My Second Self: Understanding the Relationship between Players and Avatars

The avatar holds a special place in video game design. As the vehicle for the player’s participation in most games, it is central both to the functioning of gameplay and the player’s perception of the game world. Despite this prominent role, the theoretical understanding of the way avatars function seems to me to be underdeveloped. Epsen Aarseth, writing in 1997, says of the avatar that “the user… will not come to see this person as an other, or as a person at all, but rather as a remote-controlled extension of herself” (Cybertext, 113). While over 15 years old, the way avatars are critically examined seems to have changed fairly little. But Aarseth, in this quote, was talking about text-based adventures, and in light of innovations in characterization in video games, this theoretical construct falls apart. Games like The Walking Dead, Heavy Rain, or The Witcher put the player in control of a fully-developed, semi-independent character (or in Heavy Rain, characters). These avatars can’t be said to be simple extensions of the player, and clearly a new theory of the functioning of avatars is needed. And while other critics have taken interesting stances on the avatar, these critics tend to either discuss the issue tangentially, briefly reinterpret its function to serve a larger argument, or use diction to create more of a distance between the player and avatar, like “puppet-master,” rather than making the role of the avatar the center of their analyses. This paper will try to show the inadequacy of the traditional understanding of the avatar by examining its shortcomings when analysing The Walking Dead, and tentatively present an alternative approach based on Jacques Lacan’s theories, as presented in his essay on the mirror stage.

While Aarseth was writing about an invisible avatar that simply follows the commands of the player, games like The Walking Dead give us well-formed and written characters, whose actions we direct. But these characters do more than simply follow our commands. Looking first at dialogue and then at actions, it becomes clear that these avatars function in a much more complicated way.

When talking to another character, it is typically the player who determines what the avatar says, how they respond. In games like Skyrim, the avatar doesn’t actually speak, but is assumed to say precisely what the player chooses. In The Walking Dead, however, things are not so straight forward. Instead of determining what Lee says, the player determines roughly the tone, or the underlying meaning, of what is expressed. The dialogue is Lee’s. At times, the difference between what the player chooses and what Lee says is pronounced. In the opening sequence, Lee is speaking to the police officer who is driving him to prison. When the officer asks a particularly personal question, the player is given the option to respond “Fuck you.” Choose this response, however, and Lee actually says nothing, merely grumbling in protest. It is almost as if Lee is unwilling to say what the player would like to. There is a disconnect here between the will of the character and the will of the player, and we, as players, can’t force Lee to do precisely as we wish. Instead, there is a sort of middle-ground or compromise formed, where Lee expresses his dissatisfaction, at our command, in his own way. The player can thus shape Lee’s speech, and thereby personality, within the confines of the character, but cannot simply determine the character as he/she wills. This is true of any game with dialogue, even games like Skyrim, where the avatar says what we choose but we are still given dialogue options to choose from. The avatar is not simply our mouthpiece: we choose the dialogue option, provided by the script, that best approximates our desired response to the situation. There can also be particularly jarring examples, where the player chooses to say something, but the way it is said by the avatar gives the response a meaning that the player doesn’t intend. In another early sequence of The Walking Dead, for example, Lee is in the middle of a tense conversation with Larry when Clementine tells him “I have to pee.” I distinctly remember this section of the game, as the two possible dialogue options are “In a minute” and “Just go,” neither of which I was particularly happy with. I wanted to be attentive to Clementine’s needs, but there didn’t appear to be a dialogue option that reflected my desire. Instead, I had to choose the choices provided by the script, by the characterization of Lee. In the end, I picked the dialogue option of “Just go.” While I had hoped that this choice was the more caring option, Lee’s actual reaction was something I hadn’t intended: he yells at Clementine. I had meant for Lee to reassure her, be kind to her, demonstrate an attentiveness to her needs. Instead, he shows a disregard for her feelings and needs by reacting violently to her request. Rather than feeling like Lee was my vehicle in the game’s story, I felt disconnected from him, as his actions didn’t match my intentions. Clearly, Lee was not me in this situation, nor was he a simple extension of myself, of my volition. Not only were my dialogue choices severely limited, but the tone and expression of these choices didn’t convey what I had hoped. Perhaps Lee is more my Lee because of the choices I made–that is, perhaps the particular choices I made in dialogue made Lee’s character more to my own liking–but only imperfectly. Instead of him being an extension of me, there is a compromise between my volition and his characterization. As such, the simple understanding of the avatar as an extension breaks down, and is incapable of assessing the complexities of such a player-avatar relationship.

I now want to turn to actions in order to further demonstrate the disconnect between player and avatar. By actions, I essentially mean acts by the player (inputs) which have impacts on-screen (outputs). Of course, the act of choosing between dialogue options is an action, as is any interaction with a digital game. The point I want to raise is that there is a fundamental disconnect between how we act to give inputs and the outputs that are displayed. Video games, as The Stanley Parable parodies, typically demand a particular action on the part of the player: pressing buttons. What occurs on-screen, however, rarely reflects this act. More often, the avatar shoots a gun, swings a sword, interacts with an object, or engages in dialogue with other characters. There is a great deal of disconnect created by the obvious differences between inputs and outputs, which serves to dissociate the player from their avatar. This issue has been discussed recently in a video by Critical Path, presented below. To take one of many possible examples, the second time Lee must take out a zombie in The Walking Dead, he viciously and repeatedly beats it in the head with a hammer. For the player, however, this violent act is simply that of pressing the correct button. Once again, it is clear that Lee is not just an extension of the player, as his/her actions are very imperfectly presented by Lee’s. The fact that Lee acts when we do creates a connection between him and the player, but it is an imperfect one, invalidating the traditional understanding of the avatar.

While there are, of course, a variety of different perspectives presented in this video, the overwhelming tendency is for these designers and critics to seek greater harmony between player inputs, on a controller or otherwise, and the outputs on-screen. But this discussion, near the end especially, branches into something else, into a discussion of how we can circumvent the controller entirely, how we can directly interact with the computer. When this happens, according to Professor Jesse Schell, the final interviewee, video games will become “the dominant art form of the 21st century.” So, the thesis then is that controllers, in disconnecting us from what is happening on-screen, often the actions of the avatar, are holding the medium back. Why, one might ask? Because it prevents the avatar from being a perfect extension of the player, which is a part of the more general quest for “immersion” in video games. As I said in my previous essay, with reference to Eric Swain’s writing, I don’t think that immersion need be the principle goal of game design. More interesting to me is an analysis of how the perceived divide between ourselves and our avatars functions, and indeed how it can be used to create diverse player experiences.

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If the traditional understanding of the avatar is insufficient, as I hope I have adequately shown, then it is necessary to develop a new one, a theory of player-avatar relations that takes into account new developments in video games. What follows is a tentative attempt to understand avatars in a new way. The psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan seem particularly useful to me in the case of the avatar, specifically his idea of the mirror stage. I will briefly summarize the aspects of this theory that relate most pertinently to the idea of video game avatars, as I understand them, but since Lacan’s essay is only a few pages long and can be interpreted in a number of different ways, I thoroughly encourage you to read it. Alternatively, if the prospect of reading critical theory seems unpleasant, just skip the paragraph, as I sum up the important inferences I draw from Lacan immediately afterwards.

The mirror stage, according to Lacan, is the moment when an infant first understands that the image they see in the mirror is a reflection of themselves. This, he posits, arises from the act of playing in front of the mirror, and seeing his/her own actions mimicked by the reflected image. In Lacan’s words, the child identifies with the image “in a series of gestures in which he experiences in play the relation between the movements assumed in the image and the reflected environment” (Écrits, 1). This image is taken by the child to be their self, which leads to the development of their sense of self, or the ego. So the ego becomes tied to an image, a spatial depiction external to the child’s actual being. Furthermore, this image, which Lacan calls the Ideal-I or imago (Écrits, 2), is not the real self of the child, but is instead a fiction, which the individual never truly becomes: “this form situates the agency of the ego, before its social determination, in a fictional direction… which will only rejoin the coming-into-being of the subject asymptotically” (Écrits, 2). I take this to mean that the ego becomes projected onto a self-image which is inherently a fiction, inherently oversimplified, which the actual individual never truly becomes, but can only approach. Lacan states that there is a division between the individual and their Ideal-I because the image “appears to him above all in contrasting size that fixes it and in a symmetry that inverts it, in contrast with the turbulent movements that the subject feels are animating him” (Écrits, 2). While the individual feels he/she is turbulent, changing, and divided, the Ideal-I is fixed, cohesive, whole. In being so, the individual sees in the image the potential of the “maturation of his power” (Écrits, 2) as well as permanence, which leads him/her to desire to be that image, and strive to do so. The importance of such an image is also seen in the individual’s social relations, as he/she uses this image of a fixed I “to establish a relation between the organism and its reality–or, as they say, between the Innenwelt [inner world] and the Umwelt [environment]” (Écrits, 3). It is through this understanding of ourselves as cohesive wholes that we are able to interact with our environment, to find our place within it, even though our failure to truly be the image may lead to a sense of “organic insufficiency in [our] natural reality” (Écrits, 3).

