This post is funded by readers like you through Patreon. If you like what you read, want to see me write more, and want to get a chance to choose what I write about, please consider pledging.
Elska by Catherine Hapka is the first entry in a series of young reader books called Horse Diaries and takes place, as the back cover tells us, in “Iceland, circa AD 1000.” The first thing I want to make clear is that the series title of Horse Diaries is exceptionally, perhaps surprisingly, literal: this book is written from the first-person perspective of an Icelandic horse in the year 1000.
If this description makes the book sound bizarre, I assure you it is. But we have to keep in mind here the target audience (readers from ages 8-10, probably) which to some extent explains why Elska, despite being a horse from a millennium ago, narrates her story like an Icelandic tour guide, dropping facts about geography and fjords (one of the first things she tells the reader is how the Icelandic seasons and day-night cycles differ from the weather in temperate climates, because of course a newborn horse knows these things). But this generosity of information on her part is why it’s also so interesting that Elska never really explains the workings of the medieval human society with which much of the book is concerned.
A digression: Icelandic horses are a particular and highly specialized breed, due to Iceland’s geographical isolation. They are gaited, which means that in addition to the normal strides of a horse (the walk, trot, canter, and gallop) they have an additional pace called the tölt, which looks weird as hell. This is not something they’re trained to do, but something they do naturally. I just felt you should see that.
The events of the book encompass probably a decade in the span of 100 generously spaced pages, which make it an exceptionally brisk read. It begins at the moment Elska is born while her herd is wandering the Icelandic wilderness during the spring and summer months. Eventually, the tribe of humans to which her herd belongs come along to gather them for the rettir, the annual Iceland sheep round-up. The word rettir is used extensively and never explicitly defined (if you discount the short appendix of “Iceland Facts” at the very end) which is a pretty good illustration of how, while the book obligingly drops information about Iceland’s climate and the differences between varying horse breeds, it remains intriguingly vague about how or why the humans do anything they do.
Elska is part of a herd owned by a family with a young daughter named Amma, whose immediate fondness for our narrator sets up the arc of the plot. We know how this story goes: a child and an animal have a special bond, they are arbitrarily separated by an unjust force, they pine for one another, and after some strife are eventually are reunited. In this case Amma discovers that Elska is a very fast horse and perfect for racing, which catches the eye of the son of Alfvaldr, a neighboring farmer. Due to some nebulous debt owed to Alfvaldr by Amma’s dad, Elska is given to the former as a gift, confusing Elska considerably. That night she jumps the fence at the new farm and runs home.
Amma is overjoyed, of course, but when Alfvaldr and his son come calling there are surprisingly dark shades to note. Alfvaldr thinks Amma stole the horse, and her father asks her, “Are you trying to cause a blood feud between Alfvaldr and me?” Amma’s father manages to placate Alfvaldr by regifting Elska plus a few other livestock, and Elska, upon her return to Alfvaldr’s farm, is informed by her new herd that staying with them is in the best interests of Amma. I want to take a moment to consider the casual drop of the “blood feud” here, which, like rettir, is never explained or defined (and in this case, doesn’t even show up in the appendix).
Elska mentions a couple of times that she does not understand human language, which of course raises a whole host of questions about how she is telling her story in human language and recounting entire conversations between humans that she apparently doesn’t understand. Such niggling is pedantic, of course, but what’s curious is that within this narrative device — a non-linguistic narrator — Hapka seems to reproduce in a small degree the narrator’s lack of language by presenting the reader (again, an 8 to 10 year old child) with a society whose laws and customs are never explained. So a child reading this book is probably not going to know what a “blood feud” is particularly, but they sure as hell are going to know that it sounds bad, even though Elska herself doesn’t think much of it. Similarly, the other horses’ intimations of the consequences of Elska returning home a second time suggests to her and the reader obliquely the horrifying potential of the “blood feud.”
It seems perhaps inevitable that a story about a horse and its interactions with humans would be about biopolitics, the way life and death and the things that live and die flow and are funneled through the channels of the social apparatus. Elska’s significance to the humans is as a racer, as an object for trade, and so on; they use her as a mediator for social situations she barely comprehends or does not care to understand (she mentions several times that while she loves to race, she apparently just likes to run fast — there’s no sense she’s particularly competitive in the way, say, Alfvaldr’s son is). Simultaneously, Elska’s distance from these customs provides an identification point for the (presumably human) reader, positing her as someone who doesn’t understand or necessarily need to understand how human life in Iceland was lived, 1000 years ago, from the inside out.
This is why Elska, I think, provides so much knowledgeable about issues of climate and geography but shows little interest in unpacking social discourse: as an animal she’s aligned with the natural world, a natural world taken to be the “same” Iceland as in the reader’s own time, with geysers and glaciers and so forth, while human society is revealed as highly historically contingent in its particular forms. In other words, Elska the Icelandic horse functions for the young reader as a locus of a kind of transhistorical affect, allowing them a space to think through the past by alternatively aligning them with her incomprehension of history (‘who cares what a rettir is’) and ironically estranging them from that incomprehension (‘Elska doesn’t know what a blood feud is, but I know it sounds dangerous for that little girl’).
A lot of contemporary ecocriticism would take issue with the way the story implicitly suggests the eternity of Nature outside the variable human social order (and makes ‘history’ signify solely the latter), and I’d be inclined to agree, but a book for young readers is not the place to wage this particular battle. Instead, I’m interested in pondering how this particular kind of animal narrative provides children with an avenue for slipping outside a purely human historiography altogether. As I’ve said, we all know how this story goes: animal and child are separated, there is pining, a moment of strife, and after a heartfelt and dangerous situation, a reunion. The same applies here: Elska acclimates to Alfvaldr’s farm over the years (which is not inordinately different from the last farm — we escape the trope of the cruel secondary owner here) and eventually, after several years, goes out on rettir with Alfvaldr and his sons.
Here she once again meets Amma, who has grown older. One day, Amma slips away from the others to hang out with Elska and decides to ride her for old time’s sake. However, when Alfvaldr’s sons spot her they think Amma is once again stealing the horse; she panics, hops off, and runs away — straight into a river.
This is not the best idea. Amma is swept away and Alfvaldr’s sons immediately start flipping out, without any clue what to do. Elska, however, sees Amma grab onto a rock, and in her recognition that Amma is in trouble, wades into the river and allows Amma to climb onto her back. “We horses are the bridges of Iceland,” she informs the reader. (Aside: this is actually a common saying in Iceland, since historically there are so many rivers that bridges cannot be built for all of them, and so horses were often used for travel even as they fell out of fashion elsewhere.)
The final chapter jumps forward some indeterminate amount of time, where it is revealed that Elska is once again living with Amma on her family’s farm. After the incident in the river, it was proved sufficiently that Elska and Amma have a special bond, and he gifted the horse to her. Things are progressing along with the seasons, and it’s revealed that Elska herself is pregnant and due to foal in the spring. The human social realm and the natural realm are once again linked together in a kind of cyclical, biopolitical harmony.
I don’t know if a horse ever actually has or ever actually would care enough about a human being to pull them out of a river. A savior dog I would buy, but having spent some time around horses I have a hard time imagining one going for saving someone over munching on some nearby grass. To an extent, many animal-human narratives that climax in moments like this rely on some kind of sentimentalization, an anthropomorphosis that suggests a fundamental correspondence between how humans feel in and about the world and how things in the world feel about us.
We expect this from children’s stories, and being the cool and rational adults that we are, we recognize the narrative frippery for what it is. This is a nice story to tell your kids, we might say, but it’s something you grow out of. We have to realize, at some point, that horses don’t really feel this way about us, that they really are, after all, animals and tools to be used for racing, for exchange, for farm maintenance.
Elska and by extension the entire Horse Diaries series takes its generic cue from an earlier work, as Elska’s epigraph indicates:
“Oh! if people knew what a comfort to horses a light hand is….”
This quote is from Anna Sewell’s 1877 novel Black Beauty. You’ve probably heard of it. What you probably don’t know, unless you’ve read it — and the above quote does nothing to indicate this — is that the entire novel is, like Elska, narrated in the first person by a horse. Furthermore, though we might consider Sewell’s novel something appropriate for children, it is (and was published as) a “real” novel for general audiences, though it has been historically aligned with the deeply gendered field of sentimental (read: women’s) fiction.
Like many “sentimental” novels of the nineteenth century, Black Beauty has a particular social consciousness; specifically, it aims to draw attention to animal welfare on the one hand and the rough living and working conditions of London cabbies and their horses on the other. And so Elska’s epigraph is Black Beauty himself speaking, and the full line is this:
“Oh! if people knew what a comfort to horses a light hand is, and how it keeps a good mouth and a good temper, they surely would not chuck, and drag, and pull at the rein as they often do.”
