Folklorists

Folklorists Chell Portal 2 Stephen Beirne

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In the middle of one of those conversations where we natter about whatever bits of media we arbitrarily liked, my brother contradicted my reading of Portal 2’s protagonist. “Chell is a clone,” he told me, reasoning that otherwise the continuity between the first game’s ending and the second’s beginning makes no sense. I had second-hand knowledge that Chell’s parents were Aperture Science employees who donated her for the cause, and I told him this.

“Oh, well.” For the benefit of this story, he stroked his Green Arrow moustache. “That still fits. Maybe she was born in a lab, or maybe you’re a clone of the original daughter.” This was before I came to learn it’s a popular enough theory to have made it onto The Internet. There it gathered so much attention and prominence, in fact, that Portal 2’s writers made a point of denying it outright, and so died the theory of Chell the clone.

Or did it.

It so happens there are these ghosts who’ve been pissing around my head recently. “What are you even doing?” they ask me. “What makes your perspective so valuable? WoooOOoooOO.” They’re the Ghosts of Game Criticism, granting voice to that little doubt at the back of my mind, “what am I writing for?”

Earlier this week, Craig Stern wrote an article that restored this nagging feeling. It was Stern rebutting a fairly common saying in some circles of games criticism, the one along the lines of “there is no wrong way to interpret a game“, before going on to suggest some criteria by which we can judge any given interpretation’s validity. Stern believes that, insofar as interpretations serve as descriptive filters of media texts, they ought to account for all relevant parts of the text and so describe a coherent narrative. Accuracy, truth and validity closely intertwine: an inaccurate reading is invalid by virtue of its misrepresentations or omissions.

“An interpretation of a work must arise from study of the work itself, and not merely from personal predilections. [...] Games are finite. They have contours: defined aesthetics, narrative, characters, words, boundaries to the play space. Any interpretation which fails to accurately account for these elements of the game will necessarily fail to divine the meaning or meanings that arise from the interaction of those elements.”

He doesn’t exactly say interpretations “ought to be” this or that, by which I mean it’s not explicitly a normative creed for the descriptive process, but I think it’s clearly implied as preferable to an alternative where anything can go.

It’s a grand piece. Other than the ghosts, I quite like it.

But while I’m wholly on board for calling out the “there is no wrong way to interpret a game” mantra as nonsense, there’s a boatload of problems with the solution Stern suggests for establishing which narratives should be deemed credible. Not the least of which is the fact that it hedges impossible demands of us given how virtually no-one is, as it happens, omniscient. On this point, a more discerning mind might come along and press him on exactly what components should be considered sufficiently relevant to credit an interpretation as appropriately whole. Or one could question the barriers imposed on the field of criticism by standards which deny validity to all but the most diversely knowledgeable. For example, must I have played Resident Evil 2 in order for my impression of Resident Evil 6 to carry weight given how mired it is in its own delirious lore? Do I need to polish up on the hermeneutics of zombies in contemporary media to be able to properly contextualize it within the canon of popular culture? And what if, as it turns out, RE6’s narrative is banjaxed all to hell and just doesn’t support a coherent, continuous interpretation unless you start making very generous omissions?

And then the overarching question: is Stern making his recommendation into a basis for an explanation of interpretation as a normal element of everyday life? Does his concept of interpretation invalidate itself?

These problems are bog standard when it comes to assertions about interpretation, especially on what kind of interpretations are preferable. This kind of creed or methodology needs to be able to hold up when turned on itself in scrutiny, since it’s an interpretation of the concept of interpretation. If the method doesn’t hold water at its core (when talking about the nature of interpretation) it won’t do us much good when talking about the nature or ‘the facts’ of a videogame, whatever that means.

To that end, Stern approaches interpretation from the perspective that we experience a game or a text or an object, interpret it, and subsequently relay this interpretation to whoever is around to hear it. The middle step is pivotal—that’s what needs to accurately relate to the game in question if it hopes to be a valid impression or description of the object. This step encompasses the interpretative process proper, sifting an object for meaning and divining a narrative from the remnants.

But here’s where I run into difficulty. It’s all well and good if you’re only really concerned with finding out about the object as an objectively existing bundle of ideas and narratives—I think this is the basis on which Stern narrows the claim that interpretations are descriptions to the matter of the object in question—since you can stop here without a bother in your head. Under this structure, what you interpret is an object, so what you describe in relaying your interpretation is, naturally, that object, to a greater or lesser degree depending on your faithfulness to it.

However, if the act of communicating is itself considered a process of interpretation, namely the filtering of ideas into language, what you go on to describe is your idea of the object as it exists in your mind and not the object itself. Desiring to break away from this chain and communicate the actual object requires a refiltering of one’s perceptions, and again, and again, until it finally resembles a narrative honed to the source material, stripped of the fluff of your intentionality. But the metric by which you determine that final interpretation to be satisfactory is itself a product of interpretation (of facts, of cultural context, of semiotics, etc), so disassembly requires a sorting through of all these ambient contributing factors in order to ascertain their relevance. Attempting to dissolve away the difference between interpretation and the object itself ultimately leads us to a homunculus regression.

Still, a refutation of the idea that all interpretations are valid appeals to me something fiercely, so this is something I’ve needed to reconcile within my own criticism in recent years. I’ve gone to great lengths in the past when writing about intentionality and interactivity to stress the importance of the player to the game as co-author to its narratives. By definition, you are who makes this game narrative—this exact one you are experiencing right in front of you—intelligible. You actualize the process as meaning-making. And the meaning that results, and the narrative that forms, holds incredible value insofar as it is the product of a melding together of your soul and the game as an object.

Within this framework, the value here is self-discovery through communication with the object, and then self-affirmation in prizing the narrative as born wonderfully, hopelessly, from a part of you.

But a community cannot run on existentialism alone. Tensions mount between finding value in yourself and overcoming yourself for the benefit of those around you—your family, friends, neighbours, complete strangers, all of whom depend on your contribution to the social sphere in a way that is, optimally, not entirely self-involved. If everyone insists to live within their own little solipsistic, self-satisfied bubble, community and empathy become unreachable. As Mattie Brice writes in Death of the Player, our self-involvement proves destructive when practised as ethos:

“My journey with this concept started when I played anna anthropy’s Encyclopedia Fuck Me and the Case of the Vanishing Entree. I remember it took me an entire day to play it, mostly because it felt so hostile to me at first. The game was set in its ways, knew what it wanted, and I felt incidental. I could play along, or leave. So I left. Its content disturbed me, to be completely honest. Within the hours that I spent away from it, I reflected on my inability to play, and decided it was a rigidity in myself, feeling a lack of control and agency within someone else’s world. Going back to it, it became clear that the designer was clearly present and wanted me to experience feelings I’m not used to. Eventually, I noticed I was being trained, trained to exist in this play space.”

Whereas the ideal existential being is pure carelessness, in your day-to-day life people depend on you for civility and comradeship, as you do on them. In the field of games, this involves offering ground for mutual understanding of videogames and collaborating with other people to explore our experiences together.

Everybody has their own idea on how to do this. Everyone has their own preference of methodology on how to think and talk about the medium. This, again, blossoms into conflict, such as the formalists versus zinesters cold war that I think might be getting revised out of history. Or more generally, the old guard versus the fresh young upstarts, with their dangerous ideas and irreverence for the old ways, the greying tomes on how to discuss videogames. These methods are themselves representative of their practitioner’s inner being—their predilections and education, their culture and heritage, their identity and hopes and dreams—which corroborate in the interpretation of media and fly off into the world to butt heads with the being of another person as expressed by a different critical lense. Little battles over methodology can be hurtful and shocking depending on how much of ourselves we put into communicating our perspectives. Through these conflicts each practitioner of a methodology is left to lick their wounds and ponder on what makes their method important—or more appropriately, what makes their perspective, their interpretation, valuable? This has inspired my ghost.

Stern takes great care not to comment on the value of interpretations on a whole, other than to recommend pursuing a body of valid (read: accurate) reference work. He does not say whether an invalid interpretation lacks value, for example, other than for seeking a description of the game in question. I might be putting words in his mouth but the implication seems to be that the product of games criticism (or journalism, or just standard discussion) is the establishment of communal, agreeable knowledge on an objective reality (or on objects in that reality).

That being said, if you reject the pursuit of a body of valid reference work as a goal, you can sidestep this value paradigm and instead quest for value by re-envisioning truth-statements of validity and the meaning-making that comes from interpretations. The question, so, is where do you seek value in your enjoyment and interpretation of games? Put another way, does it actually matter if Portal 2’s writers deny that Chell is a clone? My moustachioed brother is not put out in the slightest by the official canon so long as his own reading improves on it.

For me, as I’m sure it is with many others, the purpose of games criticism is not so directed towards the establishment of reference materials. My work, my criticism, doesn’t trade in information as objectively existing knowledge about objectively existing media texts, since it isn’t fuelled by a desire for increased quantities of communally available data.

Now there is criticism existing out there in some form or another that does harbour these interests, and grand for them. In the mainstream, though, it’s largely been turned into a bogeyman for the punchline of surrealist jokes, much to the irritation of, it must be said, a fairly vocal scattering of game enthusiasts. For them, the value of criticism is solely in meticulously describing objects as facts.

This is Chris Wagar’s contention with games journalism, using Jonathan Holmes as a catspaw. Wagar attributes Holmes’ disinterest in describing games on a minute mechanical scale to his inability to understand them, also extrapolated into a communal failing. In his own way, Wagar is more interested in the life of the game than the life of the author, so his preferences show up as a somewhat dry systemic analysis of, in this case, competitive fighting games. In contrast, Holmes’ preference for chaos comes across as more laidback and accommodating.

The whole exchange led Jed Pressgrove to respond that expertise is not a pre-requisite for criticism. Says Pressgrove to Wagar:

“Gamers have very different views about games, so it’s no surprise that game critics are not authorities on everything. In fact, game critics are not authorities on anything — I don’t care how knowledgeable or skilled they are. Critics are only there to be read, considered, and questioned.

“So we should not be surprised when reviews and other criticism don’t reflect what we think. We should demand that they challenge the way we think!”

In this business of analysing games, there is something of a mystery as to who exactly is an authority on anything. ‘The death of the author’ is thrown around to justify reader-response criticism, as is the maxim Stern objects to, that every interpretation is correct or valid. ‘The death of the player’ shows the fault in willing ourselves into leading shuttered intellectual and emotional lives. The critic can claim expertise on but a sliver of possible critical lenses as interpretation, each valid in their own way just as they are deficient in innumerable more. If by this shortcoming no critic is an authority on anything, not even on their own experiences, reader-response suddenly looks more like a leaky boat. But if we take the text as the final authority on itself, as Stern does, above all its author’s intentions and all its audience’s fancies, we’re left back at our homunculus problem that nobody even knows what the text ‘actually’ is prior to looking for it.

The life of a critic is the same tragedy of existentialism: how do you live an existentially fulfilling life at the same time as living conscientiously. We can either point to something or tell you what it is but never both, since in the telling it becomes something different.

But what we can do to reconcile these two forces of text and meaning is to produce with our criticism, not data or reference work, but folklore. Communally existing knowledge that is inseparable from consciousness on a social plane, as extelligence, inverse to intelligence, consciousness on an individual plane. Much like geist suggests the mindfulness of ideas, extelligence sees ideas and consciousness embodied in cultural artefacts. Portal 2 is one such artefact. This article is another. Taken as an account or a description, it deals in facts, but taken instead as folklore, it deals in meaning.