Needless to say, this relationship between the individual and the Ideal-I of the reflected image is very complex, but what is key for understanding avatars is that 1) we identify with the image because its actions reflect our own, 2) the projection of ourselves onto the image creates a fictional self, 3) this image presents a cohesiveness and power we feel we lack, 4) we can only ever approach this image, be more like the it, and cannot ever fully become it, and 5) it is through this image that we are able to relate to the world, i.e. it forms a bridge between our internal selves and our environment.

Seen through this light, the avatar is a much more nuanced and diverse entity. Lacan’s theories help indicate what draws us to identify with the avatar. Our initial identification comes from mimicry. While the avatar’s mimicry is much less perfect than that of a reflection, we still see the outputs of our inputs reflected on-screen. When I moved the left stick to the left, Lee moved that way. The identification is strengthened as our inputs are seen to have created an impact on the virtual environment through the avatar: I killed the zombie because my input caused Lee to hit it with a hammer, or I consoled Clementine because my input caused Lee to say something nice. The avatar thus gives us a means to cope with and influence the environment, without ever being us. It is enough for us to identify with it in order for it to fulfill its intermediary function, and we identify with it because of this intermediary function, as well as its mimicry of our actions.

But, as I have taken pains to demonstrate, avatars are never completely passive intermediaries between the player and the game world. Instead, just as Lacan’s Ideal-I is said to be a “spatial identification” which is thus exterior to the subject (Écrits, 3), the avatars we play as are fundamentally distanced from us. In the same way the Ideal-I is an other, so too is the avatar. As long as the mimicry of our actions by the avatar is imperfect, as long as we see the avatar before us, even if it is just their limbs, and/or as long as we need a social intermediary to interact with the game world in the form of the avatar, there is always some degree of alienation between the player and the avatar. Our relationship with the avatar therefore exists somewhere between the extremes of pure identification and pure alienation. When the two, player and avatar, approach each other, they do so only asymptotically.

Game design choices can be used to increase the force of identification or, conversely, alienation. The number of tools available for designers is vast. The use of camera angle or perspective, dialogue structure, character creation, and control schemes are just a few examples. I would like to interrogate how a few games implement these design elements to show how designers influence the player’s level of identification or alienation.

Looking at a game like Call of Duty: Black Ops, the level of identification is intended to be very high. While the game does have a single player campaign mode, in which the player takes control of an avatar with a particular personality, the true focus of the game is multiplayer. Here, the avatars controlled by the players are much more generic. They are devoid of personality or narrative, and have pre-set appearances with minimal customization which de-emphasize their particularity, allowing the player to project their identity onto the relatively passive image. The goal, as made apparent in the advertisement campaign, is to make the player feel like they are on the battlefield. So, naturally, identification is key. Combined with the generic character design is the first-person perspective, intended to increase the sense of what is often called “immersion,” but which in this case really seems to mean identification with the avatar. In addition is the input setup, where the “triggers” on the game controller are intended to mirror the physical act of firing a gun, though somewhat imperfectly. This is a basic design feature of first-person shooters made for consoles, but shouldn’t be overlooked, as the greater the difference between input and output, the greater the perceived division between player and avatar. So the design of Call of Duty: Black Ops has aimed to increase identification with the avatar by de-emphasizing the avatar’s particularity and increasing, as much as possible, the mimicry of the player by the avatar. In terms of characterization or personality, the avatar is stripped down almost to its bare minimum, functioning primarily as a means to interact with the game world, and in this case, with other players. Even dialogue supports this, as players are able to communicate to one another directly through microphones and chat. The goal of Call of Duty: Black Ops is clear in both its advertising and its design: you are the avatar, therefore you are fighting. And while the identification that results is necessarily imperfect, several design decisions were made in an attempt to increase it.

The Witcher series of games have very different objectives. Rather than simply playing as a generic avatar, the player takes control of Geralt of Rivia, a witcher (genetically-enhanced monster hunter) with a distinct character taken from a series of novels. Because of the emphasis on Geralt’s personality, evident in the trailer for the newest game in the series, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, there will inevitably be more alienation between the player and the avatar. Geralt has a personality of his own, and while the player can shape it, they can’t completely determine it. Design choices reflect the division between player and avatar. Rather than having a first-person perspective, the games in the series use an “over the shoulder” perspective, an altered third person view (though there are different options in the first game). The player is close to Geralt, but the witcher is always visible, and the player is not allowed to see through his eyes. Another alienating element is narrative. As said above, Geralt is a distinct character, complete with his own backstory and personality. The dialogue design reflects this, and takes a form similar to that of The Walking Dead: the player’s choice determines the general meaning, but what Geralt actually says is beyond the player’s control. Character customization also has a much more limited form than in many RPGs. While certain skills can be emphasized, thus altering Geralt’s strengths and weaknesses, the choices are fairly limited: in The Witcher 2, despite the number of melee weapons available for use in gameplay, only skill in swordplay can be upgraded. Geralt the character fights with swords, and Geralt the avatar can only be upgraded in this way, encouraging the player to use swords. Finally, there is the combat system, where inputs on the mouse or controller are far removed from what happens on-screen. In both the first and second games, when an enemy is stunned, Geralt can kill them in one hit. But rather than simply striking the enemy, Geralt goes through a series of more graphic, cinematic moves, as in the video below. While the player presses only one button, the avatar does a whole combination of actions, increasing the distance between the two. Now this reduced level of identification with the avatar is not a bad thing, but is rather a design choice. Geralt is meant to be a distinct, memorable character, and so it is necessary to have a greater amount of alienation between player and avatar. It makes sense, in light of this, for the game’s design to make the player feel more removed from Geralt than from the generic avatar of Black Ops multiplayer, or the nameless “Dragonborn” from Skyrim. Different levels of identification and alienation have their benefits, and the ability to use design elements to fine-tune the relationship between player and avatar is a powerful tool for game designers.

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As something of a sidenote, I would like to look at the particularly interesting function of character customization in forming a relationship between the player and the avatar. In a recent Polygon article on sexuality in Dragon Age, a fan wrote to the lead writer to say the following:

“I am a lesbian, and Dragon Age is still a beacon to me, when it first came out, so did I, and a lot of people alienated me, and I didn’t have many friends, and there was only my Xbox. Origins was magical, I could have a character that looked like me! And romance a woman! It was life line I desperately needed, for my sanity. Thank You so much!”

This is an interesting point, and one that should be addressed. Polygon recently published a couple of articles dealing with similar subjects. By being able to customize her avatar, the player felt an increased level of identification with it. What is peculiar about character creation in Dragon Age and many other games is that it leads to alienation in one sense and identification in another. We can build our representation on the screen, and so have less difficulty reconciling our being with its. In presenting a fixed image for the avatar the image of the Ideal-I is that much stronger, but the alienating effects of this are mitigated somewhat by the extent to which the player is able to make the avatar that much more their own through customization. Character creation is then one of the few design options that can work in both directions, towards alienation and identification. The level of identification caused by this act can be quite powerful, as evinced by the above quote, and especially in light of the fact that many other design choices in Dragon Age, like dialogue and perspective, are quite similar to those used in the Witcher series. This article also brings up how narrative options, like being able to determine the avatar’s sexuality, can increase the level of identification the player feels for the avatar. Customization, the ability to shape an avatar into whatever is desired, is clearly a means of increasing identification, despite the fact that it usually entails creating a fixed image, an Ideal-I, of the avatar.

The argument of this paper is not intended to be the definitive argument on the subject. There may be other ways of looking at the avatar which are similarly fruitful. Furthermore, this paper doesn’t address numerous other avenues of inquiry raised by the comparison of Lacan’s Ideal-I and the avatar, like issues of power fantasy and escapism, nor does it address games without avatars, like Tetris, the Total War series, and, perhaps most interestingly of all, République. But I hope that this paper has at least given some insight into how nuanced and complicated the relationship between the player and the avatar is, and how design decisions can be used to influence this relationship. What is perhaps most important to me is that we move beyond viewing the avatar, implicitly or explicitly, as a simple extension of the player. Not only is this false, it also leads to some of the more outlandish criticisms of video games, especially for promoting violent behaviour. If the avatar is simply an extension of the player, violence by the avatar reflects a violent attitude held, even if hidden, by the player. This, I think most gamers would agree, is nonsense. But the lack of understanding of the role of the avatar leads many people, even as intelligent a person as Slavoj Žižek, to equate violence by the avatar with the player’s supposed internal desire for violence. Here is a quote taken from Žižek’s movie, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, with a video of the relevant excerpt from the film provided below:

“For example, people who play video games, they adopt a screen persona of a sadist, a rapist, whatever. The idea is, in reality I am a weak person, so in order to supplement my real life weakness I adopt their false image of a strong, sexually promiscuous person, and so on and so on. But, so, this would be the naïve reading. I want to appear stronger, more active because in real life I am a weak person. But what if we read it in the opposite way: that this strong, brutal rapist, whatever, identity, is my true self in the sense that this is the psychic truth of myself, and that in real life because of social constraints and so on I am not able to enact it, so that precisely because I think it’s only a game, it’s only a persona, a safe image I adopt in virtual space, I can be there much more truthful. I can enact there an identity which is much closer to my true self.”