The point here is fairly obvious: don’t treat your horses like crap. Don’t hurt them. They don’t like it. They have inclinations, wants, feelings.
It’s extremely telling that Sewell’s novel, a bestseller in its own time, is today thought of (and has mostly left its mark on) children’s fiction. When I say the horse offers an opportunity for transhistorical affect, then, aside from the complicated baggage of a fully stabilized and naturalized idea of Nature, I mean to suggest that both Black Beauty and Elska embody, in their own ways, something that “falls out” of the normal progressive notion of history as one of increasing technical sufficiency, social literacy, and a maturing (and masculinized) human creature whose primary privilege is to instrumentalize the world and the other creatures that exist in it.
Just as Black Beauty aims to paint a world of greater respect and cohesion across boundaries of social class and species, Elska offers the reader an opportunity to contemplate a historical basis for the fondness they almost certainly feel for horses. Though we might expect them to grow out of it, the continued existence of these stories suggests something about the affect we tend to expend on animals, which in turn suggests it is we humans — not the horses — who are trained out of it. But maybe we don’t have to be.
The following was originally written as part of a brainstorming session for an article I coauthored with Matthew Harrison for an edited collection on Shakespearean “users” — of academic and nonacademic varieties. Our final product drifted from the texts below in its final analysis, but the claims and insights with which we began were nevertheless informative. I’ve reproduced this opening salvo because I like it and want to keep it around.
Jorge Luis Borges’s 1983 short story “Shakespeare’s Memory” – Borges’s final short story, as it happens – is the narrative of a German literature professor named Hermann Sörgel who, during a conference in London, comes into possession of the memory of William Shakespeare. It is passed along to him by another academic, who received it from a dying man while he worked as a physician in a field hospital during World War I.
Borges’s narrator asks for clarification, and the man, a South African named Daniel Thorpe, responds: “What I possess … are still two memories—my own personal memory and the memory of that Shakespeare that I partially am. Or rather, two memories possess me. There is a place where they merge, somehow” (Collected Fictions, Kindle edition). Of course, the boon is accepted.
Despite his unusual situation, Thorpe is not a particularly distinguished scholar – in fact, he admits his gift has produced work that garnered only mediocre reception – and Sörgel finds “that his opinions were as academic and conventional as my own.” Yet sure enough, as time passes, Sörgel discovers himself muttering bits of unknown Chaucer, pronouncing familiar words in an unfamiliar cadence, and dreaming of the faces of men he half-remembers as Chapman, Jonson, and a nameless neighbor, “a person who does not figure in the biographies but whom Shakespeare often saw.”
Sörgel’s situation is in some sense a literary critic’s dream. He has achieved ultimate access to the “real” Shakespeare, a kind of “first-person” Shakespeare that creeps on slowly but is nevertheless felt as immediate, effacing the normal reconstructive and mediating practices of reading, archival research, and scholarly speculation (cf Bolter and Grusin). Eventually, he tells the reader, “the dead man’s memory had come to animate me fully,” and he describes his pleasure at the various small details of Shakespeare’s work he came to understand.
Of course, things soon enough take a turn for the unpleasant. Sörgel contemplates writing a biography of Shakespeare with his knowledge, but realizes that having Shakespeare’s memory does not make him any better of an (auto)biographer, and he is ill-suited for the task. He also, it seems, becomes desensitized to the banality afforded by the memory, and eventually decides that a biography would be pointless: “Chance, or fate, dealt Shakespeare those trivial terrible things that all men know; it was his gift to be able to transmute them into fables, into characters that were much more alive than the gray man who dreamed them, into verses which will never be abandoned, into verbal music.”
It might be our first instinct to read this admission as an expression of Borges’s own formalism or aestheticism, to allow our memories of Borges’s views on art to explain their peculiar turn of the narrative to us: biographical context falls short of the pure power of poesy’s “verbal music.” Shakespeare, a “gray man,” knew the universals of human experience and was able to write them into fables more interesting than life itself. And surely such a reading is warranted, but there may be something else at work if we consider the other point at which Sörgel’s gift proves a curse.
In time, Sörgel begins to forget who and where and when he is: “I noted with some nervousness that I was gradually forgetting the language of my parents. Since personal identity is based on memory, I feared for my sanity.” Indeed, his memory is not separate from Shakespeare’s, but the two intermingle, leading to increasing moments of confusion and panic: “One morning I became lost in a welter of great shapes forged in iron, wood, and glass. Shrieks and deafening noises assailed and confused me. It took me some time (it seemed an infinity) to recognize the engines and cars of the Bremen railway station.”
Shakespeare becomes corrosive, eating away at Sörgel’s sense of self, and in the process not only is Sörgel almost lost, but so is his appreciation of Shakespeare. The curse is only lifted when Sörgel, dialing random numbers on the telephone, passes the memory on to a stranger who accepts the boon, as he had done before. But Sörgel discovers that he is not wholly cured. He leaves the study of Shakespeare for first Blake and then the study of Bach, but in a short postscript dated 1924, he adds that “at dawn I sometimes know that the person dreaming is that other man. Every so often in the evening I am unsettled by small, fleeting memories that are perhaps authentic.”
Like the haunted videotape in the horror film The Ring, Shakespeare’s memory is viral: infective, parasitical, and only relieving the sufferer when they pass it along to another host. Of course, the terror of Borges’s story is more subdued than that of a horror film, more philosophically and existentially oriented, but I think it might do us well to consider what the story illuminates apart from the obvious reading of Borges’s own avowed aesthetic theories.
Bruno Latour, in his critique of what he calls “the Modern Constitution,” remarks that the “moderns have a peculiar propensity for understanding time that passes as if it really were abolishing the past behind it” – he calls this “calendar time,” which “situate[s] events with respect to a regulated series of dates” (We Have Never Been Modern 68). Latour’s moderns think “they have definitively broken with their past,” but this experience of temporality ignores the way “the past remains, and even returns” (Latour 69). This is what Linda Charnes has called “the non-linear ‘events’ of affective time,” which are “events which seek, and sometimes find, their representational truth only in the non-narrativity of bodies” (“We Were Never Early Modern,” in Hamlet’s Heirs, Kindle edition). Charnes argues that the corpus of Shakespeare – textual primarily, but also the imagined body of the Bard himself – provides one arena that Western culture makes into such a site of “significant intensity,” letting us “attempt to locate ourselves as historical subjects” inhabiting a world marked by the passage of “meaningful time.”
For Latour, the return of the past is viewed by the moderns as an incomprehensible terror of “archaism,” a backsliding that, though it reverses time’s arrow, works to maintain the idea that temporality is purely linear (69). This terror is precisely what the postmodernist Borges’s story figures: by effacing the differences between past and present, Sörgel’s assumption of Shakespeare’s memory threatens both his and Shakespeare’s historically embedded subjectivities, abolishing totally the passage of “meaningful time” in favor of a “significant intensity” of pure existential panic.
Such a line of thought abuts Jameson’s critique of postmodernism’s tendency toward pastiche, or the historicist point of view that we can only really make sense of the past when we remember it is the past and hold it at arm’s length. But again, the problem for Borges’s narrator is not so much that he fails to historicize, but that the historicist impulse fails him: tapping into the unmediated past destroys the structures of meaning and feeling that allow the others around him, without such access, to produce meaningful experiences out of the past and out of literature.
What Borges’s story helps reveal, then, is that all literary scholarship is in some way founded upon what my friend Matthew Harrison has called affective anachronism, an impulse to “feel backward” (to adapt Heather Love’s term from another context). Borges does not simply say that an immediate knowledge or experience of historical context robs literature of its power, but rather that it produces a distinctly different – and, as Thorpe’s and Sörgel’s situations as perpetually mediocre scholars show, not necessarily academically fecund – pleasure in the text. It is in fact the process of feeling backward itself that constitutes viable scholarship.
The academy, it turns out, is less interested in the immediate knowledge that Shakespeare more often thought of the “moon” as “Diana” than one might at first think; in other words, the uses Shakespeare affords scholars are in fact quite distinct from what actually accessing the “real” Shakespeare might mean. Immediately “knowing” the past robs it of its generative power as a site of both narrative and affective production.
