DOCPLAYS: Frail Shells

Let’s play - and discuss!


So this is Frail Shells. It was made for the seven day FPS jam in November 2014, and it does some interesting things that I thought were worth discussing.

The game starts with some quick exposition - a radio transmission explains that you’re being dropped behind enemy lines to find and rescue Agent Mackenzie. Sure enough, you land in a warzone that’s over the top almost to the point of parody. Epic battle music plays on a short loop, and the area is smoke-filled and swarming with enemy soldiers. You have enough health to take many hits, but each shot you land sends the enemy soldier flying like a cardboard cutout. Occasionally a grenade goes off and a couple dozen soldiers go flying.

It’s a power fantasy, but there’s still a bit of challenge. If you just charge forward, you’ll take too many hits and die. But if you’re careful, it’s not too hard to make your way deeper into enemy territory and find Mackenzie. Now, Mackenzie’s gender isn’t really made explicit but I’m going to use female pronouns for convenience.

Mackenzie is holding her own, surrounded by dead enemy soldiers and firing at more. When you get to her, an explosion rocks the area and the screen goes black. A bit of dialog suggests an offscreen hospital stay and recovery, and then you wake up at home.

Home is quite pedestrian, especially after that epic war hero scene, with a barely-there piano soundtrack to match. You turn off your alarm and get up, and then find your way to the kitchen, where Mackenzie has made you breakfast. You make small talk with her and eat your breakfast, and then head off to work - a generic office job where you sit in a cubicle and do something on a computer. Doing your work gets you money, and you can also eat the lunch that Mackenzie apparently packed for you. Then you go home and sleep while some of your money gets deducted for living expenses. Then you wake up the next day and do it all again.

It’s dull once, and it gets duller through repetition. It’s an effective, if not very subtle, metaphor for the bizarreness of returning to civilian life after being in a war. But it doesn’t stop there.

Soon, pieces of the war experience start showing up in your daily life. Your health meter and targeting reticle show up as your gun appears and the epic music starts playing - and then just as suddenly, it’s all gone. It comes and goes unpredictably, and you have to be careful to avoid shooting. You have to wait for the gun to go away before you can turn off your alarm, or talk to Mackenzie, or do your job, or whatever it is you were doing when the gun came up.

It’s an interesting way to add depth to the metaphor, with intrusive flashbacks disrupting your ability to live your simple life. But by doing it through gameplay - reminding the player of the far more engaging gunplay portion of the game - it becomes more complex. The player character may want to continue their normal life, or they may long for the chaos and heroism of the battlefield - it’s not made clear. But the player almost certainly had a better time shooting up the enemy than going to work. The “normal” life being lived here is both mechanically dull and very shallow. Mackenzie presents no real reason to care about her as a character - she just spouts platitudes at you before work. And your job is trivial and rote - just click the monitors and go home. There’s nothing here that seems worth protecting. It becomes increasingly tempting to fire the gun and see what happens.

Eventually, you either succumb to this temptation or just accidentally click while the gun is sneaking onto the screen and you shoot something. Shot items are knocked back but there are no other immediate repercussions, even when you shoot Mackenzie. The player character indicates something is wrong when you go to sleep, and the next day whatever you shot is gone. Mackenzie’s absence means no more breakfast or lunch. No more computers means you can no longer make money, and your possessions start disappearing to pay for your living expenses. You wake up in an emptying house, go to work and do nothing, go to sleep, and do it again. As before, it’s an effective if unsubtle metaphor for the damage that can be done by a failure to readjust to civilian life - both to relationships and to the ability to hold down a job and function as a productive member of society.

Once there’s nothing left to vanish, your player character wonders why it’s so hard to fall asleep, and the credits roll. After the credits, the game restarts - but it’s different. You don’t have your gun. Having given in and used it in the civilian context, you’ve lost it in the military context. You’re tasked with saving Mackenzie, but now that you’ve lashed out at her and driven her away, you can’t save her anymore. You’re stuck in a loop, trying to get to her, but without your gun you can’t get past all the enemy soldiers in the way. At least I couldn’t, after several tries. So you just die, failing to save her, over and over, in a nightmare from which you can’t wake up.

It’s a really dark ending, the final note in the game’s metaphor for post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s as unsubtle as the rest of it, but it’s still effective and somewhat haunting. But here’s where things get strange - according to the game’s creator, Taylor Bai-Woo, the game wasn’t intended as a PTSD metaphor at all.

Speaking to the Boston Globe, Bai-Woo said, “I sort of knew a decent amount of people would interpret ‘Frail Shells’ as being something about PTSD, and people are allowed to feel whatever things they feel from art and things they consume! I definitely didn’t make ‘Frail Shells’ as being something about PTSD though…” If anything, Bai-Woo seems a bit embarrassed that people interpret Frail Shells as being about PTSD. Still talking to the Boston Globe, Bai-Woo further said, “I’m not super comfortable of people thinking the game is about PTSD mostly because I don’t have PTSD or know anyone that has it.”

So where did this game come from, then? According to the Boston Globe, Bai-Woo put it this way: “Imagine shooting games, and how (usually) your only way of interacting with the world is shooting. Then really think that if your only way of interacting with anything was shooting, wouldn’t that be really sad?” “…it’d be really funny if a gun just popped in and out . . . and your shoot button and [button for interacting with things peacefully] was the same.”

Bai-Woo was making a darkly comic joke. But the result touches some very serious nerves. So what is this game really about? Who can say? Bai-Woo’s experience with the game was about the tragic humor of the limited and inherently violent interaction presented by shooting games. Many other people’s experiences with the game were about the horrors of PTSD. Nobody’s wrong here. Maybe that’s as far as we can go. Maybe the game itself isn’t about anything at all.