Žižek here has completely discounted the role of the avatar, taking it to be a mere stand-in for the player, as per the traditional paradigm presented by Aarseth. It leads him to make some pretty bold claims as to the reasons people play video games. While I don’t want to dispute the specific conclusions he draws, his argument is made fundamentally suspect by the lack of nuance used when dealing with (or failing to deal with) the role of the avatar. Player’s don’t simply “adopt a screen persona,” but rather enter into a very complicated relationship of identification and alienation with the avatar. It is necessary to develop a new paradigm, as I have tried to do here, to avoid such simplifications, which have potentially significant impacts on the medium and its cultural reception. It is my hope that more discussions on how players relate to avatars will follow, and that a more developed theoretical understanding of this relationship will emerge. In a time when video games are implicitly or explicitly being blamed for acts of horrific violence, such a discussion is a pertinent need.

That Wasn’t Supposed to be a Choice: Metafiction and The Stanley Parable

Metafiction has become something of a trend in video games. Increasingly, game designers are trying to comment on the medium in which they are working through their games. In the midst of these games, one has stood out from its peers, and that is The Stanley Parable. While the metafictional approach of games like Spec Ops: The Line serve to critique certain conventions in video games, The Stanley Parable goes further, interrogating not only the tropes of the medium but the paradigms we use to create and understand them. By foregrounding fundamental aspects of video games in innovative ways, The Stanley Parable forces us to adopt a more nuanced approach to video game analyses, beyond the narrative vs. gameplay structure commonly employed.

As the concept of metafiction can be complex, it is helpful to turn to one of the more rigorous academic discussions of it, Narcissistic Narrative by Linda Hutcheon. While Hutcheon is looking primarily at literature in her book, many of the ideas are applicable to other media as well. Hutcheon explains that metafictional texts entail a “mimesis of process” rather than a mimesis of reality (10). That is, rather than trying to portray a realistic world, metafictional texts try to portray the process of creating that world by “plac[ing] fictionality, structure, or language at their content’s core” (29). This form of mimesis leads to “the unmasking of dead conventions by a mirroring of them” (10). The goal is to change the medium by showing the ways in which it is relying on the same old, tired methods, meaning that metafiction can be an agent for artistic innovation and renewal. But metafiction isn’t just concerned with addressing the process of writing: it also attempts to effect a shift in the relationship of the reader to the text. Through “the laying bare of literary devices,” a metafictional work “brings to the reader’s attention those formal elements of which, through over-familiarization, he has become unaware” (24). The reader is able to see the ways they have been complicit in the stagnation of the medium, as they have been uncritically consuming texts. The result is to “raise the reader’s consciousness of his act” (Hutcheon 143).

Playing video games is easy. All you have to do is follow the adventure line.

Playing video games is easy. All you have to do is follow the adventure line.

The Stanley Parable meets up to this pretty well. It’s very funny, and it’s funny because it shows the ridiculousness and linearity of many games. In many video game narratives, we are forced to go where the designers intend us to go. Even in open-world RPGs, if we are going to do quests, we have to follow the quest line. In one possible version of The Stanley Parable, this becomes a literal line, and when the line itself gets lost in the office building, the result is thoroughly entertaining as well as reflective of the medium. Should the player deviate from the narrator’s path, they are scolded and mocked, and in a particularly memorable scene, stripped of the ability to do anything except await their inevitable death by nuclear detonation while the narrator derisively explains to them their powerlessness. Ultimately, this metafiction reveals the very making of the game, as in one plotline, in a particular tour de force, the player ends up in a series of rooms which detail to them the process of the game’s development. Here, everything is laid out for the player, they can see it all, every step of the game’s creation. The game can then no longer be considered a confined entity, but rather spills over into the real world, as we see the real work that went into its construction.

Two minutes to nuclear detonation? Probably should have pressed the other button...

Two minutes to nuclear detonation. Probably should have pressed the other button…

As with any good piece of metafiction, however, The Stanley Parable isn’t just interested in commenting on the way games are made, but also interrogates the role of the player in the game world. In all of the different aspects, and many manifestations, of The Stanley Parable’s plotline, the narrator brings the player’s attention to their own actions and expectations. Throughout the game, when we interact with objects, like open a door, rather than having the realistic sound effect of turning a door knob, we get the sound effect of pressing a key on a keyboard. This is an obvious but effective collapsing of the role of the player with the protagonist, Stanley, as Stanley’s entire job before his coworkers went missing was to press a series of arbitrary buttons on command. Here, the sound effect reminds the player that they aren’t doing what they see on the screen, they aren’t opening doors or running around hallways. They are pressing buttons, just like Stanley does. This works in the opposite direction of immersion, often held as the Holy Grail (or Platonic Ideal) of video game design, as it makes the game less immersive, pulling them back to their real actions. This is one of the strengths of metafiction: rather than losing yourself in the narrative, the reader/player becomes aware of the act of experiencing the narrative, laying bear the truth of their relationship with the work they are engaging with. The player can no longer have a simple and comfortable relationship with the game, letting it carry them away to another world. Instead, The Stanley Parable shatters their suspension of disbelief, and makes players address what they are doing in the game.

Spoilers in this video!

This kind of reader/player experience is, to me, very rewarding. Rather than simply taking in a narrative as it is presented, metafiction forces the player to actively engage with it, drawing them to questions narrative conventions as well as their own role in the production of that narrative. We begin to see that the narrative is dependent on us, but that we are also dependent on the narrative’s structure. It’s a reciprocal and complicated relationship, one that The Stanley Parable brings to the fore with aplomb. We are expected to fulfill our role as the helpful protagonist in the game, and should we not fulfill our role properly, the narrative breaks down, becoming more and more convoluted, at times even confusing the narrator so much that he no longer knows how to get the player back on track. It is clever and funny, and in this sense The Stanley Parable is a great success. And this success has not gone unnoticed, as the game has received very good reviews, Game of the Year nominations, a lot of critical attention, and financial success.

But these metafictional aspects aren’t unheard of in video games. BioshockPortal, and Spec Ops: The Line all use metafiction to reveal certain tropes of the medium, and show how hollow or problematic they are. The Stanley Parable, however, deals with aspects of video games in an innovative way that challenges the very paradigms we use to understand the medium.

While most people would agree that the historic debate between narratology and ludology in games studies is dead, its ghost still lingers in the critical community. People writing about games now do not tend to favour gameplay mechanics over narrative in games, or vice versa, but still conceive of the two as separate entities. They are distinct aspects of games that must be looked at, and their intersection must also be examined. As Campster says in his analysis of The Stanley Parable, “I tend to approach it [analyzing games] from two general directions – a narrative-focused reading that looks at the plot structure, characters, dramatic arcs, that sort of thing, and a play-focused reading that looks at mechanical systems and how they interact with one another.  Then I try to reconcile the two into a cohesive whole.” This is a trend that permeates the way we analyse games as a community. Beyond the influence this paradigm has on game criticism, it also influences how games are received. If the elements of narrative and gameplay fail to intersect to a satisfactory extent, the game opens itself up to critiques of “ludonarrative dissonance,” while if the developers succeed in interweaving the two, we can praise the “ludonarrative harmony” of their game. It’s the Venn diagram of game criticism, looking for as much overlap between the two circles as possible, and serves in the minds of many as a litmus test for game quality. 

The Stanley Parable is a game that complicates such an approach. Campster insightfully claims in the same essay that “there’s no real looking at either in a vacuum. So the old methodology isn’t really going to work here.” The difficulty arises because The Stanley Parable eschews what we typically consider “gameplay mechanics.” We don’t use objects in the game world, aside from occasionally opening doors and pressing the odd button. We don’t shoot anything. We can’t jump. All we can do is walk around, make choices, and restart the game after the end of a narrative arc. Again, in the words of Campster, “the game’s systems consist of litle [sic] more than simple binary choices scattered throughout the environment. So a systems based reading isn’t very interesting onto [sic] itself.” The absence of conventional gameplay has led to claims that The Stanley Parable has “A lack of mechanics,” or, looked at more thoroughly on Digital Trends, “There’s an element of play in your repeat looks at poor Stanley’s meaningless existence, but there’s no risk, no reward, no escalating challenge, nothing that relies on the skill, strength, or luck of the operator. Toss ‘game’ out. This is ‘surrealist interactive fiction.'” I wouldn’t go so far. The Stanley Parable, in my mind, instead shows how superficialilty of the distinction between “game” and “gameplay” on one side and “narrative” or “story” on the other.

The Stanley Parable relates to gameplay in a way we’re not used to dealing with, disrupting the nebulous dichotomy of narrative and gameplay. This is accomplished in the game by foregrounding certain aspects of digital games we aren’t used to considering gameplay mechanics: choice, repetition, and narrative. I’ll start with choice. We often say that this or that game has a good story because it has so many interesting choices, implicitly assigning “choice” to the realm of narrative, but in The Stanley Parable, the game essentially is a series of choices. For the majority of the game, all you do is progress from one area to another, making choices as you go along. What is typically considered an aspect of narrative therefore becomes an element of gameplay, which Jesper Juul defines through Rouse: “‘A game’s gameplay is the degree and nature of the interactivity that the game includes, i.e., how the player is able to interact with the game-world and how that game-world reacts to the choices the player makes.’ (Rouse 2001, xviii).” As this definition shows, choice is clearly vital to the functioning of a game. Why, then, when we write about games, do we talk about choice as an aspect of its narrative? I believe it is because choice so clearly directs and alters the narrative structure of a game, just as it does in The Stanley Parable: different choices give you different stories. But to consider choice as only a part of the narrative is to understate the importance of its function: it is one of the principle ways “the player is able to interact with the game-world.” In The Stanley Parable, it is one of the only ways we interact with the game. By foregrounding the functioning of choice so clearly, Galactic Cafe complicates a simple or dichotomous understanding of choice, forcing us to examine the game in a more holistic manner.

