle Athanasia proposes a broader understanding of the concept: “When I was younger I used to be very cynical about the concept of family. […] But lately I feel like I do have a family, right here. It doesn’t matter that we’re not relatives. There’s more than unites us than just blood.”

StavrosKaterina adds: “My mother always told me that hospitality is the basic principle of civilization. If we don’t take care of others, society becomes a nightmare.” The concept of family can be a double-edged sword, and actually this is a risk that exists with every kind of community. Instead of bringing people together, they can become exclusionary devices, i.e. leaving people out, like the wall that separated Sugar Plumps from the player. In other words, what can happen is that positive feelings like trust and generosity can remain confined to the sphere of one’s family, and be replaced by suspicion and hostility when it comes to interacting with everybody else. And we’ve already encountered one of the factors that may cause this, in Three Fourths Home: when people are made to fight against one another by the very systems that oppress them. Expanding the concept of family – or, which is the same, fostering one’s community – can oppose that. At its best, one’s community – one’s family – should be everyone else, as the philosopher-tree Stavros points out: “the fact that each and every one of us is considered a citizen [in Oneiropolis] – even Urizen himself – seems to me like the only thing we can build a future on. We all belong together in the end, no matter how we divide ourselves.”

Part of me wants to define APFA’s setting as utopian, but that feeling comes down to this: the existence of a large community in which well-meaning, generous people can trust one another and rely on one another is the one sharp difference between the fiction of the Lands of Dream and the real world. (It feels utopian because my world, and I suspect not only mine, is characterized by fear, suspicion and lack of trust: a stranger is always a potentially negative and undesirable element, until proven otherwise) APFA really is about getting to know these people, growing to like them, and helping them, selflessly, for no reward. That is why it is so crucial that the structure of the game generates empathy in the player, rather than identification.

The fundamental problem that sets the plot of A Postcard from Afthonia in motion is the problem of freedom: freedom to fulfil one’s potential, to be oneself and live a satisfying life. Kyon and Katerina are not simply worried about being good parents themselves, they’re worried about the world that their daughter will grow up in, “this fear that the world will become more hostile as the years pass” as Kyon puts it. When, at the end of APFA, we do fetch the oracle, she paints a picture of who this unborn child “is meant to be”: “Your daughter will grow wise and strong. She will have the loyalty of the dog and the cunning of the cat. She will have beauty and grace, and eyes that only see truth. She will know fear, but she will be brave. […] But the world is not as it should be.” And perhaps these things will never happen.

Obviously there is an inevitable element of chance that can affect anyone’s life, but poverty, powerlessness, systemic oppression and difficult socio-political situations constitute additional obstacles. Three Fourths Home was precisely a representation of the impact that material and psychological difficulties can have, how they can dramatically shape a life. So, while “you may not be able to save her [because] the world is bigger than you”, our effort can go a long way towards minimizing every other kind of difficulty.

End 2And, as sappy as it may sound, it all starts with love. Love on a personal level, but also love on a social level in the form of a community, which in practice may be circumscribed but ideally extends to everybody. “We know you care”, says Niamh, and that’s reason enough for the player to start acting in the game world. Also, an important idea that the ending makes clear is the concept of fighting for that future. Even the oracle moves back to Afthonia and the Isle of the Sun because “A prophet in the wilderness cannot live a virtuous life.” This is precisely the opposite movement of the one in Little Inferno: practical action within society is the answer, in APFA, not isolation.

End 1If these ideas all sound very abstract, like hollow, self-congratulatory good intentions, APFA makes sure to ground them in the concrete everyday reality of its humble characters, as well as in the game’s relationship with the player. Athanasia remarks: “I’m happy. Sure, things are still going to Hades, but at least we’re fighting back now! More than that – we even have a goal. We’re trying to build a better world. We’ll probably fail, but hey, it’s better than sitting around being depressed all the time!” This is the opposite of what Marx’s alienation: it’s intrinsically meaningful work, and it is its own reward. Athanasia is not waiting to be happy in the future, when the world will be perfect, they are happy now, because now they are working for that future. It’s also the opposite of the atmosphere in the Meyers family, where various emotional and psychological issues (fear, depression, loneliness, lack of motivation) formed a negative feedback loop with their material condition. Through love, without the need for any economic investment, those emotional and psychological issues can already be eradicated, or at least their impact can be reduced.

Chasing away Lord Urizen and his “Great Machine”, which plays a similar role to the medical corporation in Three Fourths Home, has created a positive feedback loop instead: work feels meaningful, it provides a sense of purpose, which in turn gives the people energy, motivation, joy and hope. “Everything is changing, but” for Kyon “there is hope where before there was just constant frustration.” “It is a difficult time, and yet everyone’s spirits are much higher than before the revolution. We mourn often, but we also celebrate more”. Cooking for everyone every evening is “a lot of work, but at least it’s useful work! Much better than letting everything rot because no-one can afford our food anymore.” Through generosity, people overcome the shrinking of possibilities that characterizes poverty.

This isn’t any easy or cheesy hope. People have to work hard for it, and the war that is going on in the background reminds us of how fragile hope is, and how much has to be sacrificed to preserve it. Amidst the jokes and puns, the descriptions of the houses in Afthonia tell a few stories about the effects of the war. Noulis, Athanasia’s cousin, shows us what happens when fear and anxiety are stronger than hope: he lives in isolation, away from his family and friends, (“I prefer to be alone, it’s safer”) too scared to do anything, simply convinced that Afthonia is going to be destroyed. “We’re doomed. We just are.” Noulis is a negative example: in a way, he shows us that we have to treasure hope, we have to find the courage to act, precisely so we don’t end up paralyzed with fear like him. He’d probably feel at home in front of the warm fire of a Little Inferno fireplace.

Ultimately, that’s what was lacking in Three Fourths Home and Little Inferno: help. There was no one to help the Meyers, and only Sugar Plumps to help the player wake up and escape. In A Postcard from Afthonia we are the ones who help others, but the community also helps itself. Help, generosity, empathy, love, community, caring, sharing, these are all complementary and almost synonymous. You can’t have one without all the others. And the sheer joy and sense of wonder that characterize the moment-to-moment of the Lands of Dream games are also part of that vision of striving for a better world.

AthanasiaAPFA is a fitting conclusion to this essay because it is aware of the situation described in TFH and LI, and doesn’t shy away from facing it and discussing it. There is no easy solution to these complex problems, and there is no guarantee that anything will work either, but the game nonetheless suggests a concrete course of action, and it does so not only through its representational content, but by engendering in the player the very attitude that they should adopt in real life. If certain games exercise and improve our reflexes, or our manual skills and hand/eye coordination, APFA attempts to have us exercise and improve our capacity for empathy and generosity.

Most importantly, I wanted to finish with APFA because, despite its subject matter, it is an uplifting work: it gives its players the energy and motivation they need to go out and act in the real world.

A Postcard from Afthonia is free, and you can find it here, but I really encourage you to buy the special edition, both to support the authors (I always say it’s Jonas’ game, but it’s really also Verena’s and Chris Christodoulou’s – find the soundtrack here) and for the extra goodies you get. The video commentary alone is worth the price. I just hope I haven’t butchered the game while talking about it.

By the way, this essay also lives at blackman’ n robin.
Thank you for reading. Have a lovely day. Meow ❤

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