Borges’s story suggests that finding oneself in Shakespeare (or Shakespeare in oneself) is profoundly numbing, but does this mean that an academic approach to Shakespeare is a sort of narcissism, one where we’d rather not find Shakespeare, but only our own ideas? Or turning (forgive me) to Lacan, if our work as scholars is inherently narcissistic, is it defensible to say that academic Shakespeare is a kind of méconnaissance that simultaneously constitutes an image of him and yet fails to capture what we feel must be the “real thing,” a trompe-l’œil where something escapes, and that something is what makes Shax meaningful? There’s an ambivalence here, in which we want Shakespeare to bolster our ego (provide us with our examples, illustrations, proof) while also resisting us (because such resistance affords the sense that our work emerges from a set of differential matrices that gave it singularity and significance).
Let’s establish some groundwork. The Beginner’s Guide is a short art game by Davey Wreden that was named as a hot new IP for the year in a list at Destructoid. The author of the list, Laura Kate Dale, made a very weird move of first, recommending the game, then, recommending the reader complete the game quickly in order to get a refund:
The Beginner’s Guide is a weird game, in that it caused a huge splash upon launch, with many reviewers hesitant to say anything at all about it. People were affected by it, not always positively, and it clearly had a strong impact on many players.
A few months on, it’s still unclear how genuine the narrative told is, or how much we can rely on the narrator of the experience. But if you have around and hour and a half and want to be floored by an unexpected narrative, you’ll be hard pressed to do better than The Beginner’s Guide.
Just make sure to complete it within your Steam refund window, as there are legitimate reasons to want to return this game after purchase.
The reason for this, it turns out, is that the game is metafictional and presents a scenario in which an unreliable narrator (portrayed by and named as Davey Wreden himself) is supposedly showing you some unfinished products made by another game creator who has since disappeared. The story takes on some dark aspects as it becomes clearer and clearer that Wreden’s fixation on this other artist is undeservedly intimate, and the end result is a meditation on how we feel about and approach authors through their work. Dale explained her position in a later clarification:
To clarify the above statement regarding refunds, while I view this game as a work of fiction, and recommend people play it as such, many players view the narrative as an accurate work of non-fiction.
If you fall into the camp that view this as non fiction, an aspect of the narrative implies that the content is stolen wholesale from another developer. While I paid for the game and believe doing so is a morally acceptable action, what I wish to make clear is that if players disagree with my reading of the narrative and feel I recommended them an experience they didn’t morally agree with, there is a financial way to back out of that purchase.
This is not an encouragement to back out of payment due to length, but simply me pointing out that if you finish the game and believe the narrative to be non fiction, and if you believe that you purchased stolen goods, there is a way to avoid your money remaining with that developer in this very specific case.
My initial vague comment was an attempt to avoid a major spoiler for the narrative, but has unfortunately left the reasons for my recommendations open to wider interpretation.
To parse this out, then: the game is a fictional narrative that presents itself as, essentially, stolen content from an obsessed fan who has cobbled together his idol’s half-finished projects. If you believe, however, that this game is somehow nonfiction, then you should request a refund. What is bizarre here is Dale’s admission that the game is fiction and then the capitulation to a camp that reads it otherwise, as if fiction and nonfiction were a matter of interpretation.
But we’re not here to talk about Dale’s response so much as we are to talk about another response, from Paul Kilduff-Taylor, “The Beginner’s Guide of Interpretation,” which summarizes the above drama in more detail. As Kildof-Taylor goes on to explain, he understands perfectly that the game is fiction, and he sees why so many of us are eyerolling at this peculiar turn:
A few years ago, I would have just joined in with sneering at this idea. I would have said that anyone who believes The Beginner’s Guide to be a comprehensive work of non-fiction is a total idiot, and thus has no right to any kind of opinion on it whatsoever, let alone a refund.
But, aha, Kilduff-Taylor explains, he knows why things have gone so awry. The problem is what he calls “the equal validity of all interpretations,” and the following train of thought:
All interpretations of a work of art are equally valid
Truth is a component of validity
Some interpretations of a work may lead people to believe they are complicit in a crime perpetrated by the creator of the work
Therefore, such people are complicit in such a crime
Therefore they are morally obliged to ask for a refund
Thus, as Kilduff-Taylor says, if you see The Blair Witch Project and think it’s real, of course you’re morally obliged to demand the police investigate the crime. Now here’s where Kilduff-Taylor does his own strange two-step: while admitting that this is a problem, he then laments that it cannot be solved, that interpretation itself has broken:
I now think that this may be a hopeless situation which cannot be escaped. It doesn’t matter that the “non-fiction camp” is overwhelmingly likely to be factually wrong, given the entire history of fiction, authorial insertion and so on. It doesn’t matter that, I believe, a superior interpretation of this game takes into account its ambiguity and allows space for other secondary readings to explore various facets of that ambiguity. It doesn’t matter that the game itself discusses these themes and we’re all playing into its hands continually with this kind of discussion. This does not matter. All interpretations are equally valid.
It doesn’t matter who is right or wrong, facts are useless. “We’ve conflated everyone’s right to an opinion,” he says, “with the idea that all opinions are equally correct. That has happened now, and as a culture we can never go back.”
He admits to sounding like a grumpy old man, and I’m glad he does so, because what is happening here is that Kilduff-Taylor is rehearsing a bizarre version of the conservative reaction to the rise of postructuralism in literary studies: the center cannot hold! His closing statement that “We’ve already had the death of the author” and it is now “time to party at the wake of meaning” is a double lamentation for the linchpins that held discourse in place that have, apparently, been totally destroyed by some nebulous development in our culture:
This is a combination of huge social factors, like the existence of the internet and the intensely tribal backlash culture that has emerged. “Literally” means “figuratively”; every opinion must be prefaced with a statement of identity to highlight and define its subjective nature.
Nested in here and masked are complaints about social media, “callout culture,” indeed, it critically anticipates even the very fact that I’m writing this response only six hours after Kilduff-Taylor posted his article. I’m not thinking, it alleges: we’re not thinking. We’re reactionary. We have a feeling, and we act upon it. As the weird condescension suggests, we’re devolving into infantile subjectivism.
Stanley Fish, a pioneer of reader response criticism, developed the idea of the “interpretive community” to fight against the assertion that the “death of the author” rendered literary interpretation into pure subjectivism. The anecdote that most often circulates here is Fish’s story of teaching a list of names left on chalkboard to his class as if it were a poem; what happened was that, if the class decided to treat the list of names as a poem, they could produces an analysis of the text as if it indeed was poetic, despite that not being the author’s original intent.
The point to be made, then, is that meaning arises as part of a relationship between not simply the reader and the text, but a variety of readers, a text, and a variety of cultural protocols that inform the production of meaning. Fish’s “interpretive communities” are the people who have decided, okay, we’re going to treat such-and-such type of language as poetic, and other types as not. Meanings are “true” only insofar as they correspond to the parameters outlined by the interpretive community: whether it’s our classroom and our chalkboard, or the portion of the world that has decided green means go and red means stop when you’re driving. We can interpret all we like, but our interpretations are informed by outside, communal resources and circumstances, and in the end, validity of our interpretations is based on how well the community sustains them.
Let’s say something extreme and silly: I think Shakespeare’s Hamlet is about space aliens. Specifically, Old Hamlet’s ghost is not a ghost, but an alien. My evidence for this is that the ghost has otherworldly powers and is scary. The evidence I discount is, well, the text’s referral to the creature as a ghost, and the cultural history of ghosts and ghost stories Shakespeare had access to. I can believe that the ghost is an alien as much as I want, but that will never make this interpretation valid, because there is no interpretive community to support it. To put it another way: an interpretation can be “valid” insofar as a person interprets (no one can deny you that) but an interpretation’s connection to truth is a result of a community’s willingness to acknowledge and sustain its truth value.
In Kilduff-Taylor’s thinking, it seems, a multiplicity of potential meanings completely explodes, in the popular mind, any ability to distinguish between truth claims. We now, suddenly, live in a world where Hamlet is filled with aliens and also I can run down to the police station and tell them to investigate these Blair Witch murders, and even if they show me the IMDb pages of the actors involved and various making-of featurettes, because I am still entitled to my opinion. Even if there is a “superior” interpretation that takes into account facts, my interpretation is still valid. Hyperbole aside, this is flagrantly wrong.
Now, let’s say we have two interpretive communities, people who believe The Beginner’s Guide is fictional and people who believe it is nonfiction. The people who believe it is nonfiction agree in their interpretation of the text, more or less. Their evidence derives from the game itself, where the game’s creator Davey Wreden address you and tells you a story about how he took some of the stuff you’re seeing from another artist and then sold it to you. Seems pretty airtight, right?
