The scalpel and the axe

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[Spoilers for The Last of Us and Metro: Last Light.]

I’m finding new ways to explain my low feelings for The Last of Us, courtesy of Metro: Last Light. Both are shooters, both are set in post-apocalyptic worlds, both revolve around finding the value of living when no future seems possible. In a huge number of ways they’re kin, which certainly helps us to pit them together in the following dual close reading. And yet, one stark difference emerges when we consider either title’s composition: whereas The Last of Us comes across as a clash of conflicted priorities, Metro: Last Light is a great big mess in beautiful symphony.

The three interlocking things I’ll be talking about here are narrative, design and aestheticism—useful analytical tools, although as we play games these might as well be used synonymously. With respect to how these categories interoperate on one relatively minor scale, let’s consider how Metro: Last Light uses mechanical gimmickry to perpetuate concepts of its fictional world, as hostile and cluttered, and represent it back to the player as if player and world are relational, per the game’s overarching themes.

Mechanical Noise

Of the various threads that make up this web, at any given time you’re pressured by a dozen different environmental and inventorial factors informing your basic survival in the irradiated ruins of Moscow. For many of these concerns all it takes is memorizing which buttons to press once you’ve opened your inventory menu, and then, if relevant, whatever not-quite-a-minigame hoop you need to jump through to finish the job.

For instance, like every other device, turning on your flashlight takes two buttons to bring up the menu and equip it. Alternatively, if your light is shining to dim, you may want to power up its battery, which is a different menu selection followed by another few more presses of the R1 button until it’s sufficiently charged.

Putting on your gasmask is also two buttons, but for it to be of any use against the poisonous atmosphere you need air filters, which can be attached by the press of another two buttons. There’s a timer on your sleeve that shows how much air you’ve left with your current filter, although it’s hard to make out the numbers with your flashlight on, so monitoring this involves bringing up the menu on the fly and switching this off while plugging that in and measuring it against the total number over there, then dropping the menu to see your sleeve and bringing it up again to set this back on and maybe charging your battery while you’re at it. Your gasmask has another few things asking for your attention, like having to tap L2 to wipe goop off the eyepiece, and cracks in the glass that tendril outwards the more damage you take, obscuring your vision and promising the mask’s impending failure.

Even the basic act of using a gasmask turns out to be a little bit complicated. And that’s not even getting into how you have to do this while measuring light sources respective to your needs and maybe taking a moment to pump up a weapon’s gas canister as you measure the necessity to search for more filters against the time you can spare on the endeavour.

In one way, it’s the gameplay version of constantly patting down your pockets to make sure you have everything in order. This creates a wonderful sense where surviving in the open is partly determined by your continuous mindfulness of your resources and an almost puzzle-like navigation of your belongings. Bearing in mind exploration and shooting are still the game’s main avenues of gameplay, really what all this extraneous gimmickry amounts to is mechanical noise, complimenting the game’s visual and auditory noise.

And it is a tremendously noisy game, in each of these respects. Walk into a room and, contrary to the laws of videogames, two conversations will start up concurrently, drowning each other out so you’d break your ears trying to decipher them both. But what might otherwise seem amateurish design comes across as a conscious choice given how it fits into the whole. The world of Metro is in many ways very messy, cluttered with debris and information and endless types of shite scattered all about the place, wholly distinct and overwhelming.

Comparatively, The Last of Us is a much cleaner game, to the point of sanitization. Like Last Light, you’re in a post-apocalyptic wasteland for a good portion of the story, but the way you as Joel (and Ellie) relate to it differs vastly from Artyom’s relationship with Moscow. There are shooting sections and stealth sections, again as in Last Light, as well as ‘exploration’ sections where you navigate the land.

But aside from bandits and infected humans, there’s not quite anything to put you in any risk. Places where the air is poisoned with spores have Joel and Ellie putting on their gasmasks automatically—it’s not something you need to worry about as a player, and you’ll never fret about the gasmask cracking open or your air filter running out. In essence, you’re not put under duress other than when you’re being attacked by someone, because the land isn’t actively hostile to your presence.1

These exploration sections where all you need to do is fill your appetite by soaking in the environment serve as TLOU’s downtime. There’s not a lot of mechanical noise you need to wade through as part of your (technical, emotional, psychological, aesthetic) interaction with the world around you. Despite the fact that the cities you pass through represent the devastation this future has wrought on human civilization, they’re actually quite peaceful to stroll through. It’s nice.

That being said, you do still constantly need to scavenge up some ammo and supplies to fuel your trek, but everything you can conceivably pick up glows white to attract the eye, so finding your business is seldom a bother, contrasting with Last Light where you have to be on top of something before you know if it’s collectible. The game presents scavenging with the same stark minimalism of its overall aesthetic—the HUD is small and visually tidy, as are all the different menus for crafting or switching firearms.2 The design of each system is streamlined and sleek in a gritty, abrupt way; pathfinding, scavenging and exploration mirror this design ethos. It is an exceedingly neat game to play.

Now, it doesn’t do much good to simply say Last Light is messy and TLOU is clean, since whether something is messy or clean doesn’t really inform what we get out of the game by virtue of it being one or the other. Messiness is not inherently positive, cleanliness is not inherently negative. To see how it matters we need to plug this aspect back into the game holistically. By doing this, we’re looking for whether the application of this ludonarrative to its major themes and story arcing ends up producing a smooth, coherent melody or a distorted cacophony.

For this, let’s return again to either gameworld and look at how it applies to the story, and specifically how the apocalypse informs the lives of these characters, since the mechanics we’ve discussed detail how the characters relate back to the world.3

After the Bombs

So Metro: Last Light’s post-apocalyptic scenario is derived from the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust twenty years ago, resulting from a vague war between unknown participants who lived up to a policy of mutually assured destruction. The phantom of the Cold War is seen here, when the threat of nuclear war was very much a present worry for people outside of the political squabbling of the two superpowers, and the thought of losing everything in a conflict between these distant parties presented a fear so large as to be almost inconceivable.

What was only a possibility in Russia’s history is here realized in the Metro universe: a world whose fear of the unknown throttled itself to death. This fear manifests thematically in a few different ways in both Metro 2033 and Last Light—notably, it takes hold in guise of the Reds (and, less prominently, the Fourth Reich) as threats to Artyom’s faction grounded in ideological differences. The communist conspiracy to overtake the metro invites the latter half of Last Light’s story, and although you can say that’s less of an ideological cause and more the result of a power-hungry dictator, it nevertheless harkens back to its Cold War lineage.

On a broader scale, the apocalyptic terror reveals a fear of the alien nature of other creatures, as in the dehumanized race called the Dark Ones, envisioned by the human population as monsters, moreso even than the communist or Nazi enemies. Artyom faces this fear largely in Metro 2033, wherein the monsters are revealed as a misunderstood community of peaceable beings, though canonically too late to prevent their purging by a second barrage of nuclear missiles, to great thematic irony.

