Spooky Corridors, Companions and Ahumanism: A Literal Gameplay of Uma Breakdown’s Animal Agency

Since the pandemic began, amid it, and only until very recently, my two main companions have not been human. One, is a non-human ‘animal’ in the form of a cat and the other, a device comprised of raw materials and metal with which I play games. Both have important roles when discussing Animal Agency (2020) by Uma Breakdown, a game that will inform and be played alongside this piece of writing. 

Confined to working from home – a phrase for which the acronym looks suspiciously like the phonetic breakdown of the canine exclamation ‘woof’ and has become nationally if not globally recognised - I passed the time playing with Lance and exploring game worlds.

Artworks and games provide us with creative musings, provocations and critical enquiries through very often, visual mediums and stories. On engagement, these forms can be highly transportive and successful in suspending the viewer or player’s sense of rationality or reality, allowing them to invest in the idea or world the creator puts forward. World-building practices, found in science fiction and fantasy are essential to this kind of imaginative idea exploration and integral to gaming.

Two theorists who I will look to whilst playing Animal Agency (2020) are Donna Haraway and Patricia MacCormack. Both of whom employ approaches associated with science fiction within their writing. Staying with the Trouble and The Animal Catalyst are texts that offer readers concepts to consider and invest in, with the aim of encouraging critical thinking through re-imagining forms of living and speculative world-making rooted in feminist activism.

I will look at the writing of Haraway and MacCormack to help me think through what a world might look like with a renewed or re-experienced relationship between the animal and the human. By examining the relationships humans have with animals, and by inhabiting different bodies through the medium of game, is a new perspective attainable and what can be learned? Both writers consider how we, as individual humans, can have agency in the Anthropocene and use it to repair or address the injustices imposed by humans on the natural world.

Animal Agency (2020) is a visual novel in the form of a downloadable game made by artist, researcher and writer Uma Breakdown. The work was realised through FACT’s online commissioning scheme which was initiated in response to the financial uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Through the programme, several early-career artists based in the North of England were commissioned to create digital projects from home.

Fact’s wider artistic programme during 2020, The Living Planet, sought to provoke creative responses and critical thinking on how to build a more sustainable, responsible global community (Fact, 2020). The series of exhibitions, commissions, texts and activities attempted to think beyond the human and into the perspectives of the non-human or in Abram’s term the more-than-human (Abram, 1996). This non-anthropocentric life included ecological systems, plants and the animals often thought of as family members and mankind’s closest companions: our pets.

Uma Breakdown is based in Gateshead; a large town in Northeast England which is situated on the southern bank of the River Tyne. They are an artist, researcher, writer and educator who identifies as disabled and trans* non-binary. On the landing page of their website is a list of keywords, which one assumes are central to Breakdown’s research and practice, they include: ‘queer horror, cybernetics, disaster, non-binary transgender science fiction, Felix Guattari rolling around with animals and laughing’ (Breakdown, 2020).

Clicking through flashing GIFs of scanned digital sketches and drawings is a link to Breakdown’s itch.io profile where you can read more about Animal Agency (2020) and download it to your desktop. Above the links to Penance Stare’s Bandcamp (Breakdown’s chosen soundtrack for the game and favourite black metal band), is the following supplementary text written by the artist:

    the state of brains in humans is bound up in the proximity to animals and the escape from work that comes with sleep. This is a game           about that scene in the film where the main character slips in and out of consciousness and we see time passing in a strobe of events         they barely have an agency in.

  Its also about how I used to not be able to sleep past 4am in my own bed so I would get up and get dressed for work and sit on the sofa       in the kitchen with a very old ginger cat with long claws and I'd get more rest in those 2 hours before I had to leave the house than any         other time. (Breakdown, 2020)

Animal Agency (2020) is developed using Adventure Game Studio (AGS) and specifically chosen by the artist for its ability to integrate images and text. AGS is an open-source adventure engine used to create point-and-click games, which is the format for this work. Breakdown’s artistic process consists of combining different elements and materials; creating a system of gathered drawings, captured thoughts and art theory.
One such influence of art theory can be found in the pages of The Animal Catalyst: Towards Ahuman Theory (2014), edited by Patricia MacCormack. The Animal Catalyst is a collection of eleven essays by varying authors, through which, MacCormack presents written enquiries which explore how we think, relate to and treat/mistreat the non-human: specifically, animals. MacCormack’s care is palpable in the introductory section as she puts forward her compassionate case for ‘Ahumanity’.

MacCormack’s concept of the ‘ahuman’ is a call to action for humans to consider the flourishing of other species through ‘the cessation of reproduction of human life’ (MacCormack, 2014 p178). MacCormack asks us to consider a world left for the non-human to exist within and without human interference. The text is an attempt to deconstruct anthropocentrism and dismantle multi species extinction caused by human dominance in the Anthropocene. ‘Ahumanity’ is a concept that refuses all hierarchy between species and occupies a position that vehemently resists human exceptionalism.

MacCormack states how the book understands the meaning of ‘the word ‘animal’ as nothing more than organic life, which is shared between myriad organisms, their expressions and affects, and nothing less than an absolute refusal of the word in all its incarnations (too often incantations): ‘human’’ (MacCormack, 2014 p2). In an interview with FACT, Breakdown explains how for MacCormack, this approach is a useful way to think about how we deal with other creatures. By allowing ourselves to encounter animals as unknowable it might prove possible to witness a new perspective, instead of trying to align or fit them within our own prior understanding of the world (Breakdown, 2020).