But in doing so they fetishize the game as an object extricable from its circumstances of production and reception, namely, that we live in a culture and a market where it would be pretty universally regarded as bad form for Wreden to actually carry out the conceit of the game, let alone admit it to us, and metafiction as a longstanding tradition wherein you never trust a narrator named after the author. Yet for this camp, meaning inheres not in interpretation, but in the most glaring parts of the object itself. In the end, the author is not dead, he’s just been swapped for his persona.
The interpretive community which acknowledges the game as fiction takes not only the game’s narrative irony into account, but the extensive writing and criticism about the game and its metafiction. This community’s interpretation is more sustainable (“superior” in Kilduff-Taylor’s terms) because it enlists the game in addition to a history of and protocol for critical reception, as well as the presumed protocols for the production and sale of the weird objects we call videogames.
Kilduff-Taylor’s tired handwashing here is not so much an indictment of the problem of two interpretive communities — whose existence and cross-reference is facilitated by the internet as a mode of critical reception — as it is an attempt to escape the problem entirely. At some undesignated time before now, people just would have read the game correctly, no problem! Meaning would have been obvious, and interpretation would have been a pleasant exercise in riffing upon its verities from that point on. We’ve thus already lost, and all we can do is take solace in our own knowledge and interpretation as things fall apart.
This is disingenuous because the fact that anyone is even taking issue with the implication that Wreden should not be paid for his work is a sign that, indeed, people are not willing to let the patently worse interpretation of the game stand.
EDIT: twitter user @akatookey alerted me that the “genocide run” (as it was referred to in an earlier draft of this post) isn’t preferred terminology of the creator, which makes a load of sense. i went along with what seemed to be the prevailing usage in the community materials i found but since i now have an alternative, all instances have been changed to “no-mercy.” -ML
@WarrenIsDead heads up, the creator prefers people not use “genocide” to describe the run. It was started by an lp’er making holocaust jokes
— akaturkey (@akatookey) November 7, 2015
Undertale is a game by toby fox. it is very clever and entertaining, and filled with loads of cool characters and funny jokes. it is kind of a slog to play, because it has random encounters that lead to bullet hell segments, and these are my two least favorite types of gameplay. still, it’s worth it.
Undertale has received much deserved acclaim, but criticizing it has been something of a thorny issue. jake muncy’s review at killscreen for instance was met with a lot of derision, since muncy takes issue with what he sees to be as the unclarity of the game’s combat mechanics. the point that muncy ends up making needs to be considered, however: he is not admitting he is ‘bad at games’ — he is telling us that the game does not always clearly communicate to the player that pacifist options in combat are having any notable effect. indeed, i would add that this is symptomatic of Undertale as a whole: it is attempting to communicate a message about how to be a good or bad person in the world it presents for you, but in the end the game itself unintentionally muddles your ethical relationship to that world.
this is important because the game operates on a very unusual and fascinating moral calculus. in combat you always have the option of fighting a monster or peacefully placating them. the game tracks these decisions: killing any monster results in an eventual “neutral” ending, which gives you the option of trying again on a purely pacifist route, which will get you the so-called “true” ending. on the other hand, killing every single creature you encounter in the game results in the so-called no-mercy route. the game keeps in mind your previous playthroughs — thus the true ending is always preceded by a neutral ending — and if you complete a no-mercy playthrough, the game remembers this and, even if you attempt to do a pacifist route afterward, there are grave consequences.
there will be spoilers.
Undertale has three well written stories, but i don’t think these stories hang together. the criticism (for me at least) arises out of an attempt to consider the project as a whole: games are structured like arguments insofar as they make a series of propositions that you-as-player agree or disagree to with an eye to how these things will pay off in the future timeline of gameplay. the game (as a system) offers incentives or disincentives for various choices, and in so doing belies its own (ie, the creators’) commitment to one path over the other. the branching narratives of a game form their own sort of system that belies an argument. in the case of Undertale, the game itself embraces the notion of its various plotlines coexisting (or potentially coexisting) simultaneously as a kind of quantum phenomenon expressed through metafictional gimcrackery. yet in considering all of its possibilites as a whole, the game’s argument tends toward incoherence.
Undertale‘s no-mercy run is so incredibly tedious and difficult to complete, and the characters in the game shriek at you for being horrible so often, that these constitute in my view pretty clear disincentives for doing it. the game (and by extension its creators) are very obviously telling you you’re being an asshole, even as they allow for the possibility. by contrast, if you complete a neutral run, the game will helpfully offer you hints on how to get the “best” ending, ie, encouraging you to pursue it further and do a pacifist run. however, in the case of a no-mercy run, the game assigns you a persona of perverse willfulness in order to construct a sensible narrative for why you are carrying it out.
you play as a human child who has fallen into an underground realm of neurotic monsters. the monsters fled underground to escape human persecution, and have been plotting vengeance in their own incredibly half-hearted way for some time. things were set on this path, we eventually learn, when a previous human child fell into the underground and befriended the child of the king and queen of monsters. in a terrible tragedy, the human child and the prince of the monsters died, and ever since the king of monsters has been working to collect enough human souls to breach the barrier keeping his people trapped in the underground.
that is what you learn when you do a neutral run. if you follow the game’s prodding after that and do a pacifist run, here is what happens: you are not who you think you are. the first human child, it is implied, attempted to incite an open war between humans and monsters by emotionally manipulating the royal family, a ploy that resulted in the aforementioned tragedy. your player character’s name is “frisk” but up until this point, everyone has referred to you by the name of the first fallen child, who by default is named “chara.” in the pacifist ending, you peacefully resolve the conflict with the monsters, placate the unhappy spirit of the prince of monsters, and lead all your new friends back into the light of day. it’s nice.
if you complete a no-mercy run, you discover that the spirit of the first human, chara, is still lingering. after you have murdered everyone in existence, chara approaches you with a bargain: trade your soul for a chance to remake the world. not complying renders the game unplayable. agreeing seemingly “resets” the world. attempting to complete a pacifist run after this point results in the same ending and is mechanically no different, save for one thing. in completing a pacifist run after a no-mercy run, a brief stinger will reveal that frisk has been fully possessed by chara and still plans on taking out the surviving characters. short of messing with the game’s data, there is no way to undo this.
my biggest criticism of Undertale is that for a good portion of it to make sense you have to do the thing the game expressly does not want you to do; the implied player of the best ending just accepts things on blind faith and never questions or investigates the metaphysics of it all. doing a no-mercy run makes the best ending unobtainable. this wouldn’t be a problem, i insist, if not for the fact that the no-mercy run is the most expedient way of making sense of a few aspects of the story, namely, the role of the character of sans, and the only way to discover the nature of the original fallen human, chara.
sans is a short skeleton who maintains memories of your various playthroughs of the game through saving and reloading. this is because he was assisting a mysterious doctor with some secret experiments and now operates as some sort of guardian of the game’s timeline/reality. he will suggest the background on this only if you do a no-mercy run. you can discover roughly similar information in a pacifist run, but this requires you to save and reload several times in his presence, which is frankly obtuse since it is only through the no-mercy route that he openly admits to knowing something. though he appears to you as a moral arbiter no matter what route of the game you’re pursuing, without the hint from the no-mercy run, his anomalous knowledge seems more like a convenience than anything having to do with the plot.
yet what truly interests me here is chara. chara is the closest thing the game has to a real villain, since everyone else you fight is either confused or misunderstood and can be helped. chara is, not to put too fine a point on it, radically evil. without completing a no-mercy run, you don’t know this: you simply know that chara was not as nice as everyone thought they were. however: you are chara. what i mean is, chara is the name of the player, since that is who you name when you begin the game, long before the player character is revealed to be frisk. in other words, chara is implied to have your name. indeed, toby fox said on twitter you should name the fallen human after yourself. death of the
author notwithstanding, the implied player, from the developer’s standpoint, becomes coterminous with the game’s vision of radical evil.
in the end you are either someone who did their best to “listen” to what the game was telling you and get the “best” ending, or you’re someone who decided to be a homocidal jerk and somehow, in the process, got the fullest sense of the game’s narrative possible. i have no idea why these outcomes are counterpoised.
attempting to discuss these issues with fans of the game meant i was sanctimoniously told i expected to not face consequences for my actions. even questioning the game’s representation of this moral choice made me, in the eyes of several other players, morally dubious, or someone who cared too much about a game that was trying (and they assumed, succeeding) to make me feel bad. but i did not do a no-mercy run. indeed, the idea was unpleasant to me, since as i said, this route exacerbates what i already find tedious about the game. furthermore, i genuinely liked the characters; i have no problem with not being able to murder them. but even at the end of the pacifist run, i had questions about the world, these characters, and their motivations. frankly, without the knowledge gleaned from a no-mercy run, sans and chara are so barely outlined that they make little sense in the larger context of the game. my knowledge of no-mercy runs here is gained through perusing the wiki and LPs on youtube.