The first half of Last Light has Artyom chasing after the lone surviving Dark One, a child, as it’s carted all about the metro by this or that conniving party. By the time you catch up with the little Dark One, Artyom’s resolution to end its life has crumbled into regret that he could have launched the missiles to doom an entire race of the creatures. His newfound empathy for the little Dark One erodes his fear of those of an unknown nature, and he befriends it, as he had befriended an elderly Dark One long in the past.

Larger still out of the looming unknown is a more profound  fear—the fear of being small in a vast world, of being subject to the whims of fate and the machinations of men, of finding one’s life proven insignificant. This is both a cosmic fear and a spiritual one, finding expression within the recurring character of Khan, Metro’s spiritualist and Artyom’s guide to Moscow’s more ghostly depths.

Through Khan we find expression of the moral of the story, a unifying resolution to each of the above thematic fears: to keep an open mind and brave the unknown, instead of recoiling at what might at first seem strange and terrible. This theme is at the heart of the game’s multiple endings and the hidden ‘morality’ system that determines the climax of the story. The mechanical ambiguity of the system works in its favour—it’s less about performing actions that are good or bad, and more about displaying an openness of mind in a variety of different ways, like listening to a whole conversation, travelling off the beaten track, and acting kindly towards enemies who are not distinctly hostile.

Since Metro is really about Artyom’s journey to understand the world around him, it fits that this ‘morality’ system presents a mechanical expression of the same for the player: even interacting with the system and trying to figure out how it works is an act in its favour.

It’s in the same spirit that while we travel the metro we’re forced, for the purpose of playing the game, to decipher meaning and relevancy from all the visual and mechanical chatter that clogs up our senses. The process of managing your inventory and juggling all the different gimmicks that facilitate your survival means acquiescing to the cosmic state of affairs—this is a gameworld where, if I am to interact with it, I must think and behave like so. The ludonarrative meshes nicely with this theme of relaxing oneself into cosmic chaos and discovering order among the chaff.

Porcelain Masculinity

The Last of Us’ post-apocalypse is more psychological and personal than nuclear and cosmic. Here were see America twenty years4 after a zombie outbreak tore apart its infrastructure and left the bulk of the land lost to the state of nature. Surviving civilization built around the wreckage of such a massive loss again takes inspiration from its past trauma. In this case, the fear of zombies is a fear of losing one’s mind, represented as it often is first by the disintegration of concepts and customs of normalcy, specifically the collapse of society as we know it and the structures which define our present lives.

This theme takes the background throughout The Last of Us—it’s not quite about exploring topics raised in Night of the Living Dead or The Walking Dead. Instead, it’s taken for granted that what little humanity survives hides in walled-off settlements or nomadic groups, with the wilderness in-between the domain of bandits, survivalists and entropy. Although we briefly see glimpses of Boston’s quarantine zone as dystopian, and we know the Fireflies fight a cause against the present authorities, they’re never expanded upon. Not once throughout the duration of the story are we made privy to the motivations and details behind these societal struggles, since it only really serves as ambiance for the journey of our main characters. Joel accepts that society has fallen and the world’s turned to hell, and there ends his interest in the subject. He has adapted to it.

However, rather than the zombies of TLOU being of the old fashioned walking dead variety, it takes a more original spin on the old formula. Cordycep-infected react to prey much like the livelier crazies, but heed the underlying causes and logic from its real life reference: a parasitic fungus which consumes the brains of insects and overtakes their bodies to further its propagation. A cruel horror made more sinister by the reality of its existence.

By this, the fear of these zombies carries a teleological edge, since Cordyceps essentially function as mind control that irreparably degrades the host victim. The fear is less like dying and being replaced by a living dead, where there’s at least a clear delineation between where you end and it begins, and more like being eaten alive from the inside out while being made to do the bidding of some unfathomable lifeform.

The fear of losing one’s mind is more literal here. It’s a degradation and perversion of self, a corruption of one’s brain which would set the host upon their nearest and dearest. Partly, it’s a fear based in the betrayal of intimacy, which haunts Joel more than anything throughout his character arc, albeit subtly, since he roots his concept of self so heavily in that more personal societal structure: the family unit. And he disdains the world for taking it away from him.

This is a tricky one to pin down because Joel at once derives so much of himself from these interpersonal relationships at the same time as he holds them at arm’s length for the fear that they and he might destroy each other. To highlight how this fear is thematic within the game, we’d need to both show how integral family is to Joel’s sense of self and his resistance to succumbing to that self-perceived weakness.

So clearly his mourning for Sarah and his longing for the restoration of father-daughter bonds inform his relationship with Ellie the whole game through, since it’s the central relationship of the story and the one which most defines Joel at any given point. Otherwise, with Tess he lives within a certain comfort zone, a stable working relationship—their partnership being clearly defined to the ease of Joel’s self-establishment. With brother Tommy things are a bit rockier after their falling out: their relationship is strained but still Joel feels he can depend on his brother when his need is greatest.

To greater or lesser degrees, Joel’s emotional and psychological stability is linked to how well he feels himself fitting into each of the three roles of father, partner and (elder) brother. When his self-image is farthest from any of these roles he is at his weakest and most volatile; for example, after Tess dies and before he begins to form a fatherly bond with Ellie, and when Ellie rejects this bond coinciding with Tommy’s shirking of Joel’s brotherly authority.

The game extends the theme of family outwards to its minor characters, Henry and Sam, and Bill and Frank, so we’re given several stories of how the family structure is a guard against the horrors of this world and how loss of those relationships affects a person’s mind. Never so deeply as in Joel, however, whose psychological need to be a father ultimately compels him to doom humanity. This is the culmination of Joel’s arc, his “happy ending”—the overcoming of his fear of loss of self, and the cementing of his self-perception as a patriarchal figure to Ellie.

Which brings us to the last facet of the world’s trauma which I’ll be talking about: the fear of loneliness. Inverse to the comforts of family and friendships, when the gripping terror of turning against one another grows too much to bear, then we see the rising fear that one must face the world alone. It sparks many of Joel’s character traits—his over-protectiveness, his jealousy, his antipathy towards risky altruism and his hatred for self-sacrifice. As he grows more and more volatile after Tess’ death we can see how this fear consumes his soul. The very way he reacts to his daughter’s sudden demise as an abandonment, and the way he crawls up from his sickbed to rush to Ellie’s side, further suggest that Joel is petrified of being left alone.

This is The Last of Us’ spiritual component, or rather, how its world seeds a spiritual fear. We see through Bill how loneliness gnaws at one’s soul; we see it in Henry’s suicide; we see the spiritual sacrifices David’s crew chose to make to maintain their community. And all throughout, we see Joel’s petulance in how he clings to his current comforts and aptitudes, and the toll his chosen life is taking on his humanity, to which he is oblivious. It is a condition he supposedly triumphs over as the game arcs to a close, although bearing in mind how he prescribes his own spiritual completion perhaps that victory remains dubious.