The value of this comes as I accept the existence of the social world and my place in it, and contribute to it my consciousness as given in the experiences and perspectives representative of a game’s narrative through me. I accept my fallibility and fragility as a condition of this. And in admitting myself as a participant in your world, rather than maintaining we each live in distinct bubbles, I accept responsibility for my message appropriate to my failings in the context of it as a socialized text and me as a socialized person, rather than appropriate to everybody’s individual imaginations. The text gains substance through the contexts by which it exists—historical factors, as well as linguistic, cultural, critical, economic, philosophical, and so on—granting it weight and relevance as a token of values and experiences communal to my peers and neighbours. By this it’s then opened up to be read by people of different backgrounds as a proverb, flexible, but obliging and yielding no more than its own consciousness allows.

The power of folklore isn’t in its accuracy as a factual account of social or personal narratives, nor in its offer of expertise on a moral or historic subject matter, nor even in its clarity of communication. As extelligence, interpretations can be as invalid and ludicrous as you wouldn’t believe and still carry such insight as to make them invaluable.

Notes on Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward

Notes on Virtue's Last Reward

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0.

What follows is a light canter through some of the themes of Virtue’s Last Reward. Not even all of the themes, just some, since here we have a game so intensely dense it would take far longer to do justice than I can spare at present. For some reason, Virtue’s Last Reward is not a very widely written-about game despite the favour it has won within a fiercely passionate fanbase. These notes are my contribution to change that. So I’ve made an early executive decision that this will almost completely be a spoiler-free zone, bar some points of lore and sci-fi, with the hope to entice you into picking up this title at some time preferably soon. I could gush, oh I could gush, though I’ll leave that till another day.

Lastly, I apologize in advance for writing while hungry. Also: VLR’s developers are named Chunsoft—this will come up again at the end. It’s not important that you remember, it’s just the little editor in my head will bug me endlessly for even the slightest lack of clarity on the matter.

1.

In a small, fearful whisper of a voice I say Virtue’s Last Reward is one of my favourite games.  Normally I’m quite skittish about these things. After the credits have rolled and the disk’s box has accumulated a healthy film of dust, it’ll still take me an age to decide whether I want to take a game, frame it and hang it on my wall. You know, that kind of post-game meditation where, once it’s over and done, you don’t just put it down and move on with your life, but instead keep it with you and carry it along as a part of you, buoying yourself with your past wonder and joy. I only played Virtue’s Last Reward maybe a month ago but I treasure it.

2.

You might be pleased to know, for the benefit of fleshing me out as a person1, that VLR is the sequel to 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, which at first I utterly despised. Oh god did I hate it. As well as burdening the narration with the unfortunate design decision to over-indulge in our shockingly dull protagonist, Junpei, said narration was also restricted to the Platonic form of a snail’s pace. It wasn’t until I eventually and thankfully died that something clicked. The sensation I remember was as if my brain spun an entire 360 degrees in my head and thanked for its exhilaration the nearest thing at hand, which was my DS. In an instant, 999 snapped from all the way from ‘intolerable’ to ‘sublimely magical’, and it, too, became one of my favourite games.

3.

This is my way of saying: I absolutely recommend you play these games, starting with 999.

4.

But where would a videogame be without some completely superfluous sexism. Where 999 had entertained itself by damselling virtually every female character in existence, Virtue’s Last Reward takes the more sombre approach of granting its protagonist, Sigma, the bad habit of creeping on women and framing it as comedy. I won’t give examples because even typing it out makes me regret Point Number 1, though rest assured they are many. The fact that Sigma’s horrible antics recur so frequently, and with him never being substantially reprimanded to an extent that would prevent his continued misbehaviour, suggests we’re expected to laugh it off as all in good fun. I was not so inclined.

5.

Incidentally, I haven’t forgotten that another character, Tenmyouji, at one point states rather firmly he is moved to nausea at the thought of a man dressing in women’s clothes. Now, while I put forty glorious hours into devouring VLR and these moments made up just a tiny portion of the whole, they were a blight on an otherwise happy experience. You kind of come to expect horrible stuff like this from videogames but this was very trying.

6.

I adore mysteries, and more so murder mysteries—I’ve a cavernous hunger for the genre. In this metaphor I play games with my belly. I understand this flatters neither myself nor VLR since by this imagery the main thing it has going on is that I’m a great big glutton, but look, it is the truth. So, VLR is a trough full of wonderful and I am a pig.

That might be the ultimate cause of my enjoyment of the game but still VLR does quite a few clever things with itself outside of the central mystery. First, a little backstory:  college student Sigma awakens to find himself imprisoned in a facility alongside eight other individuals. Together they are forced to play the Nonary Game, an escape-the-room tournament, under penalty of death. The identity of their captor, codenamed Zero, soon gives way to the larger question of the purpose of the Game. Throughout the Nonary Game, our cast comes across curious snippets of lore from the worlds of science, mathematics, archaeology, and so on, patterned to clue the player in to the themes and plot twists lying at the heart of the answer to this question.

7.

One of the major themes is consciousness, particularly the nature of it. Both 999 and VLR incorporate the metanarrative that comes from a player’s routine act of dying and replaying a game into the story proper. The information you gather on one fatal playthrough (which becomes a timeline) carries through to the next timeline both in your mind, Dear Player, and in the mind of Sigma by virtue of the knowledge you act upon through him. This grows and develops into a doctrine on consciousness as a certain arrangement of data—knowledge of your name, your past, the characteristics of the people around you, the secret password you need to bypass a door—that can be manipulated and distributed much like we do with electronic data. The manner by which consciousness is distributed in VLR relies on some delightfully hokey science, which is ok. It’s a game, not a thesis.

This seems outrageous until they bring up the Chinese room, a thought experiment where a man relays pre-programmed responses to questions fielded at him, and he oblivious to the meaning of any message in the communication. The experiment juxtaposes actual understanding against the mere appearance of understanding, aiming to disprove the possibility that a computer could attain consciousness as humans have it. But it sparks intrigue on the connections between meaning and knowledge (in the form of information), and on those between consciousness and understanding.

The question Virtue’s Last Reward asks is this: if information can be sent from one person to another (such as in the case of writing it down and handing it to them), can understanding likewise be communicated in some form or other? If so, might that constitute a transmission of consciousness?

8.

To this end: robots.

9.

Another theme presented is causality. Extrapolating from Schrodinger’s Cat, which draws on the dual likelihoods of a cat being either alive or dead at a particular moment in time through the magic of quantum mechanics, VLR posits that by understanding conflicting events as existing within a superposition, they can be retroactively resolved one way or the other by an external cause. There are some implementations of this logic taken literally where a character’s earlier actions change state from ‘yes’ to ‘no’ according to the player’s present decision. But the more interesting2 application relates, again, to consciousness.

Given how actions are largely interpreted in conjunction with their consequences, we typically rely on retroactive information to tell us the meaning of an event. For example, a vicious comment is realised as hurtful through the effect it had on the person it was targeting; if that person never heard it and was never harmed, perhaps the comment would not be thought of as mean. Although the act of a recipient hearing a comment and becoming offended by it is a separate, later event to the act of a cruel old bastard shooting their mouth off, still we attribute the effect as innate to the cause, as a characteristic of it, and not as happenstance. This is just the normal way we conduct ourselves in how we model reality.

When we make a decision, be it a moral choice or, as in VLR, choosing between ‘yes’ and ‘no’, a lot of the time we can only determine whether it was an important decision by the events that unfold because of it. Sometimes your choice might seem to be crucial as you are taking it but is later proven inconsequential, while other times the opposite happens. So if the means by which we value or regret our decisions stems from an understanding taken from information that was unavailable at the time the choice was made, does that mean we have little way of understanding our thoughts and actions in the present tense?

Going by the Chinese Room, does this deny us the possibility of consciousness? Are we no different than a computer autonomously reading from a script it could never comprehend?

q.

So the game has themes. Many games have themes. Nothing new there. But the beautiful thing about this particular game is it respects your intelligence. I say that in contrast to the vast majority of titles I’ve played in recent years. This is a game that exists as it is and knows you’ll either discover a perfectly VLR-sized hole in your brain begging to be filled. Or you won’t give a toss, in which case, grand, nobody can befriend everyone. Chunsoft knows that the baddies and the goodies resonate thematically—sure didn’t they make the game—but they have faith you’ll pick up on it if you’ve the passion to go hunting. It is not the sort of super smart game that makes pretension out of its insecurity, so feels the need to temper itself. I’m looking at you, The Last of Us, with your bloody action setpieces and your bloody ladders. Sorry playerbase, you’re all as thick as mud.

VLR is a narrative puzzle twisted around a stock of ludic puzzles. As you unwrap it and start to tie together all the dangling plot threads, you gradually discover this wonderful harmony deep within the core. The solving of this puzzle becomes an aesthetic joy.

 

1. Which I am, and not a bot.
2. And perhaps saner—I am neither a quantum nor a mechanic.

Ye olde interactivity paradigm

 

Ye olde interactivity paradigm

In ye olden times (circa 2008) one of the favourite pastimes occupying game critics was to establish truisms about what made the medium of videogames unique in order to divine which god to whom they would dedicate their prayers. The needle most often fell on ‘interactivity’, so this became the conceptual linchpin around which they based entire paradigms. After all, no text of any other medium necessitates audience interactivity for it to proceed, they said.

From this two rules were established. You’ve the one above—since interactivity is exclusive to videogames, it naturally follows that it’s the medium’s strength. Games ought to play into this facet in order to properly explore the power and potential of what it means to be a videogame, and games that don’t do this do not recognize their own primacy.

The second rule comes more literally from their original logic: ‘interactivity’ refers to pressing a button in a game to make stuff happen, and because this is games’ major proclivity, through common usage interactivity came to mean this and only this. The beauty of equivocating it that way is it converges design lingo with critical lingo and gives practitioners of both discipline a mutually preconceived ground for talking about games. It also empowers fans and critics to romanticize the medium and embellish it with the pride of claiming a mystical exclusivity over a form of expression.

I say rules—nobody etched them in stone, as far as I know, unless maybe there was one GDC behind closed doors… But they’re quite commonly held beliefs from which a prominent ideological battleship has been launched to float around the culture issuing declarations of value and shooting down insurgents. Hence there’s been a big crisis in recent years of what constitutes a game, with ‘insufficiently interactive’ games deemed counter to the medium and so are culturally disregarded as not actually games.

Also hence that almost sinister design ethos that says the player’s actions must affect substantial, tangible rewards if they are to carry any legitimate value. Karma that ups your ability to shoot the heads off baddies, interpersonal relationships founded on unlocking cool new powers rather than on respect and companionship, moral decisions manifestly reflected by a difference in how the entire city decides to treats you. These kinds of solipsistic and selfish narrative implications being symptoms of an over-infatuation with an input-to-output feedback dynamic which spells out the entirety of ‘player interaction’.

To see how this paradigm looks in motion when applied to a videogame, let’s use Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney as an example. Unluckily for Phoenix Wright in this case, these games take the form of visual novels, so they largely play out with characters talking to the protagonist and the protagonist talking back with little direction on behalf of the player. Visual novels sometimes get flak for this fact, called ‘not-games’ and all that. The player does have a little bit of input insofar as they need to keep pressing a button for dialogue to play out, but this is often considered an inadequate measure of interactivity by folks of the above frame of mind. You don’t actively affect anything in the game’s state other than what was inevitably going to happen1, so this interaction supposedly carries little by way of value.