I find Animal Agency in my downloads, unzip the file and double click to open the application. On launching the game, the first avatars I come across are 3 small hand drawn cells. I am instructed by the text to click on the cells which I am told live inside my body. These cellular organisms are appropriate devices to introduce the player to the game as they are the actors that link differing species together bridging the human and the non-human worlds. As I click on each of the cells, they provide me with variations of the same command. I am told to nap, or to rest and am reminded that I sleep the best when I am near to animals.  

The introductory text also provides context about the artist. The game tells me that I, (as the player and as Breakdown) have trouble sleeping and am therefore on medication. It explains how I solve a lot of my problems by laying down next to animals and pulling something over my eyes. These commands and snippets of information carry with them a sense of ethics and care, acting as technical guides within the game whilst also positioning the player in a dreaming state which is in-between wake and sleep. It is possible that this is a conscious decision by Breakdown where you, as the player, operate in an in-between time of possibility; not totally separated from reality but in a state yet to have occurred or not occurred. These contemplative moments within the game encourage a slowness where one is rewarded for prioritising exploration and rest. I find a rug for my avatar to lie down on.

Engaging with the world more slowly seemed to become a more conscious action during the pandemic. During lockdowns, the passage of time became more noticeable, and our worlds became much smaller; we were confined to our homes and to the domestic. Our plants and pets weren’t aware of the global pandemic, which, coupled with the difference in time perception across species, was incredibly reassuring. Animals can be wholly present; not caught up in what has happened or what is yet to come.

Exposure to this behaviour from animals was for many – me included - a coping mechanism during isolation. In Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble, this characteristic is touched upon:

In urgent times, many of us are tempted to address trouble in terms of making an imagined future safe, of stopping something from happening that looms in the future, of clearing away the present and the past in order to make futures for coming generations. Staying with the trouble does not require such a relationship to times called the future. In fact, staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings (Haraway, 2016, p1)

Although occupying a different position in the animal ethics conversation, Haraway, like MacCormack puts forward concepts and writing that rejects nihilism and despondency, instead offering action that focuses on the multi-species entanglements that have become part of contemporary life. Haraway believes that species meeting brings humans and more-than-human worlds together (Haraway 2008) and, in doing so, humans become aware of the multiple worlds they encounter, and which they are part of. Catherine Price suggests that Haraway’s understanding of ‘becoming with’ gives up the idea of human exceptionalism (Price, 2020). Whilst this argument might resist human exceptionalism, one might say that it is not satisfactory in relation to animal ethics and tackling speciesism, human dominance and the abuse of the non-human world.

Although Haraway advocates for making kin and ‘worlding with’ (Haraway, 2016 p58) other species, it could be said that these concepts are in contention with her Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Although a deep bond and affection is evident between Haraway and her canine companion Cayenne Pepper, the relationship is hierarchical and one that functions on power upheld by human dominance over another species. When considering the manifesto, the frustration with Haraway expressed in some of MacCormack’s work is understandable, as it is not at all conducive for the concept of ‘ahumanity’.

Back in the game and after some progression and revisiting of rooms, I am now in ‘the office’. I click on different drawings and my avatar moves through a dark rectangle into a ‘spooky corridor’. Through the corridor, I am greeted with an image divided in two and the following words:

‘When my dog was dying I needed to be with her, but I also couldn't bear to listen to her breathing. I lay next to her downstairs and put the headphones tight around my head and played the same album over and over’ (Breakdown, 2020)

Cross-species cohabitation and the ‘making of kin’ (Haraway, 2016 p103) is evident within Breakdown’s game. The presence of a Staffordshire bull terrier and the cat that accompanies me throughout the game, mewing and weaving in and out of my avatar’s legs is reflective of Breakdown’s personal existence with the animals that they live with; the kin they have made. One might argue that Haraway’s somewhat daring proposition evident in her slogan: ‘Make Kin Not Babies!’ (Haraway, 2016 p102) attempts a radical approach for earthly survival, however, it is McCormack’s embrace of auto-extinction that appears the most tangible and compelling in this case.

By now, I have been in and out of every room of Breakdown’s virtual mansion; had a nap on a rug in Lab 1, a rat friend took me to the rat bar, I visited the council, followed the cat and as my quest dictated; found one last place to lie down and rest near to the animals. As my adventure concludes, a line of text pops up acting as an epilogue to the experience. The narrator, ‘a quiet voice in my head’ writes:

‘Its not so much a resolution as an exit/ it’s very much a ‘friends we met along the way’ thing’

Mirroring Breakdown’s ending for Animal Agency, I too am exiting without providing a resolution, simply because there isn’t one. I don’t mean that I am joining the camp of the despaired, rather, I will endeavour to take part in the ‘ongoingness’ and ‘undoing’ that Haraway and MacCormack separately propose. Both of which provide their readers with provocative arguments for responsibility, action and agency in the Anthropocene.

Before logging out of Animal Agency, I am reminded of the ‘spooky corridor’ within Breakdown’s virtual mansion. Perhaps, this doorway represents the ultimate action and sacrifice that as humans, we can make to the non-human world; to gracefully accept MacCormack’s invitation to enter into extinction; leaving life to be ‘lived as life’ (MacCormack, 2014 p185). After completing the game and ruminating over MacCormack’s persuasive and compassionate argument for the ultimate act of non-human loving, I am inclined to enter the ‘spooky corridor’ and leave the mansion to the animals.

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