Misused scalpel

So throughout each of these facets of the gameworld’s central theme, where fits the ludonarrative of the player’s interaction with the world? We have an abrupt and clean ludonarrative, almost peaceful and accommodating to the player in how it relates the world around them, and we have the various ways in which the world tears at the psyche of its inhabitants, threatening them with loneliness, insanity, and brutality. How does the manner we as players view the world play into or against the narratives of these characters or the story on a whole?

Perhaps the answer will come to me in time but as I write this I can’t for the life of me see how the one part could apply to the rest. The themes we’ve gone through are so heavily predicated on horror and one’s inner destruction that the pleasantry with which we come to the gameworld and engage with it is alarming, almost sociopathic. It’s as if Joel’s personal conception of the world is so stoic and emotionally divested, the fervour we then see in cutscenes where he shouts and laughs and cries is entirely faked for the benefit of the people around him. Or in other words, we have to doubt the passion of this game towards the emotional journeys of Joel and Ellie in order to adequately contextualize this ludonarrative within the whole.

Half of me is inclined to take that interpretation at face value and accept it as canonical. It’s an arseways jigsaw puzzle where the pieces don’t often fit each other very well, and you know, that’s generally the way of it. The other half of me balks at how artificial that reading would actually be, how much of the narrative we have to contrive to have it end up making sense, and the fact that this interpretation has us disregarding huge portions of the text as hollow, contrary to the clear effort gone in to making it.

Of course, this incoherent totality is a product of a design ethos that deliberately splits narrative from gameplay and formally compartmentalizes them. You have your cutscenes (where the story and narrative goes) and you have your gameplay (where the act of play goes), and never the two shall meet. It’s a delineation that comes, not from the loading screen that separates the two bits, but from the mentality with which its authors approached the game’s composition. That would be my exegetical explanation.

 


 

1. To clarify, there is a flashlight in TLOU that you can turn on and off as per your needs, and it sometimes flickers and dims as if the battery is coming loose in the casing. There’s a great solution here where the player waggles the controller to put the light back in order, so it’s not like TLOU is absent of gimmickry. Except, by the way the game is structured, you’ll never have your light on if you want to keep a low profile, and places where you don’t care about your profile are also places where you can take all the time in the world for waggling the controller. In effect, the gimmick is playful, not stressful.

2. All the nameless bits and bobs you collect are grit for the game’s crafting mechanic, or for upgrading Joel’s weapons or his personal survival prowess. We can haggle over whether these aspects succeed at simulating Joel’s resourcefulness or charting an arc of personal growth in his abilities—I’d argue crafting loses its touch once your inventory overflows with weaponized toys and supplies, which is bound to happen if you collect every glowing trinket that presents itself, and that most of Joel’s survivalist upgrades are so underpowered as to lack utility.

3. For the sake of setting these two games as analogous to one another, a few points of clarification: Metro: Last Light uses a first-person perspective, and given how the story plays out (Artyom is a silent protagonist, except for diary entries and loading screen synopses; his/the player’s actions influence the plot’s trajectory) it’s safe to say the player is expected to identify with Artyom through an appropriate lense. The Last of Us uses third-person camerawork—we can see Joel and his expressions, read the silence on his face when he can’t speak words he wants to, understand and extrapolate narrative from his body language in relation to Ellie. While the game uses various techniques to bring us close to Joel, I don’t think we’re quite meant to identify with him as if he were an avatar. Instead, Joel is held as an independent character to player self-identification. We like him or hate him, but we are not him. This is all a preamble to point out the fact that Joel’s and Artyom’s methods of interacting with the world differ by fact of their representation on-screen as well as in their relationship with the player. It’s not a 1:1 comparison. Anyway, some of this business about camera perspective impacting player identification might be contentious so I’m relegating it to a footnote.

4. I don’t know why twenty is the magic number for post-apocalyptic worlds.

A Manifesto on the Correcte Identification and Maintenance of Members to Our Deare Club

Manifesto for Our Club

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Long is thee day upon us in which we, my proud brethren and I, must dedicate oureselves in embarking upon the very right of our self-preservation. Equally long have we reclin’d indulgently, leading us directly to this trial, where we have allowed, through benign acquiescence, thee subtle march of undue women through our places of traditional refuge. As one does a curious sparrow through one’s garden windowe, we have watch’d with passivity as these troops inseminated our homes, our livelihood, with themselves, and oh now we taste, that veiled poison that is their traitorous minds.

For troops are these truly—an invading force of female spies, whom have arrived collectively in drips and drabs for the sole tactical purpose of subverting, and corrupting, the values upon which we predicate oureselves, my fellow brothers. Warring on not just thee fact of our identity, but our culture, our simplest values, basic and fundamental, for thee sole purpose of rattling from inside out our state of peace and brotherhood away from them, but waging unprovok’d battle out of spite and greed that we should be pleased without them.

Nevermore.

Though we count what ground they have won in yards, it is not yet lost forever to thee clutches of these wretch’d pursuers, say I; as with certain motives taken deep into our hearts may we regather our position to dispel those feminine colonists back to their hatefilled land of Gloome.

Together in the effort of my collective gentlemen, who shall remain unnamed, for the safety of themselves against the threat of their local females, this manifesto is publish’d in structuring thee affairs of our future comportment and self-identification, in protection against thee future risk of contamination, and outlining principle stratagem by which we may obstacle thee continued annexing of our peaceable homes.

Principles by which our Club may be Sanctify’d against the Female Horde

Principle 1 -

Prior to discerning thee propere character of our enemy, ‘tis of high priority we should establish means by which inclusion within our home may be ratified, by process of deduction from its innermost nature. Fortuitous so, that the time-honour’d integrity of our club brings forth time-honour’d marks by which members are accredited, through activities shared in our habit as establish’d by tradition. Pay heed to yesterday and yesterday’s doing, for these did us well in our youth.

Such it is, as we knew each other yesterday, so we will know each other tomorrow, through enjoyment of the activity of bygone times; for newcomers shall find these to be strange and foreign, having not the chance to grow accustom’d to their normalcy. Pay not attention to today’s occupancies which do not abide the custom of the respect’d past, their Goeth Homes and their Candy Crush Theses, for they certainly represent an alien spirit with absent care for their clear blaspheming.

Through lavishing objects of our preferences with thee quality of utmost integrity and validity, one casts in mental iron appropriate categories expect’d of the form of our sacred recreationals. A secondary effect of this, pertinent for tactics to follow, is to preclude as untrue any example befitting the soppy humours of the human female, which, one can later attest, is a division innate to the nature of the whole category, and therefore propere. By this we expel the females through ablution of thee medium, cleansing it from their touches of production and favoure.