"When Stanley came to a set of two open doors, he entered the door on his left."

“When Stanley came to a set of two open doors, he entered the door on his left.”

Repetition isn’t something we generally conceive of as a distinct gameplay mechanic or as an aspect of the narrative. It is rather just a kind of necessary aspect of a game’s construction in the unfortunate event that the player should die or fail at their task. They will have to “reload” the game, or jump back to a checkpoint. Repetition is often related to death, one of the reasons Jason Tocci writes so disparagingly about the potential of the protagonist to die in video games: “Death is considered here… an unnecessary narrative disruption due to the typical game structure of trial-and-error, die-and-retry.” But in The Stanley Parable, repetition, including repetition due to the death of the protagonist, isn’t a narrative disruption, but is rather a key element of the way the game functions. Certain plot lines, like the Adventure Line story arc, specifically incorporate this element of repetition into the narrative. And even if repetition isn’t included in every single plotline, in order to explore all the possible narratives, the player must be allowed to repeat the game. In short, the game simply wouldn’t work without constant repetition. Repetition is thus an immanent element of the narrative, as well as a key part of how the player interacts with the game world. Once again, a dichotomous reading of the way repetition functions in the game is impossible: it can’t be strictly confined to being part of gameplay or narrative exclusively.

The loading screen between repeats of the game. If you've played the game, you've seen this quite a few times.

The loading screen between repeats of the game. If you’ve played the game, you’ve seen this quite a few times.

In the last few paragraphs, I have moved a bit away from metafiction, but I would like to return to it now to explain why The Stanley Parable is so unique. Concepts of player choice and repetition are fundamental in video games, and we see these aspects of video games brought to the player’s attention in The Stanley Parable. The foregrounding of these fundamentals of video game design is a good example of a metafictional work “plac[ing] fictionality, structure, or language at their content’s core” (Hutcheon 29). In doing so, The Stanley Parable is able to break apart not only the typical way games are constructed, but also the way we approach them critically. It questions the validity of considering certain aspects of a game as belonging to different sides of a narrative-gameplay dichotomy. And this brings me to one of the most interesting aspects of The Stanley Parable: the way narrative functions.

What does it really mean to win in a game like The Stanley Parable?

What does it really mean to win in a game like The Stanley Parable?

Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman have a widely used and discussed definition of a game from their book Rules of Play, and I would like to make use of it here: “A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome” (96). This definition is from 2004, so it is perhaps unfair to critique it from the standpoint of a decade later, but this definition has been influential enough that it merits interrogation. We could alternatively look at Jesper Juul’s definition from Half-Real: “A game is a rule-based system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels emotionally attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable.” Now it’s not surprising that, given these understandings of what defines a game and, consequently, gameplay, that Juul also writes that “Gameplay can be seen as independent of graphics or fiction, but fiction plays a large role in helping players understand the game.” But in The Stanley Parable, what is the “quantifiable outcome” that results from playing the game? In The Stanley Parable, are “different outcomes… assigned different values”? Clearly, these definitions don’t fit Galactic Cafe’s game. This is because Galactic Cafe places narrative as the goal of gameplay: we play it to get the story. The different outcomes Juul discusses are, in The Stanley Parable, different story arcs. Can the fiction of a game then be considered separate from its gameplay, as Juul claims? I don’t think so. And I don’t think that considering it as separate does anything except restrict what we consider good games, whether we are designers or critics. Narrative need not be something that’s superimposed on gameplay to make the end product more appealing to the player: it can be just as integral to the game’s design as any other “mechanic,” even being the end goal of the game itself. Perhaps if we stop thinking so rigidly about what counts as an aspect of gameplay, and what is an aspect of narrative, we can stop thinking so categorically about games in general, ending some of the more ridiculous game/anti-game/non-game debates.

This is not to say that we’ll ever completely stop talking about narratives and gameplay as separate entities when discussing video games. It is a useful construct to help us understand games. But The Stanley Parable, in presenting a challenge to such a paradigm through metafiction, advocates a more critical and nuanced stance on the issue. By thinking dichotomously, we risk oversimplifying how aspects of the game function, and our analyses will be incomplete as a consequence. If we truly want to understand how games affect the player, we’ll have to move a bit past the concept of “ludonarrative harmony,” and take a more holistic approach to game analysis. And maybe if we do so, we can at last exorcise the ghost of the old narratology/ludology debate. I think that the field of game studies would be better for it.

Of All His Creations, His Greatest Was Himself: Creation and Self-Creation in The Unfinished Swan

White space. Black paint. These are the two components of the much discussed opening of Giant Sparrow’s The Unfinished Swan. The player is immersed in a completely white space, and must, by shooting balls of paint, splatter the contours of their environment into being. Eventually, a space emerges out of the whiteness, a space which can be navigated. While most critics have discussed this mechanic and the themes of the game through the lens of discovery, I would rather look at it from the standpoint of creation. The Unfinished Swan has a story filled with creators, from the King, to the mother figure, to the small boy Monroe, who functions as the player’s avatar. Over the course of the narrative, themes of creation become inextricably linked to the idea of self-creation, as several characters struggle with issues of identity and mortality. The narrative also mechanically and thematically ties the position of the player to these issues, and by the end of what is, on the surface, a children’s story, the player’s creative role is drawn into question, and the very act of playing is shown in a new light.

This is the opening image of the game, and hints at the way identity, like art, paintings, and stories, are created.

This is the opening image of the game, and hints at the way identity, like art, paintings, and stories, are created.

Before we dive into the player’s creative role, it is illuminating to look at the portrayal of the King in the game. When we first hear about the King, he is introduced as an “extremely talented” painter whose paintings form a real world, and who wants to construct the perfect kingdom. It is his world that we enter, in a space that is initially completely white. The perfectly white garden is explained by the narrator as existing because of the King’s rigid designs: because “no colour existed that was good enough for his garden,” he left it white. The player has thus stepped into the world of the King, which he has painted into being. The King’s creative drive, however, is entirely dictatorial: he wants to fulfill his own designs, regardless of the needs of others. When people begin to settle his kingdom, they struggle to live in the white space, and so they begin to paint. But the collaboration of others is unacceptable to the King, who sees the people’s work as “ruining his spotless design,” and as such outlaws paintbrushes. A later section of the game, in which the player can prompt vines to spread across part of the kingdom, also alludes to the King’s totalitarian form of controlling space. The King views these designs as aberrations, and spends a great deal of effort attempting to remove, nearly destroying his kingdom in the process, but inevitably fails. Natural development or change beyond the scope of his own designs are blasphemous to the King, and he restricts any alterations he can.

A high degree of narcissism is implicit in the King’s dictatorial relation to his creations: it is always about his vision, his design, his legacy, and any other influence is an aberration. This narcissism gets more pronounced over the course of the game. The kingdom explored by the player is riddled with the King’s sculptural self-portraits, self-made physical manifestations of how he views himself. Furthermore, when the King becomes too frustrated with his subjects’ disobedience, he decides to abandon them and create a family instead. The wife he chooses is a wife he creates in his own image, a woman who is “a female version of himself,” and who the King loves dearly. The woman created is a combination of two Greek myths: Narcissus, falling in love with his own reflection, and Pygmalion and Galatea, about an artist who falls in love with a statue he has created, and which subsequently comes to life. The intersection between these two myths leads to thematic intertwining between the narratives. It is one of the clearest cases where creation and love, as in the Pygmalion myth, are tied to self-creation and self-love, as in the Narcissus story. It is as if the King cannot distinguish between them, and the interrelation between these concepts becomes a running theme throughout the game. When his mirror-self leaves him, the King decides to make a more direct representation of himself: “a colossal monument of himself that would be his legacy for the ages.” This too he fails to create to his designs, not even succeeding in finishing the giant to-scale model. The King’s obsession with passing on his legacy through his creations always manifests as him creating mirrors or representations of himself in the world. It is through the character of the King that notions of creation and self-creation become indistinguishable in the narrative. All of the King’s creations are reflections of himself, of his desires, either implicitly or explicitly. There even stands a statue of himself in his hedge maze with the inscription “Of all his creations / his greatest was himself.”

This statue pretty well sums up how the king thinks of himself.

This statue pretty well sums up how the King thinks of himself.