the game hid answers to my questions behind something i had no interest in doing. it’s not clear what it was trying to communicate to me in doing this. nevetheless, Undertale feels very insistent about wanting to tell me something about the nature of friendship and forgiveness and what it means to play a game. some aspects of the no-mercy run, as far as i can tell, leverage a kind of anticompletionism message: characters suggest you’re committing these atrocities simply to “see what happens” and things to that effect. and indeed, many who complete these runs are probably doing just that. but the game itself is what has married completionism to the act of murdering all the other characters. and why is it that only players who choose this path confront the real truth of chara? why cannot chara — who is you, really — be overcome?
in all other arenas, Undertale insists that conflict arises from unwarranted fear and misunderstanding. it rewards you for pacifism and forging friendships. everyone, it wants to suggest, can get along only if we’re determined enough. and yet, the no-mercy run offers the exact obverse suggestion: radical evil exists, and it cannot be expunged. if we take Undertale at its word, however, and believe its conceit of multiple timelines manipulable by the game’s save and load functions, we find that the latter possibility is necessarily latent in the former. that is to say, chara happened; they are constant through all possible narratives, and they are still there, somewhere. the game’s sentimentality runs aground on the lack of mercy it allows the player to exercise, and the subsequent lack of mercy it extends to that player.
flannery o’connor famously said that To Kill a Mockingbird was good — for a children’s book. what she meant was that the story it had to tell, while good, was also ethically simplistic. if the publication of Go Set a Watchman this year did anything, it proved o’connor right: by introducing the complexities of racism in showing a segragationist atticus finch who could, on the one hand, believe in the innocence of a black man, and on the other, insist black people in general should not exist in the same realm of life as white people, the novel revealed how dearly held the simple tale of good and evil had become to us.
at the risk of sounding terribly crass (and catty), i will reformat o’connor’s critique for Undertale. part of the game’s power is that it allows the player to feel like they’re part an intense network of emotions, spread across its cast of colorful characters. the game attaches a moral judgment to this act, suggesting being friendly, open, and merciful is the right thing to do. the stance, while not revolutionary, is certainly admirable, considering the violent tendencies of most games.
but the emotional high of making the decision to be good relies on the concomitant potential to be evil. and in order to maintain the desired sanctity of its good ending, the game suggests that there is indeed a way to go beyond salvation — a way that the game itself scripts and judges you for. the ideal Undertale player is docile, merciful, and does not question their path, even when the game presents no indication that things are moving forward. the ideal Undertale player is not you, does not have your name: you have already been here, left your dark mark, and now you must be exorcised. finding yourself in Undertale is dangerous.
my favorite character is mettaton.
Pontefract is a 2012 Twine Gothic horror game by Kitty Horrorshow. In this blog post I will talk about the game generally, but specifically my aim is to tentatively theorize how Horrorshow’s game makes use of Shakespearean allusion, what affordances its buys her as a creator, with the overall goal of opening up questions of what this might mean for us (me and my cohort) as Shakespearean and early modern scholars.
In Pontefract, the player takes on the role of an unnamed character, perhaps a knight, in a Gothic fantasyscape. You work your way through several rooms of a semi-abandoned castle, populated only by apparently undead humans. Primarily how the games works is this: you enter a room. The room is described, sometimes with occasional observable details (for instance, when entering the kitchen, instead of directly confronting the cook you can check out what she’s boiling in her cauldrons). If there is an NPC in this room, they will ignore you, instead carrying out routines (praying, cooking, being eaten by a floating horse’s head) that bespeak either their undead qualities (ie, they are zombies, not fully human, and only carry out certain deeply wired routines) or their artificiality (they are, in the most literal sense, videogame NPCs, written only to carry out certain limited, repetitive behaviors).
You can choose to interact with these characters, at which point you are presented with two options. The first is always “friendly” — you either attempt to get the NPC’s attention, or help them if they seem to be in trouble. The second is always hostile, and involves drawing your sword to kill the NPC. For three NPCs you meet — a priest, a stablehand, and a cook — choosing the friendly option will result in your character’s death.
Progression in the game involves killing these NPCs. After being slain they leave you with keys which will unlock the door to the castle dungeon. You know you want to do this — apart from the fact that a locked door in a videogame always implies the goal is to open it — due to an encounter with the fourth NPC in this section of the game, the so-called “Pale King,” who sits eyeless and presumably also undead in the castle’s throne room.
This is the only NPC with whom you have no options for interaction. Instead, when meeting him he speaks “into your thoughts [with] a hundred clamorous voices”:
HAVE I NO FRIEND WILL RID ME OF THIS LIVING FEAR? I WOULD THOU WERT THE MAN THAT WOULD DIVORCE THIS TERROR FROM MY HEART.
Somehow, you understand that the ‘terror’ of which the pale king speaks is locked away within the castle dungeon.
You take knee before the king and vow to rid him of that which grieves him so, before standing and turning to descend the stairs back to the great hall.
The line spoken by the Pale King is from Shakespeare’s Richard II, very close to the end of the play, and is curious enough in and of itself. Henry Bolingbroke has recently deposed and imprisoned the rightful king, Richard II, and named himself Henry IV; in Act V, scene 3, Henry uncovers a plot against him by some nobles loyal to Richard and has most of the conspirators put to death. In the next scene (V.4), a nobleman named Exton enters with his servant. The scene is brief, so I will reproduce it here in full for you to see just how odd it is:
Didst thou not mark the king, what words he spake,
‘Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?’
Was it not so?
These were his very words.
‘Have I no friend?’ quoth he: he spake it twice,
And urged it twice together, did he not?
And speaking it, he wistly look’d on me,
And who should say, ‘I would thou wert the man’
That would divorce this terror from my heart;’
Meaning the king at Pomfret. Come, let’s go:
I am the king’s friend, and will rid his foe.
So Horrorshow’s Pale King quotes Henry IV, but only as he himself is quoted by Exton. The scene to which Exton refers, in which the king speaks these lines, is not one we ourselves are allowed to see: the previous scene where Henry uncovers the plot against him contains nothing close to the statements that Exton attributes to him. In fact, going thoroughly from the text, Exton hasn’t even shown up prior to this point in the play.
This scene seems to pointedly highlight the lengths to which the ambitious Exton is willfully misinterpreting the situation, if not in what Henry is referring to, at least in the fact that Henry is personally addressing the order to him: “And speaking it, he wistly look’d on me, / And who should say, ‘I would thou wert the man'[.]” (Compare Horrorshow’s: “Somehow, you understand that the ‘terror’ of which the pale king speaks is locked away within the castle dungeon.”)
Indeed, the play ends with Exton presenting Henry with Richard’s corpse and Henry, horrified at what has been carried out in his name, disavows himself of Exton and the act committed for his benefit (though, of course, he does benefit).
In Horrorshow’s game the command is given directly and unambiguously, placing us in the shoes of a character who is and is not Exton. It should come as no surprise to a player familiar with Shakespeare that when you venture down into the dungeon what you find is a weakened, miserable figure “you” immediately recognize as the “rightful king.”
Again you are presented with a choice: to peacefully beg forgiveness from the rightful king, or to kill him. As before, the peaceful option proves ineffectual, but this time, not because it kills you. Rather:
You attempt to kneel before the rightful king, ready to apologize for your wrongful deeds and vow yourself to his cause, but your body resists you. The castle shudders and the walls begin to wail, and your head is filled with the lurching, ragged language of the stones.
NO. KILL HIM.
At this point you again have the same choice, and the only way to move forward is to kill the king. The game ends immediately after: you die as the castle collapses around you, but almost immediately you find yourself once again in the woods outside the castle gates, preparing to enter. The implication, perhaps, is that you are no different than the creatures that trace their endless, undying routines within the castle walls: as a player, you are finally robbed of the agency the game has dangled in front of you at every turn with its false choices, and you are at last subsumed into the machinery of the Gothic landscape.
Appropriately enough, Horrorshow’s hypertext game seems to adapt and extend Gérard Genette’s pre-Internet idea of hypertextuality as “any relationship uniting a text B (which I shall call the hypertext) to an earlier text A (I shall, of course, call it the hypotext), upon which it is grafted in a manner that is not that of commentary” (Palimpsest: Literature in the Second Degree 5). Rather than a simple allusiveness, or even a dense and methodical rewriting (eg, as between Homer’s Odyssey and Joyce’s Ulysses), Horrorshow’s references to Shakespeare are more like the hypertextual apparatus of Twine itself: links that send us outside the text, or into another text, or a different part of the same text, but which do not do so to make a claim about Shakespeare or Richard II. Rather, both texts become hypertexts, existing in tandem or parallel, creating a space for thematic echos and reader (re)orientation.