Principle 2 -

Reput’d as is our club for its loose attribution of members, attract’d here only by the common love and appreciation of their oddity, so reject’d from society on no basis other than being who they are. Hold in oneself that this shall stay the heart of our community, by which we outcasts shall accept one another and others aside as our fellows and brothers, for struggle so as we do together in this cruel world. Open one’s heart to all finding their way here, be they familiar or unknown, friend or foe, on the sole ground of this mutual love of our activities, and say to them, let all men be welcome.

But beware thee female, that sly creature, whose present’d adoration is most commonly found as a falsification. Know the liar by thee ignorance she conceals, on the status and minutia of our preferred medium, proving her love as superficial and dubious.

Though tales are heard of some sincere female specimen, the wise brother should take great caution to interrogate each strange female to root out false applicants, as deduced by criteria establish’d in Principle One, or by the female’s declaration of taste for activities unusual within one’s doors. By this rule, should the female human respond to inquiries with an interest in foreign components, such as Le Sims, or the incorrecte part of any traditionally acceptable activity, one must cast her back in rejection, and mock her incessantly. One is oblig’d so in maintenance of the purity of our very identity.

Principle 3 -

Alas one may encounter a staunch brother, proven in sincere love for oureselves by his visible nature, yet having abandon’d the creed which is here set out, and taken up arms as comrade to the females against his very home. This sorry state becomes of those who seek too far the affexion of the feminine enemy, for the hunger in his loins overcame his senses, and so he turn’d native and now festers in their debauchery. No other cause is conceivable.

Refrain from combating our Fallen Brother, but instead regard him in pity, for his betrayal is despite himself a symptom of more female corruption. Lavish him with the title “White Knight”—a figure of great fame and moral integrity in eras past—for thee irony of such an accusation shall be instantly recognizable as scathing and wittiful. My brothers, your shocking words will seed within the Fallen Brother’s bosom for years to come, until one day it flowers, to toss him from his foul horny disposition and restore him to our place. Such is the great effect of the association of “White Knight” it is expect’d many a Fallen Brother shall return to us any day now.

Principles by which Females may be Expell’d from our Club

Principle 4 -

Having staked the ground and marking it as rightfully oures, with our urinations, we may now progress to the execution of thee active expression of our dispositions through open communication with the enemy, in reclaiming terrain lost to those swarming crawling womanly oppressors.

I say, have faith that the kindly prestige of our club shall protect oneself in this affair, for it is here both a shield and a sword. Many brethren have discovered, in exuding with confidence a pleasant demeanour, and lacking all presence of hostility and disgust for their reptilian lot, one may engage with a female in totale invincibility and sinlessness, as evidenc’d by one’s airs. Pretensed so, one is made unassailable by dashing the female’s lone chance for attack: her accusations of mysogyny, which, with no immediately obvious substantiation, dissipate harmlessly into the atmosphere as breath in the wind.

Coat’d in this benign armour, one may barrage any number of females, to politely demand a portion of their time and effort be dedicated, with respect, in attending a menu of arguments against their existence, which, it is known, no female can or has ever anticipated. For each civil inquisitor who joins in this venture, the female correspondent is obliged to commit words, such that a single female may be diligently peck’d with pleasantries by a flock of gentlemen, until she inevitably withdraws from exhaustion, with no risk to the gentlemen themselves.

A danger here resides: the actions noted above are perilous, for by their very nature a fellow may come to encounter the females, and may thereby be contaminated, as in Principle Three. Be forewarn’d not to dally, nor to perceive in writing or sound thee responses a female offers to one’s batterings, lest the snake’s words rid you of your senses.

Principle 5 -

Should the female refuse to engage one’s nattering in civil communication, by responding with edged tongue, or responding not at all, a facility is in place for this occasion. It is, in truth, a fortunate alternative, when thee manoeuvre outlined above proves too strenuous for a gentleman to maintain, as communication with females is understood as a notoriously trying affair for the duration that one masks one’s contempt.

For the civil inquisitor who tires of the act too early, and for the impatient gent whose sensitivity disallows him to even feign tolerance, drastic matters are to be undertaken. ‘Tis acceptable, in the case of an unruly or vocal female, to discard the shackle of civility and let loose on the fiend all manner of valid and correcte insults and recommendations.

Reference the correspondent with names of unsavoury and exotic beasts. Denounce her lineage as remov’d from thee noble houses, a likelihood in most cases, while reminding her of the improbability by which a suitor might validate her adult life. Relate a maxim once said by a popular comedy man. Thee cheekiest of fellows might insinuate themselves as favourable to thee female, and so are socially permit’d, when that generosity is invariably rebuked, to decorate yon wench with a counter-intuitive reputation.

‘Tis a most joyous pastime, best undertaken with a dry Riesling of one’s choosing, so do ensure one explores one’s best imaginations with regards one’s interjections.

Seized by a righteous frenzy, a fellow may then feel it propere to grow full hooligan, and turn his destruction onto thee privacy and livelihood of any female in proximity, being carnage unbound, for a female’s protective scales are as diamond against the emotional toil affect’d by this upon any normal human. I say then: pursue that whim. For the purpose now is to raze thee land, our rightful home, into as hostile and wretch’d an environment that only we approv’d gentlemen should wish to stay. No threat nor damage to property nor sanity is too far, for we are validat’d in our actions by thee moral high ground, predicating our standing, and presumably still held, or we have yet to recognize otherwise.

Recall, as motivation and comfort, that the female originally escalated the conflict in impressing herself upon our scenery, whereas before she was discrete. By this meter, that one merely reacts to a cause, compiled with the evidence of the target’s grotesque gender, one is absolv’d of any crime of character typically attribut’d of such heinous actions. Openly regard your deeds as harmless, naught more than mere words and prankstering, and know that this is wholly true, for our benevolence prevents us doing otherwise.

Nevertheless it is suggested, in guarding access to Principle Four should future need arise, for a fellow to place one horsehair moustache upon his upper lip, purchased in a shoppe for twopence, to conceal his identity. By this inscrutable disguise, social distance may be contriv’d between gentleman and hooligan, though they sometimes be one in thee same, so hence one may denounce thee latter character as suits to preserve thee honour of our fine club, with females none the wiser. Alike goldfish, the fey buffoons. This, again, deprives thee female horde an opportunity to admonish oureselves as misogynistic, which we maintain we are not, regardless of actions recently undertaken.

Principle 6 -

Finally, as loose a band of individuals we are, it is reasonable that we form organized contingents, and structure our innermost society contrary to its open nature. Never mind that, but obey in thee application of our combin’d force against thee unify’d female throng, for doubtless they are so connect’d in secret collusion, all together, thereby explaining their dominance over men.