While the King is obsessed with creating manifestations of himself, it is important that the narrative emphasizes his failure to complete these projects. He develops massive designs for himself, which he attempts to live up to, inevitably falling short. At this point, I would like to touch briefly on a well-known piece by French theorist and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” In this essay, Lacan posits that, early in life, a child realizes that the image they see in the mirror is an image of themselves. This is an important stage leading to the development of the child’s ego, as they see a representation of themselves which is cohesive and unified, which differs from their understanding of themselves as fragmented, as a collection of discrete parts. The child, from this point on, struggles with the juxtaposition between what they feel themselves to be and what they would like to be; they always strive towards but never truly become the image of themselves in the mirror. This mirror self becomes a fiction that is imagined by the child as something they should conform to, a unified, ideal person they would like to be. For Lacan, the imagined self is a construction which is always being re-imagined based on social stimuli and personal ambition, and which the real self always falls short of or differs from.

The King’s struggle to manifest the perfect self through his creations reflects the dissonance between his two selves. He constantly has his designs fail, he is left by his wife and mirror-self, and eventually he is faced with the possibility that he won’t have a legacy at all; he muses at the end of the game that all his works that “were meant to last forever… would crumble into dust. Or be painted over by someone who would come after [him].” And while for much of his life the King would have been devastated by the realization that his legacy will be destroyed, over the course of his dream sequence he comes to terms with his personal failings and his mortality. He muses that, even though he had never finished his kingdom the way he envisioned it, and even though his works would crumble and fade, he “wasn’t sad it was all gone. [He] had fun making all that stuff. [He] would have done it anyway.” It seems that he finally begins, at the end, to accept the juxtaposition between the self he imagines himself to be, and who he is, relinquishing his dreams of immortality in the process. It is about the act of creation and self-creation, rather than the end result, and he finally finds contentment in who he is rather than who he would like to be. It is in this spirit that he is able to at last give up creative control, bequeathing his magic paintbrush to his son, Monroe.

At last, the King is able to give up creative control

At last, the King is able to give up creative control

Monroe’s creative acts are very different from those of the King, and yet they are no less about self-creation. The most immediate difference is that Monroe paints out of necessity: he must find his way through the environment and follows the swan. Beyond the reasons for Monroe’s creative acts, there is also a difference in implementation. Neither Monroe nor the player, when they first enter the game world, have a clear design, a vision of what the world should look like. Instead, creation is organic, using feedback from the environment as well as raw necessity to determine where and what to paint. Rather than attempting to prevent outside influence, external support is necessary for Monroe to advance; a wall is revealed in front of him, and so he must paint elsewhere in order to continue. There is a give and take here between the artist and the creation, between design and necessity, that was lacking in the tyrannical view of art espoused by the King. This is also apparent in the second chapter, with the mechanic of the vines. Monroe needs the vines to help him advance through the world, and while he has some control over how the vines spread, in terms of roughly directing their growth, the vines have a will of their own. And Monroe benefits from this growth, as he can progress through the game world, while the King saw nothing except a distortionary influence on his designs.

This difference in attitude is crucial, and reflects the different mentalities of the characters. Where the King holds up an ideal and strives to achieve it, inevitably falling short, Monroe feels “pretty unfinished himself” and must make sense of his new reality, both in terms of the white world he finds himself in and the recent loss of his mother. He must become a creator in order to create himself, while the King approached it in the other direction, trying to create himself by becoming a creator. When Monroe escapes the realm of the King, magic paintbrush in hand, it is implied by the narrator that he begins to cope with his loss, and expresses this in by doing “something that would have made his mother very happy. He painted.” And what he chooses to paint is his own swan, along with a few baby swans to complete the picture. He continues the work his mother was unable to finish, including the work needed to be done on himself. And while according to Lacan Monroe may never achieve the self he would like to be, at the end of the game he has at least begun to get a grip on the attempt. He is no longer lost in a world that seems empty: he has found his own creative ability, and has thrown together the rough lines of who he will be.

But what about the player? How do they fit into this theme centred on creation? In an article for the journal Games and Culture, Aylish Wood discusses the ways in which players coconstitute the game space with the game engine in a way that is recursive, i.e. in a feedback loop. That was a little wordy, so I’ll try to break it down. The player turns on the game, which actualizes the game’s source code, so that is becomes a 3D or 2D space. This is the first step in the way that the player creates the game world in concert with the game’s code. As the player navigates the game space and the series of objects provided by the game engine, the objects they encounter react and shift in terms of their relations to one another as a result of the player. For example, hostile NPCs move in particular ways as a response to the player’s movement, which in turn is a response to the environment and the actions of other objects in that environment. So there is a feedback loop: the player acts in response to environmental stimuli, and the objects in the environment readjust in response to these inputs by the player. It is a series of reactions, which takes place both in the functioning of the software and in its visual manifestation, the game world. On a less tangible level, the player also creates the environment by simply moving the camera. What exists on-screen is determined by the player’s perspective, obviously limited by the game’s possibilities, and in this way the player really does create space. Just look at glitches like pop-in. One of the reasons it is so frustrating is that it disturbs the supposed “realism” of the game by making it clear that, before the player was able to see it, there was no tree, or NPC, or house, etc. The game engine reacts to the player’s input and perspective and visual objects are created. In this sense, the player never really explores a game space, but rather they generate it.

Before directly applying this theory to The Unfinished Swan, it is interesting to look at the ways different game spaces are introduced in light of Wood’s arguments. Rather than being immersed in a fictional world, one the player is encouraged to think of as “real,” in The Unfinished Swan the opposite occurs. I’m afraid my introductory paragraph lied somewhat: we begin the game not in the white room, but in a book. Before we enter the white garden, there is a narrative introduction which centres around a book, which will reappear at the threshold between parts of the game world. When we see this book for the first time, the cover opens, and there is a blank page, until the story begins to draw and write itself. We are shown in these sequences that, first of all, we are participating in a story, in fiction, but also that the story is not something fixed, but something made, something procedural. There is an emphasis here on the creative process involved in the production of the game we are playing; this emphasis sets The Unfinished Swan apart from other video games. While so many other games try to be polished, this game wants to be unfinished, rough around the edges, so the player can see that it is something made, not something static. And by making the player aware of the unfinished aspects of the game, they are driven to look at their own part in the process of generating the game, and the story.

This is the first white space of the game, and it draws our attention to the creative process behind the story.

This is the first white space of the game, and it draws our attention to the creative process behind the story.

Looking at the gameplay itself, I think that its resonances with Wood’s theory are clear, but they merit more thorough exploration. The player in the opening gameplay sequence is asked to use their inputs to create a game space, within the limitations of the software. This is Wood’s theory of recursive space (just as a side note, this is derived from Lefebvre) in it’s most pure form. Before the player acts, there is no tangible manifestation of the game world embedded in the source code. Once the player acts by splattering paint, they begin working together with that code to create a space that, especially in The Unfinished Swan, is unique. This continues throughout the game. The way the vines grow is determined in part by the player, in part by the game engine. The way the blueprint of a house looks after the player traverses that space is determined by the possible spaces the player can build on, the possible shapes they can construct, and the player’s choices. These scenes in the game give the player a limited creative function, asking them to create a space which is their own while remaining within the boundaries of the game’s mechanics and level design. And while this aspect connects the player’s experience to spatial theories like that developed by Wood, it also thematically connects the player’s actions to that of Monroe. Of course, because Monroe is the player’s avatar, there are sure to be connections. But what is interesting is that, by putting the player in Monroe’s shoes and tying the actions of the player into the themes of creation and self-creation, the designers at Giant Sparrow give material for reflection in terms of the player’s own creative role. They show the story of the King trying to make a kingdom, they show the story of Monroe altering that kingdom and becoming a creator in his own right. Here are two agents whose actions determine the environment. The mechanics and the actions of the player fit thematically with these figures, as, by playing, they too help create the game world and story. Just like the King and his son, the player is necessary to bring the world to life, and they too are given the chance to make it their own by interacting with it in a unique way.

The player can develop this blueprint into whatever they like within the boundaries of the blue spaces.

The player can develop this blueprint into whatever they like within the boundaries of the blue spaces.

To be frank, I love this game. I think it presents metafiction at its finest: understated, thought-provoking, and medium specific. This is a story that can’t be effectively told in a different artistic form, with themes that have unique implications because of their relations to the mechanics. It doesn’t beat you over the head with metafictional references (though there are a few, especially at the end), and yet the player is driven to consider what it means to play this game specifically as well as games in general. All aspects of The Unfinished Swan — the children’s story narrative, the limited mechanic scope, the minimalist art style, the metafictional themes — are simple without being simplistic. That is an impressive feat for a game company’s first release, and the reason that The Unfinished Swan is a game changer.

All Your Base are Belong to Who?: Cultural Memory and the Longevity of Video Games

Unlike my previous posts, this time I would like to look at a more theoretical and general issue in the video game medium rather than analyse a particular game. While doing research on Braid for my last post, I came across an article by Tom Auxier. In the article Auxier talks about innovation and creativity in video games, and argues that game creators, like people working in any other art form, draw and build upon the history of their medium. This is something I agree with completely, and is in line with the argument I made in my last post. Auxier goes on to say that many games get criticized for being too derivative, but this is unfair. People only make this claim because they can see the rather short history of the medium, and therefore know what material new games are drawing on. Of course Braid seems derivative, because you’ve played Super Mario Bros.; Shakespeare would seem derivative too, but you haven’t read any Marlowe. Only professors and lit buffs read that stuff, so only they see how great writers draw on literary history. But when it comes to this new medium, to quote Auxier, “we are all game buffs.”