Exton makes a choice; we do not. Exton must interpret what he will do; we must interpret what we have done, if we have done anything. It is Exton who allows the play its end, and despite his abjection, the consequences of his actions haunt the rest of Henry IV’s reign. Our actions have, perhaps, no lasting effect in the larger context of the game’s endlessly looping plot, as we are simultaneously trapped within and enabled by the haunted house that is the game’s architecture. Apart from Shakespeare, then, I would say Horrorshow’s game is commenting on the heroic power fantasy of videogames and the exhausted narratives of aggressive but ultimately impotent of bloodshed they often foster.
As a matter of fact, Horrorshow’s original post about the game makes no mention of Shakespeare at all, and so it’s possible many who played through it did not note the allusions if they had no foreknowledge. The game is deeply allusive, but the allusions only “activate” for a player quite attuned to Shakespeare’s play — and nevertheless, the allusiveness is not present in any way that would seem to lessen the enjoyment of a player who didn’t know Shakespeare but who was very familiar with the Diablo game franchise, text adventures, or someone who wanted to poke around a haunted castle.
Overall, the game draws deeply from Shakespeare while also meticulously managing the impact of its Shakespearean connections through a variety of tactics, including letting its allusiveness go unspoken, choosing its allusions obscurely, or interweaving its allusions with formal misdirection. Indeed, the “living fear” Exton says Henry decries is interpreted as the deposed king imprisoned at Pomfret — Shakespeare’s name for Pontefract, the actual castle where the historical Richard II was held captive until his execution. Thus the games title is itself an allusion that displaces Shakespeare as a central, authoritative voice of historical record, underscoring the gap in terminology between our understanding of history and his.
Furthermore, Richard II is not a play that looms large in the popular consciousness, or at least, not large enough for Shakespearean capital to immediately pay off in a gaming environment as it does, say, when the text at hand is Hamlet or Hamlet or Hamlet or Hamlet or Hamlet. Indeed, the lines from Richard II in Pontefract are not the most memorable of Shakespeare’s lines; they’re not even the most famous lines from Richard II. Nevertheless, Horrorshow puts her obscure citations to work.
After beheading the rightful king, the castle appears to collapse and you hear the severed head whisper to you the game’s second direct lift from Shakespeare: “Grief boundeth where it falls.” This is not, as it happens, anything spoken by Richard, but rather a comment made by the Duchess of Gloucester near the very beginning of the play (I.2) when she is urging John of Gaunt to stand up for her husband (whose death she believes Richard sponsored), and implicitly foretelling the whiplash of political instability that will come to shadow the reign of Henry IV.
In Pontefract the player is primed for this line differently, as you descend to the dungeon and the game tells you,
The castle whispers to you.
Dost thou at ev’ry hail draw out thy sword?
From whither comes this eagerness to slay?
Thy lust for blood and anguish sees thee curs’t
These three lines of blank verse generically meld with the Shakespearean quotations, though they are not themselves Shakespeare (as far as I can tell, they are original). Thus, any player not explicitly looking for Shakespearean allusions might be inclined to read the actual quotations from Shakespeare — if they seemed somehow stylistically distinct from the game’s narrative voice — as of a piece with this verse. The final word in the quote above is a hyperlink, which takes us to a closing line:
ttO suffERRr EverR thISSs accuRRSSedd dDAyy
The styling of the text here — breaking with typographical convention to suggest the words are being spoken/thought in a hiss, or by an inhuman voice — recurs not only in her original post about the game (“P0ntteEFFraccctTTt”) but in the game’s code, where Horrorshow has named several passages after direct quotes from Shakespeare’s play in the same style:
It was not until the game was re-collated in a directory page that the author’s note made the Shakespeare connection clear, “inspired by” Richard II, which provides the reader with an introductory signpost for the allusions. I don’t meant to imply that Horrorshow is somehow “coming clean” about her allusions, but rather, the broad and subtle nature of the game’s allusiveness indicates a way of approaching Shakespeare that makes productive use of his corpus while insisting it is not the only corpus that matters.
Horrorshow’s Shakespeare is not an impeachable paragon of literature and humanity; he is the writer of Richard II as well as Hamlet, and also the author of dozens of less than memorable lines, dozens of less than memorable images. Neither is Horrorshow’s Shakespeare an academic Shakespeare, a layered site where the machinations of cultural poetics are put on display if we perform an anatomy with right critical tool.
However, there is indeed something here of the Foucauldian author-function. As Marjorie Garber has argued regarding the great dearth of personal and biographical information we have on Shakespeare, it is possibly exactly this dearth that makes Shakespeare such a literary powerhouse: “Freed from the trammels of a knowable ‘authorial intention,’ the author paradoxically gains power rather than losing it, assuming a different kind of kind of authority that renders him in effect his own ghost” (Shakespeare’s Ghost Writers 15).
Garber argues it is precisely Shakespeare’s ghostly nature that allows him to “possess” writers as distinct as Marx, Freud, and Derrida, whose use of his texts as examples for their theories means those theories forever thereafter exhibit the marks of a Shakespearean ghost-writing process. But I do not think we can say the same about Horrorshow’s game: her allusiveness is never to Shakespeare-as-such, not like, for instance, the way Freud “uses” Hamlet to explain his thesis of repression.
I would like to suggest, then, that Horrorshow and Shakespeare work collaboratively. What I mean is Shakespeare becomes not so much an author-function but an author-medium. By “medium” here I mean something akin to what Marshall McLuhan means when she says “All media are active metaphors in their power to translate experience in new forms” (Understanding Media 85). This is similar to the way in which Garber argues Shakespeare ghost-writes Freud, Marx, and Derrida — there are things these writers wish to articulate, and Shakespeare provides the vocabulary for doing so.
But it is always Shakespeare’s vocabulary. The authors work to preserve a whole and bounded idea of “Shakespeare” outside their own texts. Horrorshow’s Shakespeare, however, becomes an active but epehemeral metaphor for the experience of authorship and creation. Is Shakespeare ghost-writing Pontefract, or is Horrorshow ghost-writing Shakespeare?
Her textual use of Shakespeare blurs the boundaries between her in 2012 and him in 1595. His blank verse appears alongside hers; shreds and patches of his words appear in the very underlying structure of of the game, rewritten in Horrorshow’s own typographical idiolect, meaning nothing in situ, hidden from the player, but serving as the connective tissue between the blocks of the story.
In the end, the game is not “based on” Richard II or an adaptation, but “inspired by.” Horrorshow makes use of Shakespeare as one part of an available arsenal as a creator and — perhaps, disclosing now that my interpretation of Pontefract is as precarious as any one might offer — to express her interests and concerns regarding games and the stories of power and responsibility they can dramatize for us.
Needless to say, what follows constitutes spoilers, insofar as spoilers is a concept that applies to this game.
I made the caveat above because there is, frankly, a good chance I can tell you everything that happens in the game and it would not terribly impact your experience while playing it. The criticism the game has received has been for its obtuseness, the way its narrative simultaneously points somewhere while insistently seeming to go nowhere.
Let’s talk about that.
Epanalepsis takes place across three time periods: 1993, 2013, and 2033. In each you play, for approximately 15-20 minutes, a character from that time: a pioneering gentrifier and slacker named Rachel, a listless hacker named Anthony who lives in Rachel’s old apartment in a now-trendy neighborhood, and in the corporate dystopian future, a robotic drone that tends to humans in some sort of cryosleep in a converted apartment building. Gameplay is simple: you walk among the rooms in the apartment, look at objects or people, and receive a bit of information or dialogue.
The game is short, giving you snapshots of these characters’ lives, and it fills in background details through the oddly performative player-character frame of a point-and-click adventure game: you click on a piece of furniture and the character launches into a brief soliloquy regarding what they think of it, where it came from, and where they hope it will be in the future. In stripping out the normal complex puzzles, Kunzelman has created a minimalist adventure game that at times almost reads like a parody of the form.
In fact, the third chapter threatens to devolve into self-parody: you are a robot, a literal drone, that apparently putters back and forth in a single room all day, tending to human beings submerged in cryosleep and, it is suggested, virtual realities not at all dissimilar to more traditionally exciting videogames. You, the drone, are compromised by a group of rebel hackers who are going to use you to blow up the city-block by sending you on a suicide mission. They may or may not also be aiming to steal or destroy something called “the Von Lessinger equipment” which may or may not be some sort of time travel technology. This is never explained to you, as the humans don’t bother to explain their goals to the drone, of course, and so you putter between them and try to report their contraband (they have cut off your connections to the network for just this reason). You are supposedly diegetically controlled by a character known only as “the Inventor.”