As the various court cases develop, the modes of available interactions expand and switch depending on the scenario. While investigating a crime scene, the player can prod the screen to get Phoenix to examine that spot. There’s little else going on here other than the opportunity to trigger more dialogue and maybe expand Phoenix’s case for the defendant. If you click on a ladder, for instance, Phoenix will always say “it’s a ladder,” and your partner will always respond “actually, it’s a stepladder.” You don’t get to control Phoenix to say “it’s a stepladder” and nip your friend’s smartarse response in the bud. There’s little deviation and the player’s participation could be ungenerously considered perfunctory. In these scenarios you can also move, question witnesses and show them evidence, which all amount to navigating menus and selecting the correct option.

Since the game is totally linear, you can skirt through the whole length of it by pressing the right buttons in the right sequence. This satisfies the criteria of ‘interaction’ as described above, but you know, I can help but think that paradigm falls short at describing most players’ experience with the Ace Attorney games.

The short of it is, this understanding of interactivity is kind of a load of bollocks, isn’t it. Maybe now, highly esteemed critics and designers are gnashing their teeth at my brevity and roughly-built strawmen. Sorry folks. I’m being brief and rough because if I got properly started I could talk forever. But I’m not actually writing this to refute the old gods, bee in my bonnet though they may be.2 Instead I’m here to say something about interactivity to make it useful to me in my writing, to demystify and restore it to wonderful normality.

So you’ve got this old thought-framework of what interactivity means and the actual forms it takes via mechanics and systemic relationships. Interactivity to mean this and only this, however, is limiting in its description of a player’s (or an audience’s) relationship with a videogame (or a medium). For one thing, it really doesn’t encompass the player into the virtual sphere of meaning-making as a person or a soul—it’s only really concerned with what their fingers and thumbs do to engage with the virtual gameworld.

But meaning is made from the player’s eyes and ears, too, and from their brain and their mind, and from the life they’ve led and from their relationship with the world around them. I’ve sometimes seen a few circular diagrams embracing the relationship between the player and the game, and in them the player is typically represented by a person rather than a disembodied set of fingers and thumbs, so this idea shouldn’t be too radical. In general, many societies have kind of moved away from the belief that people are just soulless organic machines, autonomously roaming through fields and supermarkets ingesting food and attending whatever business is most pressing. So to slot that consideration of the soul into the topic at hand, I think phenomenology might be a useful way to go about looking at this relationship.

Phenomenology is a philosophical framework concerning the formation and nature of experience—in other words, it suggests a way with which we interact with the world. Rather than being mindless robots who go about blandly doing whatever, people perceive the world (through their senses, thoughts, memories, etc.) as composite of little parcels of meanings infused with that person’s subjectivity.

For example, you might look out your window right now and see the world around you, but you don’t perceive it objectively as it actually exists outside of the realm of your human consciousness. Perhaps there’s a bird in a tree tweeting melodically, and if that catches your attention, you might have missed noticing a plane flying overhead or the squirrel perched one branch over. Or perhaps the bird is instead tweeting obnoxiously—perhaps, even, that bird took a dump on you yesterday, and you hate that bird, with its smug little face. Whatever it is you perceive, you only perceive some things and you consider them a certain way depending on… well, on you.

Which is not to say, “All meaning is subjective, therefore no meaning or interpretation has communal value.” Meaning is also bestowed upon you by society and by culture. If you grow up being taught a certain thing, such as to view and extract meaning in a certain way, chances are you’ve internalized that practise and have come to demonstrate it entirely naturally. The little stick figures on bathroom doors are a good example: we’re taught from a young age that this stick figure represents men, and when that stick figure is on the front of a door it usually means only men can go in there, and it also usually means the room behind that door is a bathroom. Another less universal example is the word “phenomenology”—if you’ve studied or read a bit of philosophy, when you saw the word printed out three paragraphs above, it might have meant to you “a philosophical framework concerning the formation of experiences and consciousness.” But if you’re not familiar with the word, it probably seemed just a nonsensical jumble of letters, almost comical in its wankiness.

So as you go about the world experiencing things, your experience is characterized by the fleeting whims and deep-seated mental predispositions of your personhood. And particular experiences are described by your perception of a phenomenon of an object with all the embedded meanings therein, and not by an objective perception of the object as it “actually” is, whatever that might suggest.

Within this framework, the part of the act of perceiving that grants phenomenon their meaning and character is called intentionality. I’ve written about it more fully elsewhere but to be quick here, intentionality means the power of a mind to be about something. All thoughts have something as their subject—you can’t have a thought that isn’t about anything without reverting to thoughtlessness.

In essence, intentionality is our ability to engage with the world on a conscious level, to derive meaning and value from it. Through this manner, we cognitively interact with the things around us and inside us. If this interaction were viewed as an input, the resulting meaning of a mental phenomenon would be the corresponding output. The very way we experience the world is founded on this interaction, in how we extend our minds outwards towards the world and bring phenomena and their meanings to life. So of course, we go through the same process when we play a videogame.

Because to be honest, you don’t put your brain on autopilot and communicate with the gameworld solely through your thumbs. At least, most of the time you don’t. You often need to engage with the gameworld in order to figure out what it wants you to do, which requires a degree of cognitive interaction. You further engage with it when it throws something clever at you or when a particularly striking scene elicits an emotional response deep within your heart. You engage with it when it bores you, and when it provides you with another fetch quest, and when a character tells a joke, and when the fluidity of your character’s movement feels just right. For as long as the game continues to exist in your living room, you and it form a participatory relationship simply through your mental involvement.

Let’s revisit Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. When you investigate a crime scene and then go about defending your client’s innocence, what you are doing is constructing a mental image of the crime in your mind and testing it against the evidence and testimonies presented in court. The actual court battle is like solving a narrative puzzle. All the info you gathered during your investigation is stored within this image and forms the pieces you wield to advance objections and dodge the prosecutor’s traps. As the trial progresses and you learn more about the case, some of the evidence in your inventory may take on a new meaning that you’ll need to consider in order to get to the bottom of the case.

So while it’s true that you survive each trial by scrolling through menus and pressing a button on the appropriate option, your impactful interactions with the game largely reside away from button presses and changing internal game states. What you engage with as a player is the narrative, completely linear and indifferent to your button inputs as it is. When a piece of evidence presents meaning, it is in how it fits into the current narrative context and the way it relates with your mental model. The entire game is completely void of meaning and value if you choose to disregard this realm of interaction.

As with every medium, the audience actualizes a videogame through perception and creation of meaning. This is fundamental to the experience; it is not unique to videogames, and it is not discounted as interaction just because it doesn’t involve the push of a button. Or at least, it shouldn’t be discounted as interaction.

Unfortunately, I find it is awfully difficult to discuss interaction in videogames down the line of perception and personal engagement without stalling at the hurdle of interactivity as used colloquially in games criticism. So here’s what I’m going to try to do. I’m going to try to move away from the application of interactivity to almost exclusively mean ‘press button to make stuff happen’ by giving a name to this old critical/design model. I’ll call it ‘squinteractivity’, because it only makes sense if you squint really hard. Also I suppose because it offers only a very narrow perspective.

The branching-off from this older paradigm towards one which better encompasses the player as an active human soul can be referenced as ‘splinteractivity’. I’m dreadful, I know.

And what will I call ‘interactivity’ to mean the way an audience engages with a text as a cognitive participant? I’m going to call that ‘interactivity’, as it should have always been.

 

1. This might seem out of left field but a fair few people levied the same complaint against The Walking Dead, describing the entire experience as meaningless because story branches tended to link back up sooner or later.
2. Incidentally, media predicated on mechanical interaction include: board games, sports, phone-in radio shows, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, table quizzes, pantomime, karaoke, QR codes, dress fashion, Sunday mass, scratch cards, the bulletin board at your local Tesco, telephones, buffets, cooking and baking, Crufts, pop-up books, the Punchestown Races, and so on.


 

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To know you’re alone

The Legacy game criticism

[Spoilers follow for The Legacy, a small game from developer Swofl. You can download and play through this link. It’s completely free and will take you maybe six minutes to play, so consider giving it a whirl before reading on.]

My custom for these articles is to sit myself down and look inside, deep inside, to try to find out what way I feel about a game and why it is I feel that way. As a general rule I try to seek out its value to me—often this turns into criticism, when I learn more about myself or about the medium through the game’s failure to evoke this or that sensation within me. And I end up feeling like a horrible bastard. I wish I could be kinder, especially to wee indie games, but I can’t will myself into believing the false praise I’d rather be giving.

With The Legacy, I knew straight away how I felt. I think I knew what it was going for, as if its conveyances of meaning just naturally resonated with my instincts. What this image is supposed to represent. What this void of empty space means to me, here, now. It’s such a wonderful feeling when you get a game like that, you feel as if there’s this emotional barrier between you and the text that just fizzles away, leaving both of you honest with each other. It’s also reassuring to find that weird camaraderie! To know you’re not alone.

The Legacy was made for Ludlum Dare 25 where the theme for submissions seems to have been “you are the villain”. Your villainy, in this case, is eclipsed by the effect you have had on others. There’s no story here exactly; it’s not a game “about” villainy, or about anything, really. I might say, it’s more of a showcase of emotions through this simple, subtle narrative: you play it, interpret what happens, measure that against how it makes you feel, mix stir and pour.

So now I’m in the difficult position of figuring out how to talk about it. I suppose I’ll give you a rundown of what happens in the game, to loosen my tongue and make this article accessible to any reader who decided, whatever, they didn’t care about it being spoiled. Pure recklessness is what that is.

You begin in a clearing of a sparsely populated wood, standing on a dotted line that terminates behind you at an odd structure. It’s almost like the stunted tower of a castle, but with spikes jutting out from the top as if home to a cheesy baddie from an old Final Fantasy game. The dotted path extends from it a few feet and then stops, like a darkened finger pointing you onwards, out into the weald. You can do little else but follow it.

You trod through the woods. Your pace is even enough, there’s no problem in that, but the thinness of the trees gives you line of sight of the horizon far in front of you. You’d think this might be a blessing but it soon becomes clear that this place is empty, and your clarity as the world spreads out around you only confirms your loneliness. The blackened trees are so destitute with their stocky, leafless branches, they themselves seem dead to your sight. No earth. No sky. All about you just a white void, with but these black sentinels to separate up from down. If you ever looked around once the castle was out of view, you probably couldn’t relocate your bearings.

Your footsteps take you farther and farther from where you began. Crunch. Crunch. Against the ambient, reverberating inhalation and exhalation of the void, this becomes your anthem. Crunch. Crunch.

Then, through the white mist of the horizon, a thicket appears on the treeline. A few steps closer until you can properly make it out—it’s a group of people! Then another group, twenty yards to their side. And a smaller couple just beyond. People, finally! You’re not alone.

As you further approach a tune kicks in, a nice, flighty, slow-paced jingle. It sounds optimistic compared to the long, low hum of the void. First the promise of companionship of other people, and now an accompaniment of music punctuate the void.

But as you near the group, its members don’t fan out to welcome you. They stay encircling one another like penguins keeping warmth, like friends engaged in an exciting conversation. Worse—as soon as you enter their line of sight, they bow and turn their heads to avoid eye contact. Try flanking the group and like a Mexican wave they’ll crane their necks to miss seeing you. This group wants nothing to do with you. You walk over to the next group but they’ll not have you either. The couple on their own a little afield likewise hurriedly bend their necks to dodge your gaze. No-one wants you here.