Do not hesitate in this, for the females assuredly manifest our impending demise, already intimated as they are to our social betters, such that, with one word, a single female will set the ban to dozens of treasur’d activities. Oh the monstrous, writhing coven, they have us dead to rights! Pray fear them! They do outnumbere us!

With this now known and here proven, it is imperative for we to seek out new monarchs, to figurehead oureselves in opposition to the females’ similar rallying. Demonstrably bless’d by God are we, for such leaders come quick to mind in their multiplicity, and pre-exist theirs by years, and proclaim greater numbers of followers, such that our joint political power dwarfs thee efforts of even thee shrillest enemy gorgon.

Command’d so, only then may we celebrate our prized autonomy, the foundation of identity and self-adulation upon which our deare club is form’d. Brothers, clad yourself as soldiers, every one of you, in the uniform of an iconic character from yon popular pantomime, the Masked Gentleman Clown, for in modelling oureselves on a mime known for his political posturing, we shall most assuredly be accept’d in the vein of seriousness to which we aspire. Adopting this guise, we shall absolutely celebrate each of our identities, and bask in mimick’d respect of oureselves by virtue of thee visage of another.

I say to you now, already we find, scatter’d amongst thee vastness of our club, a legion of infantry beyond what we had dreamt. And outwards, to the society that shun’d us in our youth, supporters do rally to our cause in the clothes of dukes and monarchs, so likeminded are we, brethren in all, together against thee females. In those who outcast us we will find allies, for our differences are like thread to the bonds we share in hatred and fear of the new tourist. Reside not much longer on this point, but accept by my words that the female devil threatens all of civilization, but is, at the same time, no threat to our mighty civilization.

For ‘twas indeed our land before they scuttl’d in, and such with the certainty that our strength comes tenfold, one hundredfold, one thousandfold times theirs, know in your heart that we underdogs, we oppressed, shall prevail against thee feminine tyranny.

Kotaku’s Policy on Patreon Support

Kotaku's Policy on Patreon Support

Originally published on Unite Youth Dublin on 28/8/14. My writing is community funded. If you like this article, please consider supporting my work by visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron.

This week saw major videogames publication Kotaku updating its ethics policy in an unpopular direction. Given that games journalism is generally notorious for corruption and nepotism, Kotaku opted to mend the field’s reputation by barring its writers from supporting the potential subjects of their reporting via Patreon, a platform for creators to fund their work through patronage. By banning its writers from backing any game developer on Patreon, Kotaku hopes to present the staff as personally, emotionally and financially detached from the developer’s professional success. By this policy they believe an ethical standard is met.

However, Kotaku still allows its writers to directly purchase a game for reviewing, or to back projects on Kickstarter and Indiegogo, two other, more established platforms for people to crowdsource revenue, despite the fact that both of these transactions also involve the writer financially supporting the developer. Where Kickstarter and over-the-counter purchasing differ from Patreon, according to various writers and figureheads at Kotaku, is that through them you support the product, whereas through Patreon you support the person.

That is the logic they have outlined. To briefly recap: supporting via Kickstarter is ethical; supporting via Patreon is unethical.

 

Corruption in Game Journalism

While there are many problems in this new policy, two particular concerns stand out in my mind. The first is that the reasoning behind it presents ethics as rooted in the extent to which a trade relationship resembles traditional capitalism. The further removed a creator is from the thing you’re buying, the more dehumanized your purchase so the more ethical it is. Although on Kickstarter you’re still funding a developer’s livelihood and receiving a game in return, the sense of removal is familiar and comforting, and has grown normal as Kickstarter has melded into common usage in the industry.

Since patreon phrases payment as if to a creator’s work in general, rather than in exchange for a specific product, investment doesn’t result in property for a patron to claim and consume, conflicting with the values of a consumer-orientated culture.

My second concern is with who this policy targets. Patreon users tend to be those creators who have found little support through mainstream industry channels, notably in this case for structural reasons, and so migrate to the more-accommodating patronage model. By this, under-appreciated and marginalized game developers and writers find an outlet for their work. In essence Patreon is a way for marginalized voices like women, queer and trans identifying people to find their work rewarded by a hungry audience. Out of the mutual support and interest this platform facilitates, a self-sustaining community has formed among marginalized developers and writers.

Establishing a videogame monopoly

 

While Kotaku is quiet as to whether its writers may pledge to the Patreons of other writers, by disallowing pledges to devs, it threatens to nip this community in the bud. Now, if a freelance writer with a Patreon wants to have their work published for Kotaku, they must distance themselves from the support they give to other creators and presumably discontinue the pledges they receive from their peers.

As well as driving a wedge into the community of marginalized creators, this could also be a tactical move on Kotaku’s part. By monopolizing the sources of revenue of its writers, Kotaku is guarding a treasured resource—its pool of freelance writers—by restricting them from turning to Patreon as a viable alternative to mainstream publications. In doing so they simultaneously drain away Patreon’s clientele, thinning the damage it could do to the gaming press status quo. As many outlets seek to court marginalized voices and tap into their previously dormant audience, by making its writers financially dependent on the outlet Kotaku is acting to control and exploit the workforce.

It should be noted that Polygon has published an alternative policy for journalistic ethics surrounding Patreon support. From now on, Polygon’s writers must disclose whoever they pledge to when it might be relevant to the story. That’s all it takes.

Re: Tension in Papers Please and Ludonarrative Dissonance

Ludonarrative Dissonance in Papers Please

My writing is community funded. If you like this article, please consider supporting my work by visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron.

Jason Hawreliak wrote this article for Ontological Geek arguing in favour of the inclusion of ludonarrative dissonance (LD) within our critical lexicon. The short of it is Hawreliak thinks LD is a useful tool to have in our vocabulary, and that although it has historically been used in a negative tense to find fault in a game, LD can make for great narrative design if applied artfully.

I’m on his side there.

But then, Hawreliak goes about highlighting the benefits of LD with some questionable examples. I’ll take the two main ones: Papers Please and Mass Effect. Papers Please puts you in the role of a border inspector who must deny access to the country to people in need, even though that’s a cruel thing to do. Mass Effect lets you take squad members with you on missions, some of whom might be more suited to the mission narratively while others would be better choices ludologically (that’s an ugly word – basically, through gameplay).

In each of these cases Hawreliak describes a narrative dilemma – both choices available to the player are equally preferable but only one can be made. Letting a battered refugee into the country is overtly desirable but so is getting enough money to feed your family. Having Liara interact with her mother would be interesting but Wrex helps the team plough through combat. Being put in each of these positions might give you the feeling of your mind tearing apart a little, forced in two opposite directions by your desire to see both choice fulfilled, granting you discomfort and tension.