This part of Auxier’s article is not his focus, and I’m not writing this to attack what he wrote. But my reaction against this aspect of his argument helped solidify an issue I had been mulling over for some time: the issue of preserving video game history.

Sure, Auxier may be right in saying that most gamers know the majority of video game history. But this is only because the medium’s history is so short. This will change, and is already changing. The games of my childhood were Starcraft  and Tomb Raider, not PongZork, or even Super Mario Bros.. How long can we preserve these games in our cultural memory? What do we stand to lose if we lose them?

Zero Wing has been immortalized for this line, but would otherwise have been forgotten long ago.

Zero Wing has been immortalized for this line, but would otherwise have been forgotten long ago.

A wonderful short essay by Jan Assmann, “Collective Memory and Cultural Identity,” is useful for addressing this issue. In this text, Assmann talks about communicative memory, and compares/relates it to cultural memory. Communicative memory “includes those varieties of collective memory that are based exclusively on everyday communications” (126). In other words, communicative memory forms part of a particular group’s collective self-image, the part based on everyday dealings and interactions between a group’s members. For example, what it means to be a lawyer (a lawyer’s self-image) emerges out of everyday dealings in the courthouse (communicative memory), and helps form a general, shared idea of what a lawyer is (collective memory). Each self-identified group draws on a shared history which is made up of these everyday dealings. But this history, according to Assmann, can change. The everyday life of a lawyer in 1900 no longer explicitly effects how lawyers view themselves now, and the meaning of being a lawyer is therefore different (though the laws or the organization of the 1900 court can effect the modern-day lawyer; we’ll get to that). Assmann claims that communicative memory goes back 80-100 years, and though I can’t speak to the validity of this claim, I do agree that it inevitably has a temporal limit. Eventually, the way we live on a day to day basis will stop influencing how future people think about themselves and life.

This is getting kind of abstract, so lets bring it back to games. I like to think of video game culture as one of Assmann’s groups; we have a shared communicative memory because we have shared day to day experiences. We play games, we talk about games, and we implicitly understand how games work (if not in terms of source code, in terms of functionality). So Auxier is right in saying that we all speak the same language. We can look at a game and say, “Hey, that game’s kind of like Zelda,” and we understand each other. At least, we do right now, because our communicative memory reaches back through video game history, which is so short. But eventually, the inevitable will happen: our day to day experiences with games will no longer directly influence the way people interact with the medium and conceive of gaming. So how do we preserve what is important to the video game culture of today?

The obvious answer is to preserve the cultural productions of today’s culture. These preserved productions would form what Assmann calls “objectivized” or “crystallized” cultural memory. Groups or societies draw their identity in part from static aspects of their distant past, typically artistic productions or rituals: being English is forever effected by the works of Shakespeare and Milton; being Christian is influenced by the ancient ritual of baptism. As such, collective memory is composed of this far-reaching, atemporal cultural memory as well as the recent, fluid communicative memory. It is cultural memory, the crystallized manifestations of culture, that is able to impart on a group a sense of self-hood which lasts more than a few generations. And the ability of video game culture to crystallize is far from certain to me.

While it is clear that there is a great deal of esoteric knowledge when it comes to the study of literature or visual art, and that not everybody is familiar with historical productions in these media, it is relatively easy to give them access to this kind of knowledge. If someone hasn’t read Marlowe, and so doesn’t understand many of the ways Shakespeare draws on his work, you can just give them a copy of Dr. Faustus. But I’m afraid video games don’t age so well, nor are they so easily preserved, because they are inherently dependent on ever-changing technology.

Video games, like any other kind of program, are of course functionally dependent on both software and hardware. While software may be easy to preserve, in order to actually use the software, it must be compatible with available hardware and systems. And the problems here are potentially quite serious. Porting games from one hardware system to another can be difficult, time consuming, and therefore expensive for companies. Even making old PC games playable on newer systems is challenging, constituting a major barrier for less tech-savvy people. Emulators for older games exist, but they exist, for the most part, on the fringes of the law or illegally.

Ok, so porting games to more modern systems isn’t impossible, and Nintendo has created an emulator for some of its games. But who chooses what games get ported, and thus preserved? Of course, game companies like Nintendo. And game companies will only preserve the games they think are popular and thus profitable. This is a good thing: some of the great games of the past are available to later generations of gamers. But some old games then risk losing their relevance as anything other than relics of a bygone era, unplayable, accessible only as source code. For example, many older PC games are unplayable without modification on newer systems. Even though this barrier isn’t insurmountable, obstacles like these just increase the chance of older works slipping from cultural memory. Furthermore, even though a game like Shadow of the Colossus has been made playable by Sony on the PS3, will it be playable on the PS4? At some point, will Sony stop porting the game? Things are clearly more complicated than just handing someone a copy of a book.

Now, why should we care if we lose these games, aside from the fact that they are fun to play? One of the problems with this kind of artistic loss is that, in losing many games that aren’t deemed profitable enough to be ported or which are too difficult to make work on newer operating systems, we lose the chance to rediscover and reevaluate past works. As Assmann says, when looking at historical works, “every contemporary context relates to these differently, sometimes by appropriation, sometimes by criticism, sometimes by preservation or transformation” (130). To use a literary example, T.S. Eliot famously reassessed the relevance of the poet John Donne in his treatise “The Metaphysical Poets,” repopularizing his works to the extent that Donne’s poetry is now mandatory reading for English Lit majors. Can this be done for video games? Will we be able to go back, look at old games, and draw fresh inspiration and generation from some forgotten part of our cultural past? If we can’t preserve games in a playable form, the answer is very likely no. And this concerns me a great deal. As Auxier says in his article, video game designers draw on the history of the medium for new inspiration: they don’t get inspiration from thin air. If we lose old games, the amount of material available for game designers to draw from may become quite small and short-sighted, something which is in my mind detrimental to creativity and innovation.

It may be the case that certain games will have such a devout following that certain fans will port or emulate the game to newer hardware, even if the game company won’t. But then there’s the issue of copyright: fans won’t be allowed to access and port the source code because it is the intellectual property of the game company, and therefore won’t legally be allowed to reproduce the game. And U.S. copyright lasts 95 to 120 years. If Assmann is right in saying that communicative memory lasts only 80 to 100 years, video games risk fading from cultural memory before people can even try to turn them into crystallized culture and thus preserve them.

While this post has mostly been negative, the situation I am describing is not really a doomsday scenario. The technology is available to preserve games, and is in fact getting more adept at doing so. But more than just technology is necessary if we are to crytallize our cultural heritage; there needs to be organized efforts to preserve our past. The Museum of Modern Art’s recent inclusion of video games is an attempt to do so, and it seems that curator Paola Antonelli wants to take this initiative further. But if such an influential institution struggles to gain legal access to games in order to preserve them, clearly this endeavor is not sufficient on its own. And while such endeavors may not always be profitable, in my mind they are important. Imagine a world where the only books available had been written in the last 50 years. No Joyce. No Confucius. No Shakespeare or Tolstoy. I think few people would say that these works aren’t worth preserving, and we need to take the same attitude towards games, especially if we are going to keep up with the technical progress of the medium. It would be a shame to let the development of technology make our works obsolete. And it would certainly be a shame to see a future where Ocarina of Time exists as nothing more than a relic.

The MOMA's recent addition is an attempt to preserve video game history, but can only be a part of the process.

The MOMA’s recent addition to their collection is an attempt to preserve video game history, but can only be a part of the process.

Die, Mario, Die!: The Treatment of the Death Mechanic in Braid and Limbo

When I first began to study video games for my undergrad thesis, I looked in vain for a source which thoroughly examines the role of death as a game mechanic. Despite several writers commenting on the inherent repeatability of games, very few looked in depth at the way death plays into this cyclical nature. Perhaps I simply missed a source, or perhaps Jesper Juul’s newest book, The Art of Failure, looks more deeply into the topic. Regardless, it seems clear to me that there is room for further discussion of the issue. So here is my small contribution: a look at how Braid and Limbo deal with the death mechanic.

Juul, in his first book Half-Real, succinctly addresses the inherent quality of repeatability in games when he says “When we speak of a specific game, we generally speak of it as being a repeatable event” (45). To go back before the creation of the video game medium, renowned game theorist Johan Huizinga puts the relationship between repetition and play even more strongly: “In this faculty of repetition lies one of the most essential qualities of play” (10). But few writers explain in any detail how death ties into this essential quality. In the majority of video games, to repeat is to die and retry. Think, for example, of the earliest arcade games: the player continues the game until death, at which point he re-spawns and re-attempts the level until he is out of lives, getting the “Game Over” message. Even then the level can be replayed, if the player pays more money. The cyclical nature is clear, and the cycle is repeated through the mechanic of death and rebirth.

Mario dies yet again.

Mario dies yet again, a victim of the fearsome Goomba.