This is a critique of the gaming format up to this point — you are reduced to a literal cog in the game’s extended machinery, tending to it, tirelessly clicking the appropriate things to help it run its course on your computer, beholden to the whims of the designer behind it — but it is also a commentary on the narrative of the game itself. Just as the drone is used by humans, the humans are being used by others for their own purposes, and these entities don’t see any imperative to explain themselves.
For, in place of the mechanical puzzles, Kunzelman serves up a narrative puzzle, one that may be intentionally broken. At the end of the first chapter, Rachel meets a stranger, a woman calling herself Tony, who makes odd intimations about time, the future, and the nature of the cosmos. These intimations are similar to ones Rachel received earlier, from a red-cloaked man in a dream, who left her with an object he calls “the Burden,” which appears to be some sort of book or paper — unreadable to Rachel — that morphs into a blinking eye just before she wakes up. When Tony has said her piece, she disappears and Rachel is left with a choice. After making the choice, the chapter immediately ends. In the next chapter, you play as a man named Anthony (an odd coincidence!) who also meets the cloaked man (Pasus) and a cloaked woman (Cascabel), the latter of whom may or may not be Tony from the previous chapter.
At about this moment in my first playthrough I began to detect the influence of Gene Wolfe, who writes in a similarly elliptical way, suggesting that characters you meet are and are not who they say they are, or who they appear to be. But a difference arises: Wolfe writes narratives that are seemingly inscrutable riddles but which always have solutions. There may be several and divergent interpretations, but Wolfe, late modernist that he is, gives you always enough tools to build an interpretation.
In Epanalepsis, solving the riddle in a Wolfean fashion is frankly impossible. I received Kunzelman’s notes on the game as a reward for the tier at which I backed the Kickstarter. Reading through them after my playthroughs, I confirmed my suspicion of Wolfe’s small influence, and in reading through Cameron’s notes, I discovered some information that would have “solved” the game’s riddle, had it been included. But to what degree do these notes, always referring to an in-process creation, sometimes obviously diverging wildly from the product itself, really explain what happens? Does such information, since it is not contained in the normal course of gameplay, even count toward an interpretation? I here belie my own formative immersion in New Criticism, and my own feelings as a creator: everything I put in a game is there for a reason, everything I leave out I leave out for a reason. Who’s to say the same about Kunzelman? Or am I just, again, in a different way, scooped up by the Inventor’s guiding hand, tossed back and forth from one frame of reference to another, looking for the continuity that will bring them together, reveal them as commensurate, and make my puttering back and forth cogent and meaningful?
I cannot tell you what I thought the game was about before I read the notes, now, because my knowledge is hopelessly inflected. I did not write down what I thought in a coherent fashion before I read them, and so I can’t honestly provide my account of what the game looked like from the inside, because now I know what it could look like from the outside.
Before reading the notes, I did do my best to squeeze what I could out of the game itself. I played through several times and plotted characters on a sheet of scrap paper, searching for anything that might crack the narrative code, but found none. The closest I got was the beginning of Anthony’s chapter, which is presented as an MMO, a game-within-a-game.
Anthony hopes to make a boss-run, but his friends are not logged in, so he courts randos outside the boss’s lair. A player agrees to help if Anthony will help him collect mushrooms, and so of course he does. During this segment you pass in front of the door to the boss’s lair, what the contextual label of the game calls a BAWSS GATE. Behind the gate and its wall, you can see a high tower with a single light on.
Unless it’s a bug, there’s no information about this gate or this castle. It is simply a BAWSS GATE, and there is something sitting beyond it, something in that tower, waiting for you. But no matter how much you click, no matter how many mushrooms you collect, you never receive any sort of flavor text. Anthony has no reflections, fears, hopes about this thing — as far as I know, it’s the only object like this in the game.
This is Epanalepsis writ small, by way of Kafka’s parable about the gate and the Law: the Boss resides here, beyond this gate, high in its tower. It is the endpoint, the goal, the summation, the thing that traditionally marks progress or an endpoint to a game. It is what we like to think would make the game cohere, and in Epanalepsis it is something about which we will forever remain ignorant. So the Boss toils on in its work, just as Cascabel and the cloaked man, Pasus, toil on, as well as the cursed old man Abhar Lama in the forgotten-or-yet-to-come reign of Emperor Eskar Lekkak, writing in a book that waits to be read, all of them meeting (as they say) our player characters again and again, watching them make choices that sometimes change, sometimes do not, and which nevertheless do not seem to free any of them from the mobius strip of the game’s narrative: a mobius strip we are told exists, but whose curves we never actually see…
…unless, of course, like Pasus and Cascabel, we slip through the walls of that narrative, step outside of it, and read a book, a certain book, and glimpse more broadly the bends and folds of time, development, and choice. And yet, even then, again like Pasus and Cascabel — who are lost, apparently, who say they are searching for someone they cannot reach, a figure they call their teacher — we are unable to pin ourselves and others down in a narrative that resolves in a way we’d like, knowing but not omniscient.
The following is the text of a brief talk I was invited to deliver as part of the opening graduate student roundtable at the Indiana University Interdisciplinary Graduate Conference on March 26, 2015. The conference theme was Breaking Futures: Imaginative (Re)visions of Time, while the roundtable theme was “Digital Humanities in Practice.” I was joined by Lydia Wilkes, Mary Borgo, Whitney Sperrazza, and Erika Jenns, whose talks provided grounding for a rich dialogue for the many overlapping “digital” futures of the humanities, both in the classroom and in research. It was a wonderful experience, if you want to see more from the conference, trawl the hasthtag #IUIC15 on twitter to see the archive of live-tweets.
“Are you available for in-person office hours?” is a question I receive, in various forms, at least once a week.
For the past ten months or so I’ve been working with Lydia Wilkes and Justin Hodgson to build and implement an online version of English W-131, the intro to composition course most of the graduate students in here in the English department teach or will teach at some point. This semester has seen the three of us piloting the course, personalizing it based on the framework we built collaboratively. It’s my first time teaching online and, as such, has given me a reason to stop and reflect on what it means to practice digital humanities in the classroom; here, for me, the issue of the digital humanities necessarily emerges in the space of the online humanities classroom, since it raises questions about the technologies we use to facilitate education not only in face-to-face interactions, but how those technologies necessarily do or can reconfigure facilitation across greater spatial and temporal boundaries.
I’m not sure if before this semester I would have called myself a “digital humanist.” Frankly, I’m still not sure that’s a label that I’d embrace. Part of this is because – to put in it in the pithy and cynical way I developed when I was an undergrad – what will happen with the digital humanities is exactly what happened to the cellular phone: just as the latter became simply a phone, so too, I think, technological and computational creep will eventually become par for the course for doing any sort of work in the humanities.
Despite my suspicion that something about this still holds true, I now recognize that my too-cool-for-this-English-major-senior-capstone bon mot enacts a form of what Mark Sample last year called “facile thinking” about the digital humanities. Though he uses this phrase to refer to the strawmen arguments of many DH alarmists and skeptics, I think it could also characterize the tacit way in which I rendered myself and the field unto the DH geist.
“[F]acile thinking strives to eliminate complexity,” Sample writes in his blog post on the subject, “both the complexity of different points of view and the complexity of inconvenient facts.” By contrast, he says, the digital humanities and writing on them needs to evince more “difficult thinking,” a mixture of “evidentiary-based reasoning” and acknowledgment of divergent perspectives that adds up to what he calls a “rational empathy.” In other words, by consigning to an inevitable digital ascent and assimilation, I primed myself to overlook the oddities and complications encountered in this transition. For my students especially, the emotional and material stakes of education are far weightier than smartphones.
So, then, back to my opening, which by this point you may have forgotten: “Are you available for in-person office hours?”
I commute into Bloomington irregularly. In this way, teaching online has been something of a relief for me, so my office hours are usually also online. However, because occasionally I do have to be in Bloomington, and because the students in these pilot courses are all on campus, sometimes my office hours are in-person. What I discovered, however, is that my students want to meet me in person far more frequently than, first of all, they actually can, and second of all, than I have ever experienced in my time teaching in a face-to-face classroom.