LD grants discomfort and tension, which is why Hawreliak prescribes these situations as reflecting LD, I think. But not all discomfort and tension in a videogame is an example of LD. Ludonarrative dissonance specifically refers to a sense of doublethink within a game, where it tells you on the one hand “Doing X is bad” and on the other “Doing X is good”. Or “character Y is relatable” alongside “character Y is a sociopath”, as is commonly cited of Uncharted.

Some problems in defining LD here, though. One of these hands is generally the game’s ‘narrative’, like how Uncharted‘s Nathan Drake is consistently presented through dialogue, character design, cutscenes, whatever. The other, more important hand is the game’s ‘gameplay’, which depicts Nathan Drake killing a thousand people. The two presented impression of Drake being a blokey everyman and Drake being an emotionless mass murderer do not mesh very well, creating a disconnect between the ‘narrative’ bits and the ‘game’ bits.

That’s fairly commonly how LD is defined, and I think it’s how Clint Hocking intended it when first coining the term. In this way, ludonarrative is a portmanteau referencing two distinct components, ludo (ie. game) and narrative, smashed together by virtue of their (dissonant) relationship.

I think a more useful way to consider and use the term is for ‘ludonarrative’ to mean ‘the narrative of gameplay’ in one fluid motion. The narrative fact that Drake kills thousands of people is not distinct from the gameplay act of Drake killing thousands of people. Looking at it this way, we don’t act as if narrative belongs in one box and gameplay belongs in a separate one, or as if ‘ludonarrative’ is not natively narrative, which I think is a better way to go forward.

You could consider that as an aside, or you could consider it as me restating and arguing for my understanding of LD, and so as the thrust of this small post.

Returning to Hawreliak’s article, the example of Papers Please does not demonstrate LD because it does not coincide the narrative of wanting to be benevolent or wanting to be selfish with its gamplay – the checking of documents for inconsistencies. In other words, checking documents for inconsistencies does not conflict with wanting to be a good border inspector (or wanting to feed your family). On the other hand, checking documents for inconsistencies does result in a dilemma where you want to let someone pass but don’t want to be docked for it, but this is not dissonance of ludonarrative with anything, rather a conflict between duty and empathy.

In Mass Effect, the tension between picking Liara or Wrex for your squad is based out of a desire for compatible themes or a desire for a potential gameplay payoff. It’s similar to Shepard’s decision to free or save the Rachni Queen, which is also a mechanical choice allowed of the player via dialogue options, similar to choosing a squad via a menu. Both mechanical, both offer a sense of tension from weighing your options and figuring out which choice you prefer. Even though many players perceive the Rachni Queen in terms of her potential use for them in the future (including her potential gameplay uses), the dilemma is not an example of ludonarrative dissonance because the narrative of gameplay (picking between narrative options) does not grate against anything framing it (the setting, the political history of the galaxy, Shepard’s character design, etc.).

Similarly, Shepard picking Liara for her relationship with her mother does not conflict with the narrative of Liara going on a mission where she will meet her mother. And Shepard picking Wrex for his tanking doesn’t conflict with the narrative of favouring strategic benefits over personal interest in a mission, since that’s within Shepard’s prerogative. Having to decide between these may create tension and inner conflict, but not, from what I can tell, dissonance.

As a couple of counter-examples of LD as a potentially favourable design element, and I may be projecting my own reading of the game a bit here, but consider Mass Effect 3. I consistently got the impression from how Shepard was discussed by her friends and allies that she was perceived as the “best of humanity”, representing her race better than anyone in the scheme of galactic relations. But in my experience through gameplay, I found Shepard’s relations to her fellow humans to be quite emotionally distant and chilly, as if she was having difficulty relate to anyone around her. So in a twist of irony, here I had the symbol of humanity unable to comport herself as fellow to other human beings, even as everyone tells her how human she is. This fits in nicely as a projection of the stresses and emotional barriers that can face someone put in her position, so the ludonarrative dissonance (loneliness vs. fellowship) cleverly portrays her psychological removal from those around her.

In the case of Papers Please, I’ve heard some players tell of a time where they found themselves in the zone of checking documents for inconsistencies and disallowing applicants near-autonomously, where the flow of document checking became so aesthetically pleasing that they grew unmindful of the horrific undertones of their actions. In such a case one could convincingly argue LD is being used to great effect, since most players see the role of being a strict border inspector as cruel and undesirable, but then find themselves drawn into it because ‘being a strict border inspector’ turns out to be rather appealing. The game implicitly says “X is bad” but through gameplay we find that “x is good”. By this you would have an example of LD aptly used to depict the banality of evil of bureaucracy.

 

The Place Ordained for Suffering: Worldbuilding for loneliness

Final Fantasy XIII loneliness

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If memory serves, one of the reasons Final Fantasy XIII saw poor critical reception was because of the design shift in how it presented the fictional world—in this case, of Cocoon.

Previous Final Fantasies had towns and people, a huge attraction of the games, ‘towns and people’ meaning expanded areas of the environment representing the bustle of the everyday life of everyday characters. You could tell a lot by each area by contrasting one settlement against another. Wall Market in Midgar’s slums is dense, haphazard and cluttered with scrap and debris, while the expensive high street of militarized Junon is prim and staid, its shops lined like soldiers to receive the coastal wall.

By this you get a sense of each place. It earths you, relates to you, since what each place has to say about itself stands out in some way in the context of the plot and story structure. Wall Market is home, Junon is benignly hostile to victims of the classist society, Cosmo Canyon is the spiritual centre of humanity, Wutai is foreign to your expectations of normalcy but also foreign to Shin-Ra. Final Fantasy VII presents the world in a relatable way, fastening your conviction to preserve it from the antagonist’s overarching destruction.

To take that away in Final Fantasy XIII, oh it’s a shock. You lose so much of what constitutes the life of the world, the quiet moments of downtime that make it all worth fighting for. No longer can you kick off your shoes after hiking halfway across the country and take in the scenery. No option to book a room at the inn, visit shops and comparing prices, scour houses and alleyways for useful trinkets, plod the streets just to kick up the dirt.

Instead, for FFXIII, towns remain unvisited, their utility encompassed by menu surfing at savepoints—online shopping for your convenience, abstracted and sanitized, at the same time dehumanizing the experience. Dealing you with goods in turn for money, depriving you of the social space in exchange for the minutes it takes to wander from shop to shop, perhaps being forced to talk to somebody.

As it turns out, people quite enjoy socializing in a videogame, especially when it’s with a large number of two-bit NPCs over a very long period of time. Well, the whole towns and people thing is only dressing to put us in a certain frame of mind, after all. Nobody’s fooled by it, but it’s nice to see when we’re appeased like that, nice to be understood and charmed. This design is, in essence, recognition of our desire to be romanced by this gameworld, to maybe feel like we could belong in it, simultaneously consoling and empowering.