Jason Tocci, one of the few theorists to address the issue of death at length, writes disparagingly about this aspect of conventional video games. To him, the death mechanic is detrimental to the experience of gaming as it is “an unnecessary narrative disruption” breaking flow and immersion. Few games, in his opinion, avoid this fate. Gears of War makes it easier for the player to stave off death. Bioshock narratively incorporates the death mechanic by dealing with it in an unusual way. Grim Fandango dispatches with the death mechanic entirely. Generally, Tocci seems to feel that the Grim Fandango approach is the best. The death mechanic, whenever possible, should be avoided as a relic of arcade games: “The die-and-retry approach is a shortcut in game design, a holdover from an era when games were more limited in their ability to tell stories.” But in both Braid and Limbo, death is nearly unavoidable, and occurs again and again.

So why would game designers like Jonathan Blow and Arnt Jensen create games where the die-and-retry mechanic features so prominently? And what makes their treatment of this mechanic special or different? On the surface, these two games are quite traditional platformers: the player jumps around the map, avoiding obstacles to complete the level, dies and has to repeat a section of the game. There is even a dorkly bits video poking fun at the supposed difference between these games and Super Mario Bros., a game released in 1985. The video is funny because of the truth behind it: these games are in many ways derivative. But by looking at the ways these games treat the death mechanic, we can get a sense of how these games are both unique and innovative.

Braid: Narrative and Death

Rather than being an obstacle to be overcome, a mark of the player’s failure, or a nuisance, death in Braid is an integral part of the game. Very early in the game, the player is made to know three important things: she can reverse time to repeat what she has just done, she will die (many times), and by reversing time she can undo death. The death mechanic is then subsumed into another mechanic, that of reversing time. While this mechanic is also present in other games, like Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, in Braid it becomes integral to the game both for its functionality and its metaphorical purposes.

The majority of Braid‘s challenging puzzles can’t be completed without reversing time. Failure, enforced by the death penalty, is so common it becomes banal, mundane, and expected; the thematic power of death in Braid doesn’t come from its shocking or emotionally affective qualities. Instead, Braid ties this mechanic into the themes of the game’s narrative. Without giving anything away, the game tells the story of a man named Tim searching for his “Princess,” dealing with failure in relationships, and attempting to move on from or correct these failures. The mechanics of the game reflect these themes, and in doing so contribute to the overall narrative. The player attempts to collect puzzle pieces and reach the end of each level, fails many (for me, countless) times, and reverses time to either make productive use of the error or to attempt to avoid it next time. This may sound vague if you haven’t played the game, but what I hope is clear is this: death is not just used to indicate failure, but as a means of exploring the themes of failure and redemption. While on the surface the death mechanic looks and feels the same as it has since Super Mario Bros., Blow’s thematic treatment of the mechanic is far from conventional. It is innovative in its subtle reworking of this aspect of video game tradition, linking it to narrative to make it meaningful. This is not the only seemingly conventional trope which Braid treats in this way, but it is indicative of the way the game plays with the platforming tradition.

Tim looks in vain for the Princess in the castle.

Tim looks in vain for the Princess.

Limbo: Atmosphere and Death

I want to come right out and say that I am aware that Limbo has been criticized by Eric Swain for relying on its atmosphere and lacking other meaningful elements. I do not want to dispute these claims here, and I think there is a lot of validity to what Swain is saying. I also think that the rebuttal to Swain’s argument by belovedsanspoof makes many good points. I’m staying out of the argument. What is important to me is not if Limbo is a good game (though I will say I enjoyed it), but what makes Limbo different from other games, what makes it unique. And as in Braid, the innovative aspects of Limbo can be analysed in part by looking at how the game deals with death.

The death mechanic of Limbo is not woven into what little narrative there is of the game. The protagonist attempts a puzzle, dies, and is re-spawned at the beginning of the section almost immediately and without explanation. As with the majority of video games, death functions as a signal of failure rather than as a narrative element. But death in Limbo serves another function as well: it contributes to the game’s atmosphere. The death animation never stops being horrific and surprisingly disturbing, and in being so unsettling the death mechanic contributes to the ominous feel of the game. While the treatment of the death mechanic is not the only factor creating the atmosphere (the art style and frightening enemies are huge contributors), it serves to reinforce the imagery and tone of the player experiences. Limbo is a frightening and tense game, and despite its repetitiveness death remains affective and doesn’t become banal. This can be said of Limbo in general: the game doesn’t really innovate any of the mechanics of the conventional platformer, but by imbuing an otherwise conventional game with a powerful atmosphere, Limbo provides a unique gaming experience.

(There are some spoilers in this video)

Conclusion: Death is not Everything

Braid and Limbo are two games that take common and tired platformer mechanics and use them in creative ways. Death is one of these common mechanics, and by looking at how these games deal with death, it is possible to get a sense of how they treat conventionalism more broadly. What Tocci seems to miss in his essay is that the die and retry function of games he condemns has become a core element of video game history. And any game that wants to creatively draw on this history must deal with this mechanic, in one way or another. Braid takes the traditional narratives of platformers, and the tropes they rely on, to explore in a very medium specific way some complicated themes. Limbo uses atmosphere to turn the typical puzzle-platformer game into something more ominous, threatening, and dark. While these are two very different approaches to conventionalism, what the two games have in common is this: they don’t discard the old ways of making games, as Tocci recommends, but build from video game history to make something new.

Journey and the Reinterpretation of the Game Space

In the vast majority of video games, both contemporary and historic, the player’s relation to the game space has been one of conflict. Even the terms “level” and “quest” imply this relationship. The conventional means of progression has always been one of entering a space, whether a simply rendered 2D plane or a complex and intricate 3D environment, inhabited either by obstacles or opponents, and defeating either or both in order to reach the next space. This pattern is apparent in games ranging from Space Invaders to Portal. Almost always, these virtual environments are out to kill us, or rather our digital avatars. As Edvin Babic remarks in his essay, “most computer games can be described as… ‘man against his environment’ approaches, and the history of computer games reinterpreted as the mastery of virtual space.” Whether or not the player must actually kill virtual beings to progress to a new level, as in the Call of Duty series, or figure out complicated puzzles in order to complete a painting, as in Braid, the game space almost always presents us with hostile obstacles standing between us and the teleological path to victory. Even in strategy games like Civilization, the virtual environment is the site of contestation with AI opponents, the in-game resources mere means to an end, and the goal domination, however achieved, of the game space. The hostility of the game environment is so prevalent in video games that it’s almost taken for granted. It is because of the prevalence of this representation that the environment of Journey and its relationship to the player is so striking. Journey presents a barren landscape with sparse encounters with other beings, encounters based on cooperation, mimesis, and symbiosis rather than conflict, and in doing so creates a moving and conceptually significant gaming experience.

Video games have always been about defeating threats presented by the game space.

Video games have always been about defeating threats presented by the game space.

The treatment of the virtual environment as a privileged site of the player, where the game space must been controlled and used for personal benefit, finds resonances with the theories of Adorno and Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment. To very briefly outline the opening chapter of this work, Adorno and Horkheimer posit that human society, based on technical and economic progress, has developed with the aid of the Enlightenment paradigm. This paradigm seeks “to dispel myths, to overthrow fantasy with knowledge” (1), a process which leads to “the disenchantment of the world” and “the extirpation of animism” (2). Enlightenment thought requires a distancing of the subject from the object in order to understand and make use of that object, whether that “object” be the environment or the human body, leading to a conceptual division between human and nature, mind and body, master and worker. The object is then significant only for its use-value to the subject: “Enlightenment stands in the same relationship to things as the dictator to human beings. He knows them only to the extent that he can manipulate them…. Their ‘in-itself’ becomes ‘for him’” (6). This stands in contrast to a magical, animistic paradigm, which endorses a relationship with the environment which is “not one of intention but of kinship” (7), and a view of the supernatural as “the complex concatenation of nature in contrast to its individual link” (10). These two paradigms form divergent conceptualizations of humanity’s relationship with objects and the environment: the magical deals with the natural world through mimesis, reflecting the overall view of the world as animistic and interrelated, while in the enlightened paradigm “the control of internal and external nature has been made the absolute purpose of life” (24). Of course, this is an oversimplification of the arguments in the book, as the authors argue that the magical paradigm and that of the Enlightenment contain aspects of each other. But what is important in regards to the treatment of the game space is that it has overwhelmingly been portrayed along Enlightenment lines: virtual environments have always been treated as realms distanced from the player, which the player must dominate, one way or another, and turn to their advantage.

Rather than presenting an environment hostile to your avatar, one which must be conquered, dominated, and turned to your advantage, Journey radically reinterprets the game space and forces the player to form a mimetic, symbiotic relationship with their environment, an interpretation much more in-line with the magical paradigm. The player begins the game on a barren, seemingly lifeless desert. The avatar eventually encounters a rune-shaped, illuminated object, which upon touching forms into a scarf. This scarf, functionally and symbolically, is the energy bar for the player. Equipped only with this scarf, an ability to sing, and her own life-force, the player is able to share energy with other fabric beings around her, be it small shards, long strands, flying-carpet-esque pieces, floating jellyfish, or giant whales. Sharing contact or song with these other beings empowers the avatar and the shards themselves, illuminating both and allowing the player to fly for short stretches.

The player's avatar and the shards of fabric share energy, empowering each other.

The player’s avatar and the shards of fabric share energy, empowering each other.