What can you do? Some more groups appear as a haze on the horizon along the treeline, but they’ll probably only reject your presence like this lot. The wood offered you nothing; you’d never be able to find your way back to the castle again even if you wanted to. The only thing left is, beyond the treeline and its turrets of huddled people, a desert of white as far as the eye can see.

The void.

You start walking.

Crunch. Crunch.

And you walk.

Crunch. Crunch.

Until nothing surrounds you.

Crunch. Crunch.

And the emptiness terrifies you.

Crunch. Crunch.

This cold, lifeless world.

Crunch. Crunch.

And suddenly, a thicket of people clear the horizon. With them before you, there’s now a point to centre yourself so you can now look around—and you see to either side, more groups of people, huddled together in their two’s and five’s and ten’s, stretching out to infinity. Thank Christ! So you make a beeline for the nearest congregation and…

But as you near them, they twist their necks and lower their eyes under your stare. Just like the groups from before, they can’t bear to look at you. No, that’s not it. They can’t bear to make contact with you. It’s not that you’re hideous to behold, it’s that to meet your eyes would establish a link between you and them, an invitation to your presence. To forge that mutual recognition of one another as people, as living creatures, might constitute the foundations of a social relationship, and they cannot bear to risk that for fear of how you might treat them. They don’t even flee in case you’d give chase. Like how a wild animal sees eye contact as a sign of aggression, so they avoid your stare to not antagonize you. God, you must have done something barbaric to warrant such a reception. They just want you to be gone, to leave them alone and leave them be.

But they’re not alone, they have one another, and their rejection of you grows infuriating. It’s not fair, you just came out of a desert and all you want is their company, but they refuse it! You didn’t do anything wrong and still they hate you and fear you! For an instant my indignancy flared. I muscled up to the group and snapped at each of the keys on my laptop. I wanted to do anything to trigger an interaction: prod someone over, talk, shout, jump on them. I have a head of height over them, I could strongarm them to recognize me. They sought to fear me, let them have a reason!

As quick as that, the moment subsided. What good would it do to bully them into facing me—such a foolish, selfish response. Becoming that sort of person would do nothing more than warrant the treatment I wanted them to discard. They’d be justified. Well, if they won’t have me, I can do nothing for it.

So I continue walking.

Beyond this string of groups is another white desert, followed shortly by a field of gravestones. Hundreds and thousands of black stone crosses jut out of the ground in rows, stretching on and on in every direction, forming a pattern onto the floor of the void.

In most videogames, a cemetery is where skeletons live. It’s the place where something will jump out and say “boo”, or more likely “uuugggh”, or even “bark”. Dead people, ahh! Isn’t it scary!

In reality, I’ve always found cemeteries to be more melancholic than that, for obvious reasons. I’ve never fully copped that they might represent something… not quite happy, but positive. Benevolent. At the back of my mind I think I knew this, as an undercurrent to my personal experience with them.

A gravestone is a wonderful thing—it proves not just that someone died and lies here under the earth, but that someone else cared enough about them to bury them and mark the spot. Burial ceremonies overflow with this affection for the deceased, so they may depart from this world with their soul intact, so they may find reconciliation, so they may rejoin the aether. Even with nasty old bastards who no-one ever liked, more often than not they are still put through the rites and shown that measure of respect in recognition of their humanity.

Expand that thought and a cemetery becomes a symbol of community, in the passing of life and history into the hands of our ancestors’ successors, on and on through time. In a way, a gravestone represents the reverence held for a departed soul’s dignity. It’s a cultural item of this affection, deserved or not, in some cases, with respect to the value of the social plane that’s embedded within our various societies. The bare consideration of a headstone is a cultural totem proving one’s simplest legacy.

As you walk through the cemetery, the roar of hammering blood rushes to your ears, drowning out the breath of the void and crunch of your feet. The gravestones eventually fall behind and slowly, slowly, your vision starts to darken. A familiar structure breaks through the horizon. With each step the void fades further to black, and you just have enough time before you’re engulfed by darkness to return to where you began.

The game ends here, but the true climax for me was to wander through that infinitely expanding cemetery, to stand in its heart and wonder of my place in this world. At the time, I was smitten by the people’s agonized refusal of my presence, their denial of my need for their comfort and friendship. My knowledge that they were likely justified didn’t salve that lingering selfish pang. Would anyone care enough to even bury me? How cruel it is to be a villain.


 

 

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And you with it, speck of dust

And you with it speck of dust

[Endgame spoilers for Demon's Souls, Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2 to follow.]

As I prepared to sit down and finally write this piece, I did a quick Google search for the key words “Dark Souls” and “nihilism”. I thought I might get one or two hits with the game loosely orbiting the themes of existentialism, since that’s what usually happens when you go looking for specific matches of a game to a theme. But this time was different. The first, I don’t know, ten results wore their investment to the subject matter on their titles: Dark Souls through Sartre and Camus, Kierkegaard and Dark Souls 2, Dark Souls as a nihilistic manifesto.

Well. These are writers who clearly take their jobs seriously, who know what they’re talking about. Just that in itself can be quite daunting—you need a certain level of emotional investment to live up to the standards they’re setting for you as a reader. Maybe you don’t need to know any Camus or Kierkegaard before going in, they’ll explain everything as you’ll need it, but you still have to retain everything they’re throwing at you if you want to satisfy your end of the bargain. And it’s heavy stuff, trying to collapse decades-worth of a fellow’s life work down to a few summary paragraphs, trying to make sense of such a big thing as existentialism at the same time as relating as messy a videogame as Dark Souls.

But sure, it’s not just Dark Souls—every videogame is messy. They’re enormously complicated machines of narrative and function. That they’re often made by so many people, they’re the product of so many different societal factors that smudge and obfuscate and interrelate and form entirely new spheres of interaction. At one of their basest levels they speak languages we’re still puzzling out ways to decode. In a cultural space where half of us are yet figuring our arse from our elbows, officially speaking, as to what, in actuality, a videogame is.

It’s tiring stuff. And true to form, after reading a bunch of these articles, I was wrecked. I felt exhausted even keeping up with the gist of what they were saying. In that, they’re children of the medium, at least. I think there might be a vein in games criticism that values this capacity to affect exhaustion, if only to pay homage to the source. As I typed that out it was a joke, but the longer I stare at it…

You’ve already gathered that I overcame my exhaustion and took to writing my piece. I could say that this was all an allegory for themes of existentialism in Dark Souls, insofar as I stumbled face first into paralysis and dread at the sight of my physical, intellectual and spiritual limitations, but eventually climbed these obstacles and exerted this aspect of myself triumphantly. I could say that, and thematically it would be very nice if it was true. If there are any themes of existentialism in the preceding story, it is only through the accident that I am a person who exists. Which might be enough to prove the point, but since we’re getting into the realm of telling a story about my story, let’s not. Continue reading

Level 99 Capitalist

When Crytek Nottingham announced they would be releasing Homefront: The Revolution, a game where grassroots American militia engage in guerrilla warfare against North Korean occupiers, they told Debbie Timmins of The Average Gamer that they don’t want to make it political. This, the sequel to a title whose marketing department spent a fair share of energy trying to convince everyone it was written by the hand that wrote Apocalypse Now and Red Dawn. It’s hard for me to say whether the original Homefront quite lived up to that conceit—I played just one level and never returned—but given how it so swiftly tumbled into obscurity, I’m going to hazard a guess at “not very”. So, this time around, Crytek Nottingham are nipping that in the bud: this game with a politicized setting, from a series with politicized marketing, will not have a politicized narrative.

Meanwhile, a few weeks prior, Nintendo fell over themselves to adopt the same stance. By pure fluke, Tomodachi Life originally released with the option of same-sex relationships, but as soon as Nintendo caught the error they patched it out. In doing so they thought they were restoring the world to its rightful state, a world without gay people, thereby describing their ideal of family friendliness as heteronormative and implicitly homophobic. To not patch it out, however, might have been seen as progressive and accepting or at least tolerant of homosexuality (heaven forbid), so they went ahead and toed the line they’ve always toed.

In that moment, the company found itself in that impossible position of having taken a political stance simply by acknowledging an issue exists. The truth of the matter goes deeper: even if they had never accidentally made Tomodachi Life lovely and gay, it would have still been characterised as political by virtue of their intended heteronormativity, whether or not they were adopting that stance consciously.

It hasn’t been long since the marketers of gritty and politically inept titles had a go at spinning their ineptitude as thematically brilliant, I’ll believe you’ll find, even if nine times out of ten those feints at political themes turned out to be little more than opportunistic marketing techniques. Maybe now we’re starting to see a turn away from all that, as publishers and marketers are realising it does them little good in the long term to advertise their games as snake oil, a miracle cure-all for your narrative needs, and now instead are trying to entreat with the spirit of gaming yore and accept that they don’t have the wherewithal to deliver on promises of narrative intrigue.

And this is wonderful. It’s almost a breath of fresh air. Not because “we should let games be games” or some such dreadful truism, but because, look at how preposterous these statements are! Look at how these intrinsically political media texts trip and perfectly nut themselves on the fence they were trying to straddle, revealing their authors as mortally, irredeemably clumsy.

It’s not just that this approach of theirs, their fear of the political, is at least honest on their part when compared to that of the gritty snake oil salesmen, and so is less condescending. Though there is that—it’s a more pleasant way to be lied to. Moreover, it represents a slight change in the way these creators of art and entertainment view themselves and the world they operate within, a shift towards a future consciousness where their art and where all art is politically imbued, even if that shift is here marked by a very silly attempt at denying that future.

So I take great joy in these attempts to remain apolitical, because counter to substantiating the belief that such a thing is possible, they highlight the intrinsic capacity for politics within any media text of this nature and they show it to be inescapable. Much like Nintendo emphasising a political narrative merely by acknowledging it, such feeble bids to absolve themselves of responsibility only reveal the political narrative already latent in the text, whether it’s a wargame afraid to talk about war, or the limiting heteronormativity of a happy life simulator, or misogynistic plotpoints that publishers are suddenly finding themselves needing to be aware of, or a mindless action romp with delusions of satire, or any of the abundant examples that leap to mind.

In turn, attention flows from the politics of a game’s overt setting and plot to the politics of a game’s ludic narrative—the intrinsic meaning embedded within gameplay and its design, such as how Papers, Please lures you into becoming a dehumanizing bureaucrat, or the clash of BioShock Infinite’s gung-ho gunplay with its aspirations of criticising US patriotism. These archetypes of game design aren’t just suddenly political, they’ve always been political. Perhaps it’s more discrete because, well, designers have traditionally neglected to look for it.

By now it’s old hat for many games critics how prolonged exposure to the norms and values in our culture has ingrained them into our minds, and through us they seep back into the art we make, deepening, proliferating. How the politics we’re raised into affects our own, how our politics influences the media we enjoy, and vice versa. The payoff for the critic is in coming to recognize the little nuggets of culture in our media that were previously invisible, using this knowledge to better understand a game, and sharing with the community in order to collaborate towards building better games for everyone.

One such nugget, I think, is the ideology of capitalism as narrated by economic exchanges of labour and wealth, which takes shape in the design archetype of levelling up.