I assumed students who were okay with taking an online course that met once a week via videoconference would be okay with having office hours in a similar format. One has to imagine, at least, that they feel comfortable enough with technology to take the plunge on the online course, anyway. What I discovered, however, is that digital office hours are the most unpopular type of office hours I have ever had. In fact, the only times students have met me in digital office hours are when I have explained to them that I wasn’t going to be on campus any time soon.
Indeed, another thing I have discovered is that the students in my online course are far more anxious about technology in general. If an assignment or module posts with a typo or misdirected link, within an hour I’ll receive at least three emails – usually sounding mildly panicked – asking me for clarification and guidance. When students take online quizzes and browser issues or an accidental page reload wipes or otherwise malforms their work, I receive lamentations explaining what happened, hoping I’ll be merciful. The stakes in these instances are relatively small – a pietá over, at most, two or three points in a class scored out of 1000 – but the students’ frustration with the system is often palpable. The obvious thing that has happened is that the technology has become more central in the students’ experience. Rather than supplement my in-class lectures, the LMS is now the primary way of completing work. When the tool fails, the student’s immediate fear is that, from my perspective as an instructor, this is also their failure. These classroom technologies become more conspicuous as things that separate the students from the class and what I suspect they understand as the “real” me.
To provide evidence for this last assertion: the desire for in-person office hours is often framed by my students as a need to find out what “you” really want. This is familiar rhetoric: I’ve heard it before in meatspace classes. But I’ve heard it more frequently, and with a stronger valence of confusion, with this online course. One student told me she wanted to know about what she called “your ideals,” and explicitly stated she felt like the online nature of the course had kept her from finding out what I wanted on our assignments. Again, this is not a complaint unique to online coursework, but I think it’s important that in this scenario, technology can and does take the fall.
In the preface to his 1659 translation of the Czech pedagogue John Comenius’s Orbis sensualim pictus, one of the first illustrated textbooks, English humanist Charles Hoole explains how the innovation of adding pictures to the book, alongside parallel vernacular and Latin captions, will allow students to pick up Latin much more easily and quickly than ever before. The reason for this, he argues, is that the sensual quality of the illustration and a preexisting knowledge of vernacular English allow the student to ground the Latin in a personal, experiential reality inaccessible when one is simply laying out grammatical rules. This is incredibly important for Hoole, as he writes it is “the very Basis of our Profession, to search into the way of Childrens taking hold by little and little of what we teach them, that so we may apply our selves to their reach” (sig b1v).
What strikes me is Hoole’s commitment to the needs and limits of his students, based on a generalized sense of their day-to-day experiences. The basis of our profession, he says, is to “apply ourselves to their reach” – to meet them halfway, and then move further along together. I am reminded, actually, of Lisa Spiro’s argument that what defines the digital humanities is not necessarily the computational analysis of texts, but rather “collaboration, openness, and experimentation” as it is afforded by new technologies (“This Is Why We Fight”). I am not arguing that the digital humanities will allow us to rediscover some forgotten or lost element of humanistic education. But I would like to suggest that in his bid to defend the utility of the picture book, Hoole is engaging in precisely the “difficult thinking” Sample advocates, though his humanities are analog: he considers the perspectives and needs of his students and then does his best to search out technologies that will help him meet those needs, developing what Sample calls “rational empathy.” Difficult thinking about DH, at least for me, has likewise foregrounded the importance of the interactions I have with my students as they are maintained and facilitated by our classroom technologies, and how this often seems to put my students at what they feel is a disadvantage. For Hoole, studying what he calls the “representations” in the picture book is an intuitive activity, in that it is more or less the same as seeing or imagining the things themselves. The technologies at work in my online teaching, however, seem to throw into question precisely the gaps between what my students see or read, what I write on our wiki pages, and what they hear me say in our videoconferences.
I plan on disseminating a survey to my students before the end of the semester, in which I’ll ask some particularly pointed questions about their experience in the class, and try to deduce a more evidentiary basis for what is right now a hunch. What I suspect happened is something that supports the old platitude, you don’t really know what you have until it’s gone. That is, certainly my students had expectations for what an online course would be and how it would function. Maybe some of them even relished the idea of never having to see me face to face. Maybe some of them thought it would be easier than a normal course, precisely because it was technologically mediated – we must keep in mind that our students may be as prone to facile thinking about the digital as we are. But on the other hand, I recognize that I myself am an intuitive and a familiar piece of classroom technology that seems to have malfunctioned: from a student’s perspective, the online instructor is like a volume that is always checked out of the library, and can only be read in 15 page chunks on Google Books. As I continue to the end of this semester, then, I know I must work in new ways to identify my students’ reach and apply myself to it, and to keep in mind the difficult thinking we all must do – students and instructors alike – in the weeks and years to come.
2014, it turns out, was a big weird year of a lot of awful stuff and a few very cool, not so awful things. Here’s what it looked like for me, as a list of highlights mostly pertaining to this blog.
In January, I did a reflection on my relationship to HP Lovecraft and his fiction in light of his racism. I also wrote some brief remarks on an assorted collection of music videos.
A few months later, in April, I released a quiet little Twine game called Patrick. That same month I published a brief academic piece about replayability at First Person Scholar.
In May I began reading for my PhD qualifying exams, providing a little reading of some 16th century translations of Ovid and the peculiarly alienating effect the poem’s structure seems to have on certain elements of everyday life.
This was followed in June by more quals reading, with a reflection on the meaning of the figure of Guy Fawkes.
In July I went back in time and republished the first piece of fiction I ever sold, a horror story about zombies.
August saw the end of my exams reading and a loose, baggy monster of a post about the affective experience of gameplay as Ngai’s “stuplimity,” an incredibly important development for me that’s still influencing the way I’m theorizing games. At the end of August, a very awful thing happened in the world of videogames.
In September, I wrote about that very awful thing in a way that branched from my earlier piece on games and affect. I also passed my PhD qualifying exams, and since then have been chewing my nails off over the prospectus, which I will turn in this coming semester.
In October, I released a massive Twine game called The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo. The response to it was more than what I was prepared for, and certainly more than what I was expecting. I was incredibly fortunate to have Kim Parker on board for the art, and in the end we were covered in Kotaku, Polygon, Rock Paper Shotgun, Wired, The Sydney Morning Herald (?), and very recently named Paste’s #1 Indie Game of the Year. I think I can honestly speak for Kim when I say we were both floored by the incredible reception of this game, and I’ve been deeply moved by all the people who’ve contacted me personally to let me know what the game meant for them.
In November, The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo bit me in the ass. Or rather, Amazon’s cloud services did. Because of the increased traffic to my hosting, I had to move some of the sound files to Amazon’s S3 service, which did not notify me when I went well above and beyond the basic bandwidth caps for the month. However, people were again spectacular in ways I did not anticipate — and generously donated the funds necessary to help me pay my rent that month, while JayIsGames kindly took over hosting duties. UWWFN continued to exert its pull, as I guested on the wonderful podcast Justice Points to discuss the project and general social justice issues in gaming.
In December, First Person Scholar posted the transcript of a scholarly roundtable on the GamerGate fiasco in which I participated. I also made a Twine ghost story for you. And then I wrote this post.
Looking back over all that stuff, I realize I had a fairly productive year, despite feeling like I rarely get anything done and the fact that I go entire months without posting on this blog. What seems particularly intriguing to me, in retrospect, is how it clearly highlights the divergent professional and scholarly interests that are increasingly coming to define my work and my presence — Renaissance drama, the study of literature and culture, the study of games and contemporary digital media, and the production of artifacts in those media that, in strange ways, reflect my attempts to bridge the gaps of the discourses I am constantly trying to navigate.
It was not a year I expected, but I don’t this was a year anyone expected, or hoped for. But I was incredibly fortunate to receive the attention and support of so many people, and I hope to pay that forward as we approach 2015.
And finally, I have to say I would not be here without the love and support of my partner, who remains steadfastly by my side even when I quote Zizek while making dinner, even when I make comparisons between her family dynamics and Shakespearean tragedies, even when I stay up until two in the morning tearing my hair out over Twine code, and even when I plowed her new car into a yellow caution pole in a parking garage in August. Without her grace and good humor I don’t know what would become of me.
Happy holidays! In the finest English Yuletide tradition, here’s a Twine ghost story for you, “the bones picked clean and the clean bones gone.”
It should take 20-30 minutes to read through, has two endings, and uses sound on the first page, as well as a few others. It was sent a few days early to folks who played The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo and either paid what they wanted over itch.io, purchased the game’s Horse Armor DLC, or participated in the Amazon Horse Armor Extravaganza Cross-Promotional Event, and their names are listed in the credits. They are very cool folks.
It has been a weird and pretty incredible year and I am thankful so many people experienced and enjoyed my art!!!