Working at Play

Alienation, Refusal, and Every Day the Same Dream

David Leblanc is a Masters student in Film Studies at Concordia University. His current research project, a Marxist intervention in contemporary film and video games, applies critical theory in understanding the subversive potentials of labor representations in cinema and the ‘simulator’ game in post-industrial society.

There is, perhaps, no more of an innocuous fantasy video games can absolve than playing hooky from work for a day. And yet, in Paolo Pedercini’s Every Day the Same Dream, that refusal to concede to the droning and humdrum quotidian nonetheless feels subversive. A theory of alienation and its political potential, as it were, can help make sense of that affective experience of totally rejecting what is all too familiar: workplace boredom.

In 1949, Bertolt Brecht writes “A Short Organum for the Theatre,” a collection of 77 theses exploring the playwright’s theoretical approach to the theatre. Brecht’s theory relies upon the theatre’s capacity to alienate the audience, disrupting their ability to identify with the characters on stage. I would argue that video games often reinforce the position that Brecht’s disillusioned theatre of alienation rejects. That is to say, at the crossroads of realism and embodiment, games trust us to identify with virtual avatars — if not conceptually, then mechanically. The hegemony of play inherent to games endows players with the supremacy of control over their avatars.

Much like Brecht would have it, however, some games entertain the converse potential, deploying the workplace as a site of resistance. Their goal is to disrupt player-avatar identification — to estrange the player — and, furthermore, to challenge our understanding of work in itself. Every Day the Same Dream, an independently designed 2-D flash-based game developed for the 2009 Experimental Gameplay Project, is one such game. By generating the all-too-familiar conditions of workplace alienation and deploying monotony as a gameplay regime, this austere indie-darling effectively draws attention to the very strangeness of work we often ignore.

Every Day the Same Dream immediately confronts the player with its bleak aesthetic:  grayscale color palette, minimalist environmental and character design, droning soundtrack. You control an office worker with simple commands: arrow keys to move left or right, and spacebar to interact with certain objects in the world. The faceless, ghostly-white, bland avatars anticipate a discourse on alienation — they are visibly human, yet lack humanity — that is sustained by a narrative of devastating banality. Every Day the Same Dream unfolds in a series of panels through which players walk, get dressed, ride the elevator down to their car with an older woman who cryptically claims, “Five more steps and you’ll be a new person,” drive to work, get scolded by the boss for being late, and ultimately sit down at a cubicle — “my cubicle” — only to start over the next day.

Such is the game’s ‘default’ sequence. The final moment in the office stands out as particularly evocative: forcing players to endure a seemingly inescapable accumulation of cubicles in a triptych of corporate brutality, the game effectively undercuts any sense of individuality potentially generated from the workplace. To borrow film language: with each successive shot, the camera pulls back, revealing an even greater array of unchanging workers droning in synchrony until the player eventually submits to becoming one of them — an automaton drifting between desk and domicile.

Every Day the Same Dream screenshot of the cubicles in the office

I first played Every Day the Same Dream a few years ago when I was on a browser-based indie-game binge, and to be frank, made very little of it. In retrospect, I may have been alienated by the game — which is its very purpose — but did not have the interpretive framework or tools to quite make sense of it. Discourses of ‘games as art’ aside, this was, admittedly, a time when I did not fully recognize the politically subversive or disruptive potential of games. Revisiting Pedersen’s work earlier this summer, however, something clicked. Every Day the Same Dream is a game about work and, this time around, it worked for me.

This was, incidentally, when I was reading Brecht’s “A Short Organum.” The purpose of theatre Brecht articulates in his text became a useful tool for understanding this indie-short’s politics. While he recognizes the operative mode that predominates the theatre of his time is to entertain by representing real or fictitious stories of social life — “happenings” (109) — he upholds a disdain for the theatre that seeks to educate. He claims it turns “into a purveyor of morality,” employing a deterministic model showing right from wrong (109). Instead, Brecht’s theory of theatre aims to confront the audience with the strangeness of normality we’ve become complacent to. Such a theatre can accomplish this, he argues, by allowing the spectator to understand “the circumstances under which he himself acts…as equally odd” (120). The spectator must effectively “transform [themselves] from general passive acceptance to a corresponding state of suspicious inquiry…to develop that detached eye” (emphasis added, 122). It is this detached perspective from which one must confront the conditions presented to them.

Video games often occupy a similar status of ‘mere entertainment.’ Every Day the Same Dream emerges as a site of player-identification disruption in part because it is so purposefully banal and bland. The characters’ flushed demeanor and minimalist corporeality edges closer to the anthropomorphic than the life-like — macabre caricatures of office-types. In terms of identification and representation, however, it should be noted that many games — a well documented majority, in fact — that do not offer avatar-creation tools all too often only allow control of white, cis, heterosexual men (even when not romanced, the status-quo prevails). Games that do offer in-depth character creation suites — allowing players to craft an avatar based on their gender, body-image, race, or physical traits — do not necessarily reify it on a gameplay dimension. Player-created characters become vessels of depoliticized personification deployed in a world that does not recognize their difference.