Mechanically and systemically, levelling up usually constitutes this: as the player achieves ludic goals, they’re rewarded with points or toys to increase their proficiency at completing future ludic goals. It’s a cute little economic process devised around accruing and storing wealth, since that’s what experience points represent: a quantitative measure of one’s power and successes, an abstract currency to be traded for self-improvement, although ‘self-improvement’ in this regard mainly extends to ‘improving one’s ability to collect currency.’

As a result of this abstraction of experience into a currency format, self-improvement and self-actualization become acts of consumerism. The more a game’s design succeeds at hooking players into a consumerist mindset, the more addictive it becomes—it feeds into a hole in our lives created by the needless want for more possessions, an avarice necessary for capitalism to function but which must remain perpetually unfulfilled. Here in the virtual world it has almost the scent of an achievable goal, so we often pursue it as a substitute solution for the unhappiness in our lives. The game serves as a power fantasy and a narrative fantasy, but also as an economic fantasy for the attribution of possessions-as-personal growth.

So, if we consider the process of levelling up as a capitalist narrative, what does it describe? Capitalism is founded upon an exchange of labour for wealth, where labour is the product of a labourer to be bought and used by others in pursuit of their own wealth. In terms of a videogame, labour would be the activities involved in generating the player’s wealth, such as combat in Final Fantasy IX and questing in Skyrim. Much of the time these activities aren’t inherently enjoyable but still we tolerate them for the rewards, accepting them as part and parcel of the labour trade agreement between ourselves and the game. There’s already the linguistic likening of the labour of combat in a JRPG as a grind similar to a dreary 9-to-5 job: just put in the hours, you can enjoy yourself on the weekend.

In this exchange of labour for wealth, you farm baddies to be able to better farm baddies. Baddies in this sense are little more than little packets of experience points waiting to be freed up and collected by the player. As one ingests food for physical nourishment, we slaughter enemies and absorb their remains—their loot and experiential value in Final Fantasy IX, their souls in Demon’s Souls (since the game has the head on it to make the exchange properly sinister). In the scheme of capitalism they’re nary more than resources waiting to be cracked open and consumed, and through their consumption the player-character grows more fulfilled as a person, stronger, as their skills develop they become more capable, more wizened.

Societies that have become enamoured with capitalism dictate that the more numbers a person has in their bank account, the higher they’re elevated above their fellow humans in terms of social status and legal freedom. Similarly, the more money they have, the more free time they have within which to spend it and enjoy life, since money is a prerequisite for this, so spiritual actualization is linked to the privileges unlocked through wealth. Not so with those affected by poverty, who are shamed for their lack of success within the system and depicted as villains, wastrels, parasites—scapegoats for social woes. Poor folk instead have to find contentment in their work, short of which perhaps solace might be scrounged from thoughts of them being the lifeblood or soil of society, or God’s chosen people, or whatever other transcending fancy that makes it easier survive a humble living.

Levelling up has the best of both worlds. On one hand, the process of labouring is valued as core to the game’s entertainment factor, even in games where the addictiveness barely serves as a haze to conceal the soul-destroying monotony of the labour transfer—games like Borderlands. And on the other hand, it produces such wonderful fruits as to render the player undeniable as a profiteer, through rewards like thousands and millions of experience points or wonderful, beautiful weapons only available to the most exclusive of this world’s warriors. By entreating the player as both a labourer and a profiteer, it humours them as successful capitalists without really elevating them above their current station, and points towards the exchange of labour as the source of their fulfilment. Maybe so that they may learn to accede to the benevolence of capitalism in the real world.

By amassing experience points the act of labouring is an act of growing as a person through accumulation of external wealth, a sort of imaginary cyborgization via capital. It’s not about learning lessons and emotionally maturing and growing mentally content with one’s lot and comfortable in one’s existence, which are usually the things we attribute to self-fulfilment, because these things are not measurable through a capitalistic exchange of labour. Instead, self-fulfilment is narrated within the cyclic act of labouring and consuming: “in consuming you find happiness, so consume!”

In her 2014 GDC talk, Lana Polansky identified this narrative as inherent to the capitalist doctrines surrounding winning and losing, win states and fail states. This limits the experiences games can offer a player by virtue of the difficulty in measuring and quantifying things like interpersonal, emotional connections and gamifying them as rewards. Polansky remarks, however, that by subverting the obsession with metrics and win states, games can deliver us to a point of epiphany where these intensely valuable human experiences actually manifest. And it’s simply by ceasing to treat the player as a happy, obedient vessel for capitalism, and instead consider them as a human soul.

Polansky’s talk is largely focused on addressing attempts at instilling legitimate emotional experiences in games through the use of capitalist metrics, so the solutions she provides are with this scope in mind. But like Polansky, I believe that alternative models of growth, be it personal growth or growth in one’s expertise, already exist in games on a whole through the use of epiphany (e.g. grasping and internalizing game logic in Portal) and the natural development of one’s skill at a task (e.g. honing tactics in Demon’s Souls).

So what’s the benefit of seeing all this in this way? Knowing that systems of levelling up are but one way to represent character growth can be beneficial for designers when choosing what structures to put into their game. And being able to recognize that design archetypes are also narrative structures can enable greater harmony between a game and its authors: does the capitalist narrative fit in with the intended themes or does it clash? Do you want to represent the freeing of slaves as a gathering of collectibles and currency, with the act of ‘liberating them’ little more than an exchange of their ownership?

Whether you want them to or not, these narratives exist within games as a matter of fact and interpretation. A lot of the time, they’re political. The irony of denying it is that, in hiding from the consequences of your actions, you inherently make a political statement and the narrative you were trying to deny as apolitical becomes irrevocably political anyway. But it was always political, as are we, by virtue of having been raised in politically-minded societies. Hopefully ten years from now we’ll all look back and laugh at the naivety, this desperate bid to remain impartial and exempt from the world around us.


 

 

This piece was community funded. If you liked this article, please consider supporting my writing by visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron.

The Far Cry 4 Controversy: Banality is Good

[For context.]

Earlier today, Far Cry 4’s creative director, Alex Hutchinson, addressed the controversy surrounding artwork released to tease his upcoming game.

In the artwork—seen below—a person in a fine black suit jacket is sitting atop the lid of a large wooden barrel labelled “Uncle Sam’s Gun Powder”. In his right hand he swings an empty bottle of rum as a weapon, and in his left a blazing torch is held dangerously close to the explosive container. Various snippets of text are visible in the background, identifying this man as a dreadful sort. But the major focus of some people was the perceived narrative connotations of the image, between the man’s identity, appearance and behaviour. Although by his gormless face the horrific fellow may appear to be some sort of half-demon subversion of the human form, he is in fact a typical Irishman native to the small European country of “Ireland”, Far Cry 4’s setting.

Far Cry 4: Banality is Good

When I first saw this artwork, I had a few thoughts. My first thought was, “man, I can’t wait to play Far Cry 4.” I absolutely adored Far Cry 3. It was a game you could actually play, one awash with a host of features, solid buttons to press, and a story that was the opposite of racist, with its lazily written stereotypical native tribe that was really a super clever metaphor because whenever the game started to make no sense it was actually very profound by being deliberately dreadful. Its box art deserved every view by the 9 million people who looked at it, and so I was pleased to see that Ubisoft would follow it up so quickly.

My second thought—the one I pondered on the most—was “this guy in the black jacket is clearly the villain, and he looks completely savage.” I saw undeniable shades of primitivism, and I’m emotionally far enough away from reality that it intrigued me. I wasn’t so focused on the image’s use of his behaviour and appearance to comment on folk of his cultural background as I was about the message I figured the art was supposed to send about people who sit on gunpowder barrels. This man doesn’t care about the consequences to his reckless, thoughtless actions. He’s willing to bandy about an open flame just for funsies, gunpowder or no. You aren’t supposed to like him. I read into this lone image traits that seemed appropriate for someone who was obviously the bad guy. But it’s not like he’s the bad guy just because he’s Irish, since his physical appearance is completely incidental to his role in the picture and maybe he’s not even Irish, did you think of that? Maybe you’re the real racist here.

In short, it seemed to me to be the stuff of a good, believable antagonist. And I was excited about that. Apparently, some others weren’t. I’m not surprised by the reaction of some folks had to Far Cry 4’s introductory artwork, even if I see it as deeply poignant and sensitive to the “people” of Ireland instead of inherently racist or otherwise problematic. What I’m surprised about, the more I think about it, is that some people see something they think is troubling, yet don’t put it into the context of what they’re actually looking at, because they are 2-week-old babies who can’t comprehend images and are not actually esteemed, capable media critics. Sometimes, things are designed specifically to trouble you. And as a gamer hungry for mature and visceral storytelling, I don’t like the insinuation—and this insinuation is fairly loud—that pictures just aren’t allowed to portray Irish people, lest they offend someone.

Far Cry 4 isn’t an innocuous, inclusive children’s book or an afternoon Nick Jr. cartoon or a game to be played by people who are different to me. It’s an M-rated videogame—the entire Far Cry series have been videogames! Why has nobody noticed this yet! They’re not books, stop saying they’re books!

It’s a videogame, made for adults, and it may just deal with some brutal realities of the world, such as the existence of horrible Irish people. What if this brutish man is, in fact, a shameless, violent, reckless hooligan? Doesn’t that give you a strong reason to dislike him, and a powerful motive to chase him through Far Cry 4’s non-linear, surprisingly engaging story, complete with twelve different collectable weapons to shoot the baddie with and ten exciting new vehicles to drive around the 20 acre map—the biggest map in any Far Cry game to date! Isn’t that more compelling than some antagonist whose narrative role isn’t cheaply constructed at the cost of a whole group of actual real-life people in need of a good seeing-to. Barbarism is, unfortunately, a very real force in contemporary culture, so why should gaming ignore it? I love that Far Cry 4’s writers are aiming to provide an experience that may just be, at times, totally uncomfortable for people who don’t think it’s BADASS. Isn’t that a positive in a landscape flooded with the same old BADASS thing?

More to the point, how could anyone have a problem with the image in the first place? Yes, the man is clearly a racist caricature born out of sinister social myths with the intention to demean and beleaguer a minority group. But that doesn’t mean the image itself is racist, just the loutish man. And since the image wants us to dislike him and he seems like the sort of person who should be disliked, it follows that the image is actually quite intelligent and sensible. Besides, how could a picture that clearly frowns upon alcoholism and improper gunpowder safety possibly carry another narrative with negative connotations about Irish people? That’s too many things to be in a single picture.

Sometimes, images are made to bring forth negative feelings in you. It’s true! You’ve never noticed that before but now you’re starting to become smart like me and will recognise that some images make you sad while others make you happy. Not everything is made or designed to please you, evoke positivity, or to make you feel included, unless you’re me. Oftentimes you can only identify with certain characters or plotlines by how much you dislike them. It’s the reason we have insatiable appetites for racist caricatures and tropes, since they often provide deplorable, awful subhumans to root against. Just like real life. So it’s a good thing.

Let’s not get caught in a cycle of endless negativity while holding our beloved videogames to standards other works of art aren’t held to. No good could possibly come from having such high standards that we might criticise something for its flaws. If we can’t take ourselves seriously enough to understand the landscape of fiction and refrain from contextualizing imagery within the historic and cultural contexts in which they are framed and understanding them within the inescapable social narrative they are born into—if we can’t be serious enough to shut down all critical discussion surrounding the medium other than that as relates to BADASS shootiness, then why should mammy and daddy take games seriously?