However, while the game space is dealt with in an innovative way in Journey, many of the game mechanics are quite conventional. Several stages of the game involve the process of activating certain objects to unlock a passage in stages, and jumping between areas to progress. Thematically, however, the game and its mechanics are addressed in a very different way. Gerrard Winter, in his review of the game, struggles to locate Journey in a conventional genre: “If I really had to categorise this thing, I’d say it was a platformer, but only in that progress tends to involve jumping between stuff a lot.” These typical categorizations falter and fail in Journey because, thematically, interactions with the game space entail a symbiotic relationship rarely expressed in video games. Rather than using other beings in the environment, the player and these beings are really helping one another by sharing energy, as opposed to drawing energy from one another. Furthermore, the minimalism of the game mechanics, limited to flying, singing, and moving, and the simplicity of the challenges faced by the player drives them to appreciate the aesthetics and the emotive qualities of the game space rather than its typical game play qualities (the level of difficulty, complexity of obstacles, the quality of A.I., etc.). The result, reflected in the vast majority of reactions to the game, is that players value Journey’s game space just for existing, for being there to explore, and for the beauty of the virtual environment.

An early section of the game illustrates the relationship the player forms with the virtual environment. In the midst of the desert, the player encounters a ruined bridge, which he must reform to progress. To do so, the player must release shards of fabric from imprisonment by approaching long strands and singing, a process which generates energy for both the strands and the avatar, allowing the release of the flying shards. Upon their release, the small shards, in what seems to be a voluntary act, join together to reform the bridge and help the player on their way. One cannot really say that the shards have been manipulated to the player’s advantage; there has rather been an exchange, a mutual benefit shared, where the player uses his power to free the shards, and the shards use their own power to help the player progress. The player has not conquered these elements of the environment, nor has the puzzle, if it can really be called that, provided any significant challenge. Instead, the player has simply interacted with, shared with, and helped creatures in the virtual space. In return he is allowed to carry on to the next part of the game world. This pattern is repeated throughout the game: the player uses the internal power of his avatar to help, liberate, or just commune with other beings, who in turn help and empower the player. Whether it is riding the back of a recently freed whale to ascend a tower or surfing the sand dunes with singing flying-carpets, these symbiotic moments break the conventional presentation of the game space as one where the privileged and dominating player uses the environment for his own ends. And this is a deeply affective innovation, one which leads us to reflect on, in the words of the Brainy Gamer Michael Abbott, “the interdependence of all things.”

The newly freed shards of fabric reform the ruined bridge, allowing the player to continue.

The newly freed shards of fabric rebuild the ruined bridge, allowing the player to continue.

Strengthening this feeling of interconnectedness and, to quote Abbott again, “joyful communion,” is the overwhelming presence of mimesis in the game world created by thatgamecompany. Every animate object, except for the menacing shark-like things (I’ll get to those later), is cut, literally, from the same cloth: a red base with yellow detailing. The reason for this, revealed through a series of meditative flashbacks, is that all animate life comes from the same source in the game world. It is revealed, in the first meditation, that from the mountain top (which is the final destination of the journey), rune-shaped energy emanates, from which all life in the world is formed. The reason that animate beings are able to empower one another is that they share the same internal power, derived from the same source. The resonances with Dialectic of Enlightenment are clear: the relationship is “not one of intention but one of kinship”  (7). In Journey, the player is driven to appreciate the shards of fabric or the flying carpets just for being, for existing in the barrenness, for singing with the player, and for sharing their life-force. The player is not concerned with “the mastery of nature” (31), but is rather a creature linked through mimesis and communion to the things around her.

This relationship to the environment is reflected in the player’s relationship to other human players in Journey. Players are naturally drawn to this mimetic other, many of them commenting on how they are “identical to me, both in physical ability and appearance.” But what is so striking about this special relationship to an almost perfectly mimetic other is that, functionally and thematically, the relationship of the player to her partner is the same as that with her environment. Being close to her partner confers the same benefits to the player as being close to any other being in Journey, as it only serves to regenerate her scarf to enable her to fly farther. The only way to communicate with this other human player is by singing, the same exact way she communicates with the environment. Furthermore, just as with the other fabric-beings in the game, one’s relationship to the other player is not determined by use-value. As Ian Bogost says of the multiplayer aspect of the game, “you don’t really play with these other players” but “you’re comforted by there presence.” The other player is completely unnecessary for the completion of the game, only conferring small advantages and, most importantly, company. Just as with other beings in the environment, one is driven to value the other player just for existing, for sharing with them the experience of the game, rather than for any concrete advantage accrued through the partnership. Jim Sterling, in his review for Destructoid, describes this relationship as such: “No names are exchanged for the duration of the partnership. The characters look identical. There is no way to truly communicate with the other person, but that person—whoever it is—shall become your best friend for the next two hours.” The relationship between players in Journey is one based on symbiosis and mimesis, revelling in the mere presence of an other, which I believe is what gives it such emotional force.

But Journey isn’t just an uplifting experience. To borrow a phrase from the opening paragraph of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, in Journey there are times when one is “confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past.” These traces of destruction are visible everywhere, but are really explained in the meditations or hallucinations which occur at the thresholds between areas of the game. Surprisingly, very few critics have commented on these cutscenes. Rachel Helps is a notable exception, perceptively remarking that “the environment and gameplay only take on narrative significance after the player has interpreted the story behind the cutscenes.” When the player reaches the end of an area, she enters a vision by activating the surrounding pillars which reveals, piece by piece, the history of the game world. The narrative is one of destruction through environmental calamity. It is revealed through these visions that the ancient inhabitants of the world (hereafter Ancients), who are guiding the player to the top of the mountain, used the life-force of the other fabric creatures to power their civilization. By channeling, containing, imprisoning, and generally manipulating these sources of power, they were able to create great structures. They develop a relationship to the environment reflecting the Enlightenment paradigm, where “nature is no longer to be influenced by likeness but mastered through work” (13). There is a cost to this, as the Ancients “purchase the increase in their power with the estrangement from that over which it is exerted” (6). Inevitably, the animistic link connecting the Ancients to each other and to their environment is severed, shown as a break in the fabric connecting two Ancients in the fourth meditation of the game. A calamitous ruining of the civilization results, and the once fertile land becomes a desert.

Detail from the game’s fourth meditation, showing the link between the Ancients breaking.

This desert is the world the player enters: barren, covered in ruins. Throughout the player’s progression through the game, he develops a new relation to the environment, releasing the fabric beings from their age-old prisons. The difference between the past of the Ancients and the present of the player (who, unlike the Ancients, looks like the other inhabitants of the world) is a conceptual difference: valuing the environment for its usefulness, and valuing it for simply being. The divergent attitudes are clearly represented in the ruined bridge section of the game. It is revealed in the second meditation that the Ancients channelled the shards of fabric through structures in order to generate power, as they did through the now-destroyed bridge. The shards they had used are still trapped in the ruins. The player frees these shards, who then, as said before, willingly reform the bridge in order to help the player. The difference is clear: the Ancients manipulated and imprisoned these shards for their own purposes, while the player aids these shards, and in return receives their aid. Symbiosis replaces domination, and everyone benefits from the change. It is for this reason that the past is revealed to the player by the Ancients: he is shown the old mistakes, and encouraged to relate differently to the world. And the world is different in the hands of the player. All animate life struggles, in the barrenness, to liberate itself from the wrongs of the past, and it does so together, in a symbiotic manner. In opposition to this are the sharks. These mechanical, hostile beings are remnants of the past, fuelled by the life force they consume, and are the most blatant representations of a dark history. The only really threat to the player, these machines, like the past paradigm they represent, must be overcome in order to reach the mountain’s peak. And of course, the player is driven to think of the ways our own society shares the value system of the Ancients. As Adorno and Horkheimer argue, we too view ourselves as privileged in relation to our environment, and value it for its usefulness to us, to generate power for our needs. In a time when the calamitous environmental devastation recounted in Journey seems to be a realistic possibility, the game presents an important conceptual alternative to the conventional understanding of space, whether virtual or real.

The concept of symbiosis in our relationship with the environment presented in Journey is an important one, and one which is expressed wonderfully by the video game medium. In its ability to create inhabitable spaces, video games present unique means of exploring this paradigm, as by changing how the player relates to the virtual environment, it may be possible to drive them to see the real environment differently. And yet, for all the good Journey does in this regard, I can’t help but feel uncomfortable with the lack of self-reflection in the game. As an artistic production in a medium which is inherently dependent on the manipulation of the environment, the message of Journey, while important, suffers from more than a touch of hypocrisy. E-waste is a growing issue, with millions of tons of obsolete electronic devices being discarded each year, and the production of new devices further straining the environment (a more complete discussion of this issue can be found in Amanda Hardy’s essay in the forthcoming edition of the University of British Columbia’s UJAH, where she examines Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky’s portrayal of e-waste). These facts do not negate the power of Journey’s message, but this message could be made all the stronger by addressing the ways in which both developer and player are complicit with the problem. Journey is still a great experience, and its reinterpretation of the game space is one of the most important developments in the video game medium to date. But without self-reflection it is inevitable that we, like the Ancients, will carry on in our current paradigm, perhaps facing a calamity of our own.

Edward Burtynsky’s photograph, titled China Recycling #9, showing circuit board e-waste in Guiyu, China.