Against this, Cocoon feels empty and bleak. Lonely. To be denied of something we’ve come to expect from so many years of Final Fantasies, our love of which we have made no effort to conceal, is a downright shunning. No wonder fans were irate.

On the other hand, it is not a secret that these shrinking feelings were substantiated within FFXIII’s plot. Like most FFs since the late 90’s, the player takes the role of a small band of insurgents, although this time their plight exceeded precedent. What was needed to maintain narrative integrity, and what FFXIII delivered, was straying from conventional Final Fantasy world design.

For many fans of the series, it was mainly Final Fantasies VII through X, the games of their youth, which instructed their experience of what makes the heart of a Final Fantasy and cast their expectations to be sorely unmet by the series’ 2010 instalment. To contextualize the role of each game’s party of heroes within the gameworld, let’s recap on that history:

In Final Fantasy VII you are eco-terrorists/freedom fighters against the Shin-Ra Electric Power Company, a monolith basically governing the majority of humanity. Through appropriation and exploitation of its citizens, Shin-Ra’s capitalist nature has lead to economic dependency of the world, so nearly all of the towns you visit are in various stages of its thrall. People are largely aware of its parasitic nature and that their wellbeing is contingent on that of the Company, so regard Shin-Ra with either distain or the adoration of a Stockholm syndrome victim. The protagonist party, as a group of incognito eco-terrorists, see their role as perceived with gratitude or annoyance depending on the prosperity of a town by virtue of Shin-Ra’s current investment in it.

In Final Fantasy VIII you are mercenaries from Balamb Garden, a private military company, commissioned and soon embedded in an international conflict with Galbadia Garden, a rival PMC. The short version is the nation of Galbadia is being manipulated by a sorceress who wants to rule over all of time, but to the majority of people in the world, the front is that Galbadia Garden’s escalating aggression and its nation’s worrying political direction are matters of public concern. In light of this, Balamb Garden is seen as the counter-force, as well as an underdog compared to the Galbadian superpower, so many people act kindly towards you, if a little detached from the severity of the global situation.

In Final Fantasy IX, you present as a charming band of thieves but in truth are an impromptu task force ordered by the regent of Lindblum to interfere with neighbouring kingdom Alexandria’s plans for domination. Amid your party is the beloved Alexandrian princess, Garnet, while main character Zidane has social in-roads in the majority of the known continent’s cities and towns, so you are generally well received wherever you go. Alexandria’s military might and cruelty leads to shock in all who witness it; although Alexandrian forces end up occupying Lindblum, their horror and frustration sides the average citizen with you. By the time Garnet steps up to rule her kingdom, the mastermind behind the whole war cows Alexandria, making it a peer of what remains of its neighbours.

Final Fantasy X is less pertinent since your party members are publically stationed as heroes and celebrities. Unlike the other games, the antagonizing force here does not complicate the social space for the party or offer any condition of class warfare. It’s a cosmic danger, not a social one: you don’t need to worry about getting dobbed in by anyone. Every single person you meet is on your side in your quest.

In Final Fantasy XIII, your situation is more extreme than the former three. Again, there is a militarizing superpower waging war on a peaceable land—Gran Pulse and Cocoon, respectively. In this case, however, Pulse attacks Cocoon by converting the latter’s citizens into weapons to use against it. Cocoon is seen as the defender in this ongoing war, while Pulse is enormously threatening, mysterious in purpose and agency, subversive, corrupting.

The characters you play—Lightning, Hope, Sazh, et al—are zapped at the very beginning and imbued with this purpose. Suddenly they find themselves labelled as public enemies, outcast by their own society. So, hounded by Cocoon police forces, your party of fugitives is channelled ever forwards, perpetually unable to stop and rest or to blend into a crowd, given how their faces have been plastered on every TV in every city.

Unlike Shin-Ra, Galbadia and Alexandria, however, Cocoon is not the dominant military power in this war. It is very much the underdog, or at least it’s presented as the underdog—you have no ground to view it otherwise given how your lense into the world is that of a group of Cocoon-born and bred individuals. In this context, your party of heroes are the unwitting instigators of aggression, and Cocoon’s reaction reads as justified self-defense. So deep in enemy lines, Lightning and company find very few allies so very few social opportunities to chat with your average bloke on the street. A condition spared Cloud’s, Squall’s and Zidane’s quests.

Looking inward to the emotional state of your party finds they have little to be charmed about. They have been made into soldiers in a war to destroy everything they’ve ever known. Their own world has turned against them. They are betrayed and shunned, victims of social ostracization, objectified in a conflict between deities. The narrative of loneliness and detachment coming from the unavailability of people and towns is appropriate design given how it complements the experiences of your protagonists.

In this light, the further complaint that the game only opens up after leaving Cocoon and arriving on Gran Pulse is an additional boon.

Final Fantasy XIII worldbuilding for loneliness

The same design reappears in a similar form in Mass Effect 3, where again it was targeted as a common point against the game. Long accustomed to Shepard’s bopping across the galaxy to visit cities and get acquainted with their inhabitants, fans were annoyed by the reduction of available cities to the one option, the Citadel, which the plot has narratively switched to become the hub of sentient resistance and sanctuary against the warring Reapers.

Locations around the rest of the galaxy are instead dedicated to furthering the story through engaging in terrestrial battle against the reapers and communing with diplomats to wrangle support for the war effort, the latter of which largely depicted though cutscenes, meaning the player hasn’t the ludonarrative option to enjoy the areas as downtime and cannot return afterwards.

Cruising through space now means hopping from one skirmish to another, one story-beat to another, with little to fill time in between. You can still approach planets and scan them for ore and optional key items, but you can’t land on them to sink your feet in or kick around some dust, like we enjoyed doing before. On the most part they become less like places and more like objects in space, abstracted notions of planets with an accompanying information card, that sometimes reward you with goodies for pressing buttons at them from orbit.

The universe feels emptier for it.

Coinciding with this thinning of outer space, the inner space of the Citadel has changed, too. As Shepard, the player can walk around various sectors of the complex, its shops and nightclub and refugee camp, as well as check up on party members during their shore leave. Unlike Final Fantasy XIII, you do get one city to spend some downtime.

But other than the few specific supporting cast members, you don’t have much of an opportunity to talk to the Citadel’s inhabitants. On the most part, the ambient chatter of the city is filled by autonomous dialogue between groups of two or three NPCs, each having their own discussion on how the war has affected their lives. As Shepard approaches within earshot, their voices chime into their respective string of conversation to serve as the life of the Citadel while providing some ancillary worldbuilding about some social or cultural affair.

Let the record show that much of this dialogue is actually quite interesting and endears you to these bit characters and their placement within the world. A couple of examples stand out: there’s the citadel guard befriending a newly orphaned teenage refugee, still waiting for her parents to reach port. And there’s the elderly lady with Alzheimer’s frequently mistaking an embassy clerk for the girlfriend of her missing son. Significant in my mind is the Asari trooper suffering from survivor’s guilt, regaling her Reaper encounter to her therapist.