Games have so much power. An incredible amount of power. A cosmic power born from the hearts of ten thousand exploding stars. So much power. Let’s not limit that power to the things that make you feel good, because I’m sick of hearing from you. God, you’re never happy. Oversensitive whinybabies, always reading into things the wrong way and seeing things I am oblivious to and don’t care about. Selfishness, that’s all it is. Do you know how many BADASS shooty games are coming out this year? Twenty. Last year there were twenty-one. I’m an endangered species here. Still, you won’t hear me complaining or trampling down upon your conversations, no sir, because I have so much respect and seriousness for our beloved medium. I’m mature as fuck.


 

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Intentionality

At Dawn and intentionality

In the first part of Justin Keverne’s analysis of Thief, he brings up the concept of ‘intentionality’ to break down the systems at play and examine how they fit into the player’s experience of the game. The explanation he gives is nice and neat—he says intentionality is your ability as a player to formulate plans and execute them. It’s kind of a two-part characteristic where first you need to understand the mechanical language of the game and then through these mechanics rearrange whatever in-game components in an intended way to produce a desired result.

Keverne gets the term intentionality from the design lectures and articles of Clint Hocking, who in turn inherited it from Doug Church. Church suggested the principal of intention in an endeavour to supply designers with tools for communicating the ideas of their field, with the hope that by stimulating discussion designers could go about developing their ideas and their techniques and not just sit around all day stumped by half-formed indescribable thoughts.

It was in this spirit that Hocking elaborated on intentionality (in Design Materials on the sidebar, or for a direct link to the zipped files, click here), which is to say, as jargon for designers to talk about design with other designers. Not that jargon is a bad thing—it’s useful exactly for this purpose. And it only obfuscates so long as it’s left unexplained or lives outside the general lexicon.

As it happens, ‘intentionality’ also exists as jargon within the philosophical world, predating Church and Hocking by almost 150 years. Though originally appearing in Scholastic thinking, it was really the Austrian psychologist Franz Brentano who in the 19th century shone a light on the concept of intentionality in reference to the workings of the human mind. Later, Edmund Husserl took to Brentano’s groundwork and established the school of phenomenology—the philosophical study of the structures of experience and consciousness.

To be brief, phenomenology suggests that we don’t experience the world in an objective way, but rather our perceptions are loaded with preconceived notions and emotions and judgements and meanings that characterise the experience one way or another. Whenever we look out and perceive the world, we interpret it, which is to say the objects we see are automatically and immediately run through filters embedded in our minds. It is through this process that our perceptions are in any way sensible to us, since they carry meaning innately.

For example, for someone who has in the past been traumatised by drowning, they might perceive the sea as a terrifying body of water or a boat as a vessel that puts their life at risk. They don’t set their eyes on the sea, recognise it, understand it, process it, and then afterwards load upon it all sorts of scary connotations. Or even, if that’s what their brain ‘actually’ does on a neurochemical level, that’s not how they experience it as a living, breathing human being. Instead their experience is intimately one of terror, just as their perception of the boat is as an object of danger. But while some people view the sea with foreboding horror, others might view it with wonder and excitement for discovery of what it contains. It’s not that the sea is inherently this or that, rather that their perception of it is inclined this or that way depending on the complex whims of their mind.

In this manner, we view the world through mental phenomena rather than how it ‘actually, objectively is’. When we interact with the world around us through our senses and our outward expressions, we’re interacting with phenomena—words containing meaning, physical gestures that represent friendliness or hostility, noises that sound pleasant or grating. The notion of embedded meaning is probably already familiar to you via the relationship between form and content, or that of aesthetics and politics, or any number of alternatives. It’s got some fairly broad applications; phenomenology is just that as relates to the structuring of mental perceptions.

Let’s apply this framework in relation to At Dawn, by Darius Kazemi. It’s a simple enough game: you control a character as the sun comes up behind them. The left button moves them left and the right button moves them right, but when they meet the middle of the screen they move no farther right than that, giving the impression that the camera pans to the right alongside them. As you walk the sun slowly comes up over the horizon and emblazons the sky until your character is enveloped in its radiance. It’s a beautifully meditative game, even long after the music has petered out and you stroll on in silence.

I’m able to describe the game this way because my perception of it automatically interprets it in such a way as to be intelligible to me. Truth be told, there is no actual sunrise occurring in At Dawn, just a bunch of squares on-screen that keep changing colour. The figure I control, with all its jagged corners, doesn’t realistically represent a human character, and their ‘walking’ is really just three different frames one after another, which is not what it looks like when people actually walk. There’s nothing inherently meditative about viewing a bunch of animated frames in front of flashing coloured boxes while a tune plays.

Were I a robot whose cognitive powers were limited to collating visual and auditory information, this data-orientated summary would be the extent of my appreciation of the game. But because I’m a human, because I see the world a certain way and I suppose because I’ve been fairly accustomed to recognising and interpreting pixel art and because sunrises carry a certain soft, spiritual meaning in my culture and because listening to this music while thinking of perpetually walking as the sun comes up puts me in a certain frame of mind, my perception of At Dawn is irreversibly laden will all sorts of intentionality that characterises my experience of it like so. It’s visually a very pretty game, but it’s also quite beautiful.

At Dawn's sunrise

Developing on the ideas of Brentano, Husserl used the concept of intentionality to describe the nature of perception as always being directed towards something, like an object or a meaning. Within game design, intentionality is typically used to refer to a player’s intention in the colloquial sense of the word, whereas in phenomenology intentionality needn’t be conscious, as if you’re deliberately tossing all this baggage onto this wonderful or horrible thing you’re seeing. Rather, Husserl’s intentionality means the focusing of the mind on a phenomenon and how that conjures up whatever meaning it has to you. Intentionality is a characteristic of thoughts and perceptions, they have intentionality, just as through our mental processes we have intentionality, we possess it.

To elaborate more on this, there’s the analogy of a piece of string under tension. If you grab one end of an unfettered string and give it a tug, the string will flap loosely down to the floor. But if you tether one end of the string onto an object and then pull the other end, the string will tense up through the force of your effort and its anchoring to the object. In the same way as the tension exists between your hand and the string’s anchor and connects you to the object through the laws of physics, so do thoughts and perceptions only exist when tethered from your mind to an object by some meaning. You can’t have a ‘loose’ thought like you can have a loose string, since all thoughts are intrinsically about something. To be thinking necessarily implies to be thinking about something.

Going from this, phenomenology derives its name from an understanding that whatever we perceive is best described as a mental phenomenon rather than ‘an actual object’, since often we honest-to-god perceive things that don’t actually, objectively exist, like when you hear a serial killer scraping at your bedroom window that was actually a tree branch being shaken by the wind, or seeing an old friend across the street who turns out to have been a total stranger, or basically everything inside the virtual world of a videogame.

Phenomenology isn’t unheard of in the world of games criticism and design analysis, but I’m not sure if Hocking was aware of its philosophical context when coining ‘intentionality’ as a design concept. On the surface there’s some similarity between his use of it and its phenomenological meaning: Hocking’s intentionality is founded on the player’s intentions reaching out towards the game and altering its states, kind of like how Husserl’s intentionality sees the perceiving mind reaching out and characterising ‘external’ phenomenon. Hocking’s version is much more concerned with the root of the word—intentions—with deliberations and deliberate acting out of plans or desires. Quips of physics, like how a car tumbles any which way when you speed it over a ramp, don’t represent his intentionality. Husserl on the other hand is less concerned with intent as something that comes decisively and more with its aspect of cognitive directedness.

But dig a little deeper and more glaring differences begin to show. Hocking is only interested in intentionality to mean the space allowed by mechanics and systems for the player to express with intent—it’s explicitly a player’s digital input and the resulting feedback that constitutes his vision of player expression.

In his 2006 GDC lecture, he distinguished between ‘low order’ and ‘high order intentional play’. An example of low order intentional play is in Donkey Kong, when a barrel is hurdling your way, you press a button with the intent to jump over it. This is fairly in line with how Church used intention to reference the reliability of various states and actions in Mario 64, like when you press the jump button you know how fast and how far you’ll jump, so jumping becomes a measure of intentional expression.

Hocking went on to describe what he means by high-order intentional play with anecdotes from Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, Grand Theft Auto and Deus Ex—games well known for their chunky systems. His examples largely amount to a call for a general increase in emergent gameplay. He wants richer systems with more niggly bits, so more things can happen, so the player can play about with more creativity and fulfilled intent, and he sees high order intentional play as a route to this:

I’m talking about the kind of play where the player at least has the capability to become an active and creative participant in the unfolding of an emotionally meaningful experience.

High Order Intentional play affords players the opportunity to express themselves in human ways in an interactive space. As differentiated from Low Order Intentional Play which allows the player to achieve his intent at a mechanical level.

Now, like I said earlier, Hocking uses intentionality in the context of a discussion on design between designers, so his language and his goals are centred on magnifying the relevance of designers to the subject at hand. They’re his target audience. Glancing over the fact that Hocking’s examples only illustrate ways players can express themselves in human ways by making explosions happen, his version of intentionality amounts to a game’s room for play, where a gameworld is stuffed will toys for the player to interact with and that will react back, so they can deliberately create a narrative through these interactions. Low order is mechanical, high order is systemic.

The problem congeals when Hocking latches his intentionality onto applications of interactivity, citing interactivity as being unique to the medium of games in ways inaccessible to television and movies. That old yarn. In this fashion, intentionality is a mode for creativity and expression through action explicitly, distancing itself from phenomenology’s intentionality as expression through being. In the past I’ve made (hilarious) snarky comments about how many designers carry on like if it’s not happening to the player or by the player then they’ll cease to exist, so if you’re a returning reader you might be familiar with my thoughts on that. Just this moment, however, I’m interested in the various forms of expression omitted by an intentionality overly concerned with interaction-as-activity and what that limits designers to.

Phenomenology and game deisgn

When a player interacts with a game, they engage it with their minds in a way that transcends ‘press button, receive banana’ feedback loops. The principal root of ‘intention’ in Hocking’s intentionality recognises this, since it’s contingent on the player having created a mental model of the gameworld that they can access outside of actually pressing physical buttons to interact with the ‘real’ gameworld. If I have the intention to make Mario jump yea high, it’s only because I understand Mario jumping yea high is a possible state I can achieve because I expect the gameworld to be persistent. The formation of my intent is predicated on my comprehension of the gameworld and what it allows of me. On the other hand, I could also misinterpret the world and intend something impossible in Mario 64, like pressing a button to try to shout out “Agro” and call over my horse. In either case I act with intention, although the intention of the latter example is left unfulfilled.

But I also interact with a game with intention when I ‘do’ absolutely nothing as far as the game is mechanically concerned, such as in the act of waiting—an intended, directed expression that falls outside the boundaries of an active mechanical interaction. While your character remains idle, your intent through deliberately striking that position could be any number of things: you might be waiting for a nice car to drive by, you might be waiting for the sun to rise or set, you might be eavesdropping on a conversation, you might be hiding, you might be biding your time, you might be loitering, you might be contemplating the beauty of life. What characterizes the idle position as any of these things is the player’s mind—returning to the piece of string analogy, meaning extends outwards from our thoughts and perceptions like a tension linking towards a mental phenomenon.

The same is true of all in-game actions and existences.