Identification, in this way, does not go hand-in-hand with representation. A recent release such as 2K’s Mafia III, for example, deploys player-character identification in a politically effective manner. The game’s senior writer, Charles Webb, discusses in his interview with Austin Walker how Mafia III allows players to navigate a world that is built around and reacts to the character’s racial difference, generating a necessary discourse on race and politics that transcends the bounds of the game itself. Yet it can be argued that Mafia III deploys the pedantic model of theatre Brecht despises: one that is too earnest in displaying its political position — which is not to undermine the importance of the game’s commentary. A converse example that is more directly aligned with Every Day the Same Dream is Young Horses’ Octodad. Poking fun at the profound responsibilities of being a father by rendering them absurd and surreal, Octodad nonetheless allows players to interpret its invisible-octopus conceit as a commentary on queerness or even disability. It remains a game that generates a discourse as it estranges players’ identification with the ‘normal dad,’ albeit in a tongue-in-cheek and funny way rather than the bleak and dreary version we see in Every Day the Same Dream.

The disruption of identification in Pedercini’s experimental short, then, is affective. That is, there is nothing to emotionally cling to or identify with in the game. Perhaps, in a way, that is the only thing I could relate to — this experience that feels so familiar to working retail, as I have, and feeling bored out of my mind, wanting to be anywhere but there. Playing Every Day the Same Dream is an exercise in boredom, one that moves me to think at the same time, this game is boring and I do not want to play it, and, I recognize this feeling of work and want catharsis. If I were to accept the game’s ‘default’ sequence as all it has to offer, I pondered, how many days of this banal routine could I suffer through?

Three days, as a matter of fact, is how long I could tolerate this version of corporate normality. Three brief playthroughs of doing the same routine daily, each time expecting something different to happen, to no avail — something something the definition of insanity, right? In Brecht’s theatre of alienation, a steadfast method of producing a sense of spectatorial detachment is to break the fourth wall. By crafting an alienating experience, Brecht’s theatrical model dabbles in the uncanny inasmuch as the performance of recognizable subjects is nonetheless rendered strange (121). In Every Day the Same Dream, the cosmic irony is, of course, that going to work every day — something so banal and conventional — is what suddenly seemed so strange. By acknowledging this estrangement of reality, Brecht’s spectator is no longer a passive consumer of the theatre, but rather becomes an active participant in the production of pleasure and meaning, undoing the “stamp of familiarity which protects [socially-conditioned phenomena] against our grasp today” (121). It is precisely this moment of refusal that opens the game up to new pathways for reconciliation — for me, anyway, to make sense of and attempt to bereave myself of this alienation.

Instead of getting dressed for work on that fourth morning of play, I decided to test the game and show up to work in my underwear — this practically mythologized nightmare scenario and universal cliché — just to see what would happen. I was berated and sent home by my boss only to begin another day, as if nothing had changed — except for one detail. Every morning on the elevator ride down to the parking lot, I stood next to the appropriately named “elevator lady” who now changed her repeated claim, “Five more steps and you’ll be a new person,” to “Four more steps (…).” There are, in fact, five possible divergences from normality in Every Day the Same Dream. While I include these moments of refusal for critical comprehensiveness, I believe their effectiveness is contingent upon their natural discovery. That is to say, the game may only work for you, as it did for me, if you do not know the possibility of refusal exists from the start.

These discrete refusals include, (1) ‘forgetting’ to get dressed and showing up to work in your underwear, (2) taking the day off work to go to a quiet place with a homeless man, (3) getting out of your car in the middle of traffic to pet a country-side cow, (4) catching the last fallen leaf from a deciduous tree outside the office building, and (5) walking right past your cubicle to leap off the roof of your office building. The order one undertakes these events does not matter, and considering the ineffectual fatalism of the final refusal I mention — in this macabre Groundhog Day, everything returns to normal the morning after leaping off the tall building — these moments may be understood as metaphorically expressive rather than physically enacted.

With each refusal, then, a new day begins. Engaging with any of these divergences from the ‘default’ path yields a visible imprint on the very structures of capitalism: returning to the office, you will notice incremental drops in whatever arbitrary value is measured on the chart behind your boss. By embracing refusal, you effectively become the new person our beloved “elevator lady” foresaw, finally returning to the office building roof one last time to witness your former self jump to their death — the unceremonious departure of the corporate and alienated self.

Every Day the Same Dream screenshot of the player character standing on the edge of a building

Ultimately, Brecht would have us believe that the often alienating social phenomena are in fact well within our grasp, and therefore changeable. He concludes “A Short Organum” by claiming, “when the rules emerging from this life in society are treated as imperfect and provisional…the theatre leaves its spectators productively disposed even after the spectacle is over” (135). Every Day the Same Dream encourages players to question and even subvert the uncanny reality it displays as ‘normal.’ The game, in the end, invites us to think: if we live in a world where the idea of going to work in nothing but underwear sounds less absurd than actually going to work every day, then it is a very strange world indeed.

Works Cited

Brecht, Bertolt. “A Short Organum for the Theatre.” In Marxist Literary Theory: A Reader, ed.

Terry Eagleton and Drew Milner. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 1996. Print.

Every Day the Same Dream. Dev. Paolo Pedercini. Molleindustria. 2009. Web Game.

Penabella, Miguel. “Opened World: Queerness and Movement.” Haywire Magazine. 18 September, 2016. Web.

Raze, Ashton. “How Octodad works as an analogy for invisible illness.” The Telegraph. 31 January, 2014. Web.

Walker, Austin. “How Mafia III Intends to Make Players Confront Racism.” Waypoint (formerly VICE Gaming). 29 September, 2016. Web.

Williams, D., Martins, N., Consalvo, M., Ivory, J.D. “The virtual census: representations of gender, race and age in video games.” New Media and Society. Vol. 11(5): 815-834. Sage Publications. 2009. Web.