Aside from eavesdropping, you can interact with many of these characters only once, by sharing with them some item or information crucial to their topic of conversation (a soldier’s dogtags, an irreplacable religious artefact, etc.) that concludes their dialogue cycle. In the case of the traumatised Asari soldier, you can use Shepard’s status as a Spectre to officially entitle her to a firearm, since she keeps asking her therapist for access to a gun just for the comfort of having it. Allowing her one results in her suicide.

Although Shepard has this route inwards to connect with people, the manner by which it plays out comes across slightly jarring. Rather than seeming like a ‘true’ quest as in these sort of RPGs, the kind of yolk where you go somewhere to complete the objective before returning to your quest-giver, retrieval of the key item or information typically occurs accidentally in the general course of Shepard’s space exploits, by scanning around planet clusters or examining points of interest in the field, and in both cases clicking ‘ok’ at whatever you find. The items themselves appear as nothing more than information cards, flat and hollow, literally stock images for whatever they represent. Perhaps they mean the world to some NPC but to the player-as-Shepard they’re hollow knickknacks.

This links in with the way the game presents your relation to the NPC population of the Citadel, again contrasted against fan expectations built from the previous games.

Eavesdropping being the majority of your interaction with characters in an area, Shepard cannot communicate with characters except to present them with the profits of her self-imposed errand. Other than that you can’t even communicate with people, you can only witness them communicating with one another. All throughout these conversations, the camera remains fixed to its normal in-game position, as opposed to the excited camera work of cutscenes and conversations of greater comparative importance, giving a slight aura of aesthetic distance and disinterest to Shepard’s exchanges with the people of the Citadel.

Note that the sudden departure from dialogue as a mechanical interaction, shifting instead to autonomous NPC conversations, and the framing of this via unperturbed cinematography is the exact same dialogue/relation design as the few Cocoon civilians you pass by while on the lam in Final Fantasy XIII, minus the perfunctory sidequests.

It’s a removal from the lives of these people, from the entirety of sentient life in the galaxy, appropriate to Shepard’s spiritual isolation as ‘humanity’s savior’, as everyone keeps telling her. We can see the rising stress of this role over the course of the story as she becomes more and more detached from those around her, more conscious of perceptions of herself as an icon, a military asset, and not as a person.

At the same time, Shepard is being edged towards the centre of the worlds of those with whom she has her most intimate relationships. You can talk to your crewmates, gratefully, but they themselves seldom talk to one another other of their own accord, so the Normandy never quite feels like a team, unlike Mass Effect 2. It creates a sense of discord where everyone seems to be putting on a brave face and acting normal only for your sake, to avoid troubling you and risk agitating Humanity’s Last Hope. Though you may be surrounded by support for the mission and boundless well-wishing, realising your companions are compartmentalized and isolated on the Normandy, that their camaraderie is a facade, breathes into you a grave air of loneliness, which binds perfect with Shepard’s narrative arc.

Although these aspects of Final Fantasy XIII and Mass Effect 3 are often counted against the games, I consider them a triumph of narrative design.

Suppose suppose

Videogame Thought Experiments

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1. Narrative

Suppose bright and early one day, a documentarian were to set up their camera in the middle of an empty street in the laziest part of town. They rig the camera to its microphone so everything is working perfectly, and steady the tripod so it stands perfectly firm and well balanced, and the whole setup is ready to start recording. On the camera is a timer which, when activated, will wait an indeterminate length of time before beginning the recording, record for an indeterminate length of time, and then delay for an indeterminate length of time before signalling to the documentarian that the recording has finished. The documentarian triggers the device and promptly leaves the entire area until the timer calls them back.

On returning to their camera, the documentarian removes the tape and packs up all their gear. At this point, they may do one of two things: they can either throw the tape into a fire to be burnt to a crisp, or they can pass the tape off on a random stranger they meet on the street, who might at some point go home and give it a watch.

Now, assuming the camera recorded for a duration longer than zero seconds, most people would accept that the tape contains a narrative, meaning a sequence of events connected by presentation. In the latter case of someone watching the tape, this is confirmed, but even in the event of the tape never being watched prior to its incineration, the same tape with the same contents would still have that narrative. This in spite of the fact that the narrative—an accounting of events—has not and will never transpire. The involvement of a future viewer or audience member in interacting with the tape to allow its narrative to unfold on a screen has no bearing on the narrative’s existence in the present tense.

Further to this, when can it be said that the tape first has a narrative? Is it when it’s being watched for the first time, is it right after the recording has ended, or is it while the recording is still ongoing? If it’s while the recording is still taking place, what marks the contents of the tape as a narrative as opposed to the actual events on the street being recorded? Conventional wisdom suggests the simple act of being observed and framed transforms events into narrative through the process of presentation, that in being recorded an account is taken of these events, to be regaled later or never at all. (Surely an event is not itself a narrative, but an account of that event by definition is.) So by this, as a series of events are unfolding do they constitute a narrative by the fact of a witness observing and storing in their memory all that they perceive, prior even to the narrative’s original recounting?

Lastly, if a narrative’s existence predates itself, in what way is an audience member important in actualizing it?

 

2. Agency

Suppose an android stands at a window of an otherwise boring room, looking out onto a beautiful grassy meadow. Somewhere off in the distance some vague figures stand in various states of toppling over and facing in all directions, but they’re too far away to see clearly. Below the window is an array of buttons, some of which are lit up. The android has never pressed buttons of this kind before and has no idea what they might do prior to giving them a try.

Far off in the meadow, a crew of men and women lie prone in the grass, unseen by the android. They have been given instructions on what to do. When the android presses a button, the selection is relayed to the crew through a monitor, and they must consult a chart to orientate the figures accordingly. Some button presses ask them to move certain figures to stand upright while leaning other figures lower, and face some figures eastwardly while pointing others westwardly.

Every button press has some combination of these effects according to the chart. But for a certain third of the button presses, the crew can mess around and move one figure of their choosing however they want, but only one. If they can get every figure into a leaning position at the same time, they get to go home for the rest of the day.

As it happens, the figures themselves are another crew of men and women. They’ve been instructed to act like statues, but also to allow themselves to be moved around by the prone crew when required.

The android has been programmed in an unusual way to have preferences of order and neatness (as opposed to chaos) depending on yesterday’s weather. If it was rainy yesterday, the android prefers things that point west. If it was overcast, the android favours the east. And if it was sunny, the android enjoys things that point upwards. As you know, when the android presses a button some of the figures turn to the west, others turn east, some straighten upright and a few topple over, but also the sequence of lit buttons changes according to what was last pressed. What nobody in the room or on the meadow knows yet is this: half of the lit buttons give the prone crew their one free move.

So who is the player?

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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