Mechanical interactions might define the distance and opportunity of a jumping action but it is cognitive interaction that grants it meaning. That’s the domain of narrative design, but Hocking’s intentionality is oddly coy about discussing narrative aside from ‘emergent narrative’, referencing a sequence of systemic events rather than parcels of meaning. At Dawn’s mechanical interactions are limited to moving left and right, so it wouldn’t appear to offer much in the way of his intentionality. Outside of those confines, however, it flows with narrative interactions defined through judgements and emotions ever-present in life, rendering it meaningful and intelligible.

For instance, when the music fades and you’re left walking with still more sun to come up, the silence of the game fills with the sounds around you, the sounds of your room and the outside, they become the game’s chorus. All the ambient noises of the world that you didn’t really notice five minutes ago now suddenly blare, but in a peaceful way, as if in your stride. The meditation of walking across a sunset blends in the world around you, so long as you’ve the time and the mind for it, roping in your present being and encompassing it in the game’s serene bliss. It’s not a thing of pressing a button to be an active, participating creator, and yet that model of intentionality lacks the relationship between being and meaning that At Dawn bathes you in.

Likewise, a systems-orientated intentionality offers little opportunity for reading into Boletaria as a historical setting, or for framing the power dynamics of an interrogation room’s composition, or juxtaposing cool sleek aestheticism with politics of mind control. It’s only a small slice of what’s going on when we interact with a game, even if you put aside the fact that it’s stymied by kind of archaic models of player interpretation and expression. For a model of cognitive interaction and meaning closer to sentient experience, think Husserl’s intentionality.


 

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Worldbuilding and Demon’s Souls: Boletaria’s present history

[Spoilers for Demon's Souls, minor spoilers for Dark Souls.]

Demons souls and worldbuilding: Boletaria's present histor

If I were I to step outside my front door right now and walk twenty paces to my right, I’d find myself opposite the old mill in Celbridge. Over two hundred years ago it used to be the biggest wool manufactory in Ireland, an impressively huge building encapsulated by an enormous stone wall on the roadside. It overlooks the River Liffey, which, if you followed it, would send you all the way to Dublin bay and into the Irish sea, so whenever we go to feed the ducks we’ve a decent chance of locking eyes with the imposing building. Nowadays it’s used as a community centre–it hasn’t been a factory in decades, but it still carries the name as a sign of its history.

Opposite the mill is a pub with a sign in its window proudly declaring it as the establishment where Arthur Guinness brewed his first beer, Celbridge being his hometown. If I step out from my front door and walk left instead of right I’ll come across a statue of the man put up last year. A couple of minutes walking straight past the statue will lead me to Castletown House, Ireland’s biggest and oldest Palladian house, built for the politician William Conolly nearly 300 years ago. Everyone in Celbridge loves to walk their dogs around the mansion’s grounds so it’s pretty much a local fixture, a piece of history written into the normal way of the town’s landscape.

I doubt there’s a town in Ireland where you couldn’t say one thing or another along these same lines. Naas, where I lived for most of my life, derives its name from the Irish Nás na Rí as the place where the old kings of Leinster used to meet. My parents live in Rathangan, a small town wedged between the Slate river and the Grand Canal, owing a lot of its architecture to the tastes of the folk who worked on the latter. I just now found out Jedward grew up in Rathangan, so we have that in common.

Easy as it is to spot the history in Ireland, I’d hazard the same can be said for wherever it is you grew up or wherever you live now, that your locale has a sense of place hinting towards what it might have been, once upon a time. There’s a 600 year old yew in Maynooth  where Silken Thomas spent his life’s last night of freedom, but to near everyone who passes it on the way to class everyday it’s just a big fat tree. It’s the kind of thing that’s easy to overlook or that you just internalise without thinking, especially if you were born and raised being told about this or that piece of living history without having the years yet to properly understand it.

So I like seeing this sense of place carried through to worlds in fiction. It helps to make them feel more substantial and more relatable than just being empty places put in to fill a narrative gap, or in the case of most games, a corridor for you to shoot more guys or a side room to stage a lonely chest. It’s especially vital for games dependant on worldbuilding to project this sensation, since their narrative flounders or flourishes on the sensibility and believability of their world design. How a game’s environment’s are designed isn’t only important in terms of them as a playing field, it’s also a huge component of latent narrative design.

I’ve always thought Demon’s Souls was quite good at acknowledging and reflecting this, since it relies heavily on environmental storytelling to add depth to its relatively simple plot. It’s fortunate that the environments demand a fair amount of your attention if you ever want to reach the end of the game–you’ve the fact that they’re laid out kind of like a music sheet where you have to remember locations and types of enemies and recite combat tactics appropriate to the area, and on top of that they’re like puzzles with the importance of discovering and unlocking shortcuts to facilitate your safe passage. Since there’s so much value to poking and prodding every inch to see what it grants you, these aspects give Demon’s Souls‘ environments a great sense of weight. So it’s wonderful that this degree of scrutiny and attention is rewarded by uncovering narrative detail through the game’s organic flow. Continue reading

Notes on Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes

[This article contains story spoilers for Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, specifically in points 4, 14 and 17. Otherwise in general, it details aspects of the game such as its mechanics, tone and feel. If you want to enter the game completely fresh, I'd warn against reading onwards.]

Notes on Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes

1.

First off, let me be clear how much of Ground Zeroes I’ve played since it’s quite possible that some of what follows could be wrong. At the time of writing I have 26% of the game completed. I know that because there’s a big percentage counter on the main title screen which is good albeit cheeky design. But even though there’s a good three-quarters left to complete, I feel I’m at a stage where I have a decent enough handle of the game where I can jot down my thoughts of it, at least as a first impression. I’ve gotten used to how it plays, I’ve finished every mission bar one, some missions twice, some missions about five times. I’ve collected some of the tapes and discovered some of the secrets. I can’t yet speak with the authority I’d prefer, though, so just bear that in mind.

2.

It cost around €20 and I finished the main ‘Ground Zeroes’ campaign in 200 minutes, a sizeable number but I think longer than it took most other players. You then unlock a bunch of other missions which might take you anywhere between 20 minutes to a couple of hours a pop, depending on how you want to play it – I’ve put 11 hours into the game in total. I’m labouring over this point because I want to stress this: even though I’ve reservations about a lot of the game, it’s good value for money.

Stipends follow.

3.

As a Metal Gear Solid game, Ground Zeroes was disappointing. I only just said it’s good value and I’m not really supporting that by throwing my hands up like this, but look, my feelings are complicated.

I’ve been a big fan of MGS since the first game on the PlayStation, it’s the one series that has tethered my love of videogames from my childhood to my adulthood. If you had asked me a year ago what game I was most looking forward to, the words “Metal Gear Solid Five” would be have been out of my lips in a heartbeat. But if this is a promise of the direction the series will be taking, I may still play the games and enjoy them, but that love I’ve carried for years will wither and die.

Ground Zeroes is serious, very serious. It’s what I imagine an episode of 24 to be like, with bullets whizzing through the air in slow motion and someone shouting about The Bomb or Protecting the President’s Daughter. (I’ve never seen the show.) Not in an Escape From New York way, which is very 80’s and camp and fun, but in a serious way, in a non-performative way where these are action moments we are expected to care about for the simple reason that it’s A Bomb! and the President’s Daughter!

MGS of old was filled with buffoonery, this is a large part of what endeared it to me. You had roller-skating boss characters and electric soviets and telekinetics and a guy who shoots bees out of his mouth and ghosts, actual ghosts who torment you and forgive you and then kind of hang around for the craic. It made the gameworld magical. It made it bonkers and unpredictable. Beyond all the politico-babble and ponderous philosophising, it made it seem like even though these games were obsessed with war and battle as their setting, even war and battle are part of a larger scheme of existence, where its participants are still nerds and weirdos and psychic magicians despite spending 90% of their lives in combat. They inject their weirdness into their combat uniforms or their battle tactics in celebration of who they are, which creates a wondrous life-affirming philosophy underlying the plodding, pondering march of Snake. In this cosmology the world is bigger than just war, people are more than just combatants. There is so much to the world and to life that we have yet to see and we love it, we love it all.

Moreover, its buffoonery made it credible, if you can believe that. Because once you have your robotic-octopus-suit and haunted-amputated-arm, once you get the player to say “ok” and accept the fact of it, all the political intrigue and quadruple-crossing and silly plot points suddenly seem a lot more feasible. Of course the tank can spring legs and walk up a cliff, sure don’t they have a bloody ghost on their team. Of course FOXDIE would kick in at just the right moment. Without that pervading sense of silliness, the plot can’t actually stand up. It doesn’t have the credibility of realism. Without the joie de vivre, what is anybody fighting for? Who gives a toss about Cipher’s and Big Boss’ rivalry if it’s just a power struggle bereft of passion and of love for that something they’re fighting for. It’s still a battle of ideologies but they’re lifeless, laughless, grey and stoic. You can tell me what any given character stands for but why should I care?

4.

The closest it gets to being silly is having a few bad lines of dialogue and Kojima showing up as a VIP in a mission and giving you lip.

5.

Ground Zeroes thinks I should care because bullets flying around is cool, and The Bomb! is an action-packed moment, and the villain is such a villain, and sometimes they play that ‘braugh’ noise that has become the sound of action movies. It is 100% more swish and 200% more action movie and 300% more serious to the point of vapidity. There are already a lot of games out there resembling The Bourne Identity. Metal Gear Solid was one of the few The Happiness of the Katakuris‘. That’s what interested me in it, that’s what I loved about it. Now it looks to be gone.

6.

Ground Zeroes is the prologue to The Phantom Pain, and I’ve seen the trailer enough times to keep a spark of hope alive. I expected more from GZ, which is to say I expected it to satisfy the standards and tone set by the series’ reputation. I hope to god it exists as a critical lense for us to view The Phantom Pain, as Big Boss’ dark night of the soul, and not as a prophesy.

Time will tell.

7.

The first time I played the campaign, I played it with all the enemy tagging and reflex mode and the sixth sense that relates when an enemy is nearby – all that nonsense ‘on’ by default. It was a bad stealth game.

Then I replayed it with all three turned off, and I found it to be a vastly more enjoyable experience.

In case you’ve not played it yet, I’ll explain each of these. Enemy tagging is like detective mode from Batman: Arkham Asylum, except you have to look at the enemy for a second before they start pulsing a vivid blue. Reflex mode means whenever a baddie sees you, time slows and you have a couple of seconds to react, to nip the alert mode in the bud. Everything goes whoosh and it’s supposed to feel cool. The sixth sense thing is just an unmistakable grey icon shows up on-screen pointing to the direction of a nearby guard, like a Spidey Sense.

These three design features contributed massively to my initial disappointment. They are dreadful, dreadful things that hinder and distract and obfuscate the narrative of play. Not long ago I wrote about my qualms with detective mode and the exact same applies to enemy tagging. Miller says it provides you with ‘situational awareness’ but the exact opposite is true: when enemies glow on-screen, even through walls, you don’t need to maintain awareness of the situation because all the information you need is packaged up and manifested externally. It is a representation of Big Boss’ situational awareness, perhaps, but it does not lead the player to situational awareness. It gives a sense of security and of leisure. It empowers you to coast along without needing to worry about the potential direction of a guard’s patrol. Reflex mode and the big grey sixth sense icon follow the same pattern: they automate play experiences so you don’t need to live through them. You don’t need to be spatially aware of a guard ten feet behind you as you stalk towards another because the game converts spatial data into a neat label on the GUI.

It’s important to note that these are specific design choices that were implemented with care and intent (or came about carelessly or accidentally), so we can see what they might have been going for or how they can be altered or fixed. The sixth sense could conceivably have a parent in the ring radar of MGS4 – a wiggly line encircling Snake that wibbled and wobbled to represent environmental sounds in their relative direction to him. The rumbling engine of a stationary tank is a tremendous distortion in the line. An approaching soldier is a beat of waves steadily growing in size. If the player is attentive towards the ring radar they can combine its visual information of direction with the sounds coming through their TV to construct a useful mental image. But this is all about providing the faculty of a sense without accidentally making you omniscient – the sense must be deficient in some way so that you’ve got to corroborate it with the information from another sense, and through this process you have the player building situational awareness.

8.

Ground Zeroes makes me long for the days when MGS games had an array of gadgets and gizmos enabling you to progress through an area. Aside from the above three, GZ gives you binoculars, thermal/night vision goggles and an aerial radar (‘the iDroid’). You also have guns to shoot folk and throwable empty magazines to distract and lure enemies. This is the bulk of your sneaking arsenal. Compared to previous games, GZ has taken away a substantial number of tools that operated in interesting or fun ways, so it comes across feeling like there’s nary but a barebones set of options available to you. There’s no Mark III robot for scouting ahead. There’s no AP vest that vibrates when an enemy nears. No erotic magazines to stall or lure a guard. No fake death pill. No motion sensor. No active sonar. No empty oil drum or cardboard box to hide in.

It’s not so much that more gadgets instantly equals a great game, but that stripped down to the essentials with no opportunity for expansion makes the gameplay feel thinner than the series’ previous titles. I’m 26% of the way through the game and I’m worried I’ve exhausted the depths of my stealthing options because there’s little room for me to get creative with my resources, to try something new. This ties back into the previous point of how each of these tools were sufficiently limited but diverse enough to suffice in all sorts of interesting combinations.

That’s not to say the few gadgets I have left are bad or badly designed. I adore how the binoculars function in this game. For years I’ve been wanting a MGS game where the binoculars are actually put to great use and GZ finally scratches that itch. I love that they’re accessible to a convenient button per the default controller layout. They’re quick to use and wonderfully useful in boosting your visual range, since that’s very important now that the level is one giant, cogent map. Most of all, they’re tied into enemy tagging and the radar, and even when that glowing function is turned off you still need them to tag guards into the iDroid. I like how the iDroid can only be used in a clumsy first-person perspective, so you have to sacrifice your defence capability in order to monitor the radar. I like how it’s accessible through a single button, and how the start menu does not pause the game, even when you want to browse mission data and intel. I like how the iDroid has a neat user interface so you don’t need to fumble far to bring up your radar.

I just wish I had a cardboard box too.

9.

The MGS games have always been fantastic for tracing Snake’s bodily existence in that a lot of your stealth options relate to moving and positioning him with precision. That’s always lent well to granting a sense of his existence in the gameworld, as a person living inside a body covered with skin, as a person with sense perceptions extending beyond that physical limit. As a person with self-made opportunities, by virtue of training and natural talent and common ingenuity. In terms of how a game plays, this takes the form of the natural way a character operates within a world before you start to throw in things like weapons and radars.

In the first MGS you have the example of a top-down camera allowing you an awareness of any enemy closing in on Snake, the ability to switch to a first person view but at the cost of doing anything else, and the ability to peek around a corner to manipulate the camera to give you a wider field of view. When the games switched to a player-controlled third-person perspective, there was some loss in this regard and some gain, since now you can do different things to take in the world around Snake but the way that data is taken in is flavoured differently. If I remember correctly, MGS3 allowed you to switch between a third-person view and an aerial view by clicking in R3, which is such a divine compromise between the camera perspectives. MGS4‘s ring radar is also a good example of representing sensual data in a way contiguous to Snake’s existence in the world, which is part of why I think GZ‘s sixth sense visual alert might have been improved if it appeared centric to Big Boss rather than on the GUI.

GZ improves on some aspects of conveying a sense of your character’s bodily existence and stumbles in other regards. The character animations are much smoother in general, so when you shift from a run into a crawl there’s this lovely sense of flow in the movement, downwards and spreading outwards as you go prone. That feels wonderful, since there’s not this jarring break between crouching and crawling as in some previous games, now it feels more like I’m/Big Boss is in control of my/his movements. It conveys a sense of artistry in movement and positioning that’s slightly poetic. At other times I found myself battling with the animation to get Big Boss to face just so in case I need to suddenly spring up – I suppose such tensions are the cost of character contiguity.

Related is the cover mechanic: you go close enough to a piece of cover and you gently glue onto it. Or sometimes you have to press ‘Up’ to actually ‘Get into cover.’ It was sometimes a problem. But it never quite felt like Big Boss was in cover, because there was always a decent measure of distance between him and the thing he’s supposed to be behind. It feels like you’re entering into a gamestate rather than spatially relating to a piece of terrain. The fact that you can’t knock on terrain contributes to this empty feeling, which itself is a needlessly loss of a gem mechanic. You can still hurl magazines to lure enemies away but it’s not the same thing. Hurling magazines was a form of projection, knocking on a wall was a form of injection. It was a thing Snake could do that lent to his bodily presence. Without it, Big Boss feels just a little bit more like an avatar moving through an environment, rather than a person living in a world.

10.

O Lord, return unto us rations and the health bar. I know Snake has had rechargeable health for at least two games now but there’s a big difference between “I’ll lie low for five minutes while my health picks back up” and “No need to stop, I heal on the go.” There was a measure of consideration and deliberation with health items that is just gone. For a stealth game to give an air of dislike for feelings of consideration and deliberation strikes me as awfully wrong-headed.

The business of pressing ‘Triangle’ to make Big Boss heal a serious wound might work well if ‘serious wounds’ had any effect on anything or actually meant something. And if it didn’t have a terrible animation and camera zoom accompaniment. It seemed a take on MGS3‘s survival viewer for the modern world except A) I don’t need to care about Big Boss’ health, stamina, hunger or status beyond sometimes having to press ‘Triangle’ and B) I would rather care about all those things than have them automated to sometimes pressing ‘Triangle.’

11.

Being able to drive vehicles and call in a chopper are pretty cool additions. GZ doesn’t do much with them as options but it’s got promising potential.

12.

Otherwise, it is a very satisfying stealth game to have played. I have a lot of gripes because there’s a ton of detail that’s been changed or lost or just a tiny bit gained, but it is still recognisable as a MGS game fundamentally. It is by far the best stealth game in recent years. But it is a worse stealth game than MGS4 and MGS3.

13.

This is the first game in a long time where I wished there was an online multiplayer component. I loved the hell out of Metal Gear Online back in the day, and I can easily see the fun to be had with Camp Omega as a playing field.

14.

I’ve talked about tone and mechanics but I’ve not talked about plot and story because I don’t think there’s much I can say since there’s very little presented. ‘Not much happens’ in terms of GZ‘s story, although the importance of what happens or the truth of what happens might in fact be very big and far-reaching. Ultimately we already know how the story turns out between Big Boss and Zero, so we’re not playing to see what happens in the end, we’re playing for the drama and the soul of these events and the characters’ relationships. (That is not to say “go spoil MGSV for everyone”. If you spoil MGSV for anyone without their consent, you are probably evil and inconsiderate.) In many stories, vastly important events take root in innocuous circumstances. I suspect GZ will serve as a pivotal moment in the story’s timeline, as the name suggests, and little more than this.

I like that time and effort has been dedicated towards it in this regard. GZ is in actuality a demo of the FOX engine for prospective buyers, but still.

15.

Sadly, partly because ‘not much happens’, I didn’t come away with good thoughts towards Kiefer Sutherland’s portrayal of Big Boss. I think he might have had ten lines the entire game. And even though he only had a few lines, I could barely make out what he was saying, which is a bad sign. His voice acting did nothing for me.

Most of the game’s dialogue, by which I mean most of its verbal expression, comes from Miller, a bit from Skull Face, and what looks like a ton from Paz in her diaries. Comparatively, Big Boss feels like a non-entity. When you combine that with the shift in tone to utter seriousness and how Big Boss’ dialogue is only brief and serious, and his physical expressions (in the form of the game’s mechanics and the tools he uses) is curt and serious, there’s not much here to recommend him.

Let me return to labouring over the fact of the game’s seriousness and the loss it inflicts on the mythos. Previously we saw Big Boss in MGS3, wherein he was quite similar in character to Solid Snake – cynical and world-weary, although more idealistic than Snake ever was. Like Snake, his cynicism was remarkable in that here is a man fighting ghosts and human bee hives and all sorts of weird or supernatural buffoonery and still managing to retain his cynicism. I think that has always been a fantastic trait of Big Boss and Snake as it transforms their cynicism into acceptance and tolerance of the world and patience with themselves and with their own limitations, rather than just being tired pessimism. It makes them seem stubborn but hopeful, unresenting, brotherly. Take away all the buffoonery and what’s left? A cynical soldier fighting a war. Gruff, no-nonsense man. Loveless. Ordinary, in the context of videogames about war.

Naked Snake was a man who always asked “So how’s it taste?” He was a simple man for whom glowing mushrooms would recharge his batteries. He’d chew the fat about cinema and movies. He was a man who would wear a big hat that looked like a crocodile. He was scared of vampires.

GZ‘s Big Boss is nothing.

16.

GZ endeared me more to Miller than Peace Walker did, or maybe it built on that foundation so that I’m now more aware of him. In this short space of time, I got a feel of what kind of a person he might be and why he might end up butting heads with an idealistic, sentimental Big Boss (assuming the latter rematerializes). From how much I heard of Miller and the presence he conveyed, it kind of seems he’s the protagonist of GZ and not Big Boss. Seeing him now while knowing how he will eventually meet his end in the first Metal Gear Solid makes him a bit of a tragic figure in my eyes.

Skull Face doesn’t leave me with any strong impression. We’re given his backstory; it’s not interesting. I don’t know. Normally I’m attracted to characters with mystique but he just didn’t do anything for me.

I don’t really care about Chico or Paz. I haven’t gone through her tapes.

17.

The rape. Or rather, the bomb and the rape. I don’t think I’ve come across the tape where the sexual assault is rumoured to be audible, or if I have I couldn’t distinguish it from physical assault other than through the implication of some chilling dialogue.

My reservations have been vindicated. MGS games have always featured torture. They have also always featured sexism. GZ ups the dramatic/action movie ante by exacerbating sexist values that were already present, by introducing or elaborating on sexist narrative techniques. It’s not that rape within fiction is taboo or always sexist, it’s that GZ uses the above two narrative components needlessly, to make it more edgy, more gritty. It’s competing with itself and with a market of edgy gritty action games, whereas, it doesn’t really have to.

So. Why was it that when Volgin beat the life out of Naked Snake in MGS3, I was ready to murder him? Why was it that when Solid Snake crawled through the microwave corridor in MGS4, my heart was in my throat? It was because these felt like natural agents and circumstances colliding together, so I was enrapt in the narrative. MGS has used the brutalization of beloved characters to fantastic effect in years past. In the here and now, Paz’ torment in GZ feels like the hand of Kojima moving pieces around a board to be edgy and, in a twisted way, cool. It left me a little frightened, but mostly cold and distant.

18.

That spells the soul of GZ: it wants to be an edgy action movie more than it wants to be a good MGS game. They think this is the direction the audience wants to see. In at least one case, they’re mistaken.

19.

Brauggh.


 

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