In Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, Peggy Phelan briefly reminisces on repeated childhood trips from Long Island to Massachusetts:
When my mother couldn’t stand us any longer she’d say, “Let’s have a keep quiet contest.” Whoever could keep quiet the longest won a prize. I can’t remember what the prize was, but I remember trying very hard to listen to the sound of the tires on the asphalt, the sound of my sister’s breath, the sound of the wind turning over as the car went through it. These contests had a strange tension for me, not so much because I was burning to speak, but because I thought my mother’s weary sadness might infect us and render us all permanently mute. Eventually of course someone of us would break the silence. Sometimes one of my brothers would start tickling one of my sisters. Or my mother herself would speak to my father and we’d all yell with delight to see her undone by her own game. Sometimes she’d laugh at herself; sometimes she’d say it didn’t count since she was the mother and the referee of the game, not a participant. After years of this I realized that the games were meant to be lost at least as much as they were meant to be won. No one really expected nine people to drive six hours in silence. Part of “losing” the game meant winning a certain kind of relief. A relief from the potential grief we all knew waited at my mother’s elbow ready to carry her far away from us. And knowing when to lose the game—how to break the silence in such a way that we would not break our mother’s temper—required a very specific intelligence, one schooled in the subtle calibrations of a substantive and mobile silence. An intelligence whose very expression, utterance itself, was hedged in on all sides by doubt.
In Phelan’s anecdote I see a way of articulating something I’ve said before in various places, that games criticism needs to be at least partly a theory of performance. I think, in fact, that performance can help us come to terms with the old specter of “replay value.”
Ben Abraham a few years ago ranted some about how the concept of “replayability” is a shambles. Games, he points out, are by definition replayable — but he goes on:
Could this (non) word [ie, replayability] actually be employed because authors that use it want a lazy and shorthand way to refer to a series of unrelated yet seemingly connected factors that influence whether someone is willing to endure repeat exposure to a game-type experience? Could some of those factors be ones that do not survive their exposure to the harsh light of objective analysis; do those factors not survive as concrete and measurable qualities that exist in the games themselves?
To recognise this fact would be to finally acknowledge that games are not one-hundred-per-cent whole objects of potential scrutiny, existing in and of themselves, floating in space, and uncaring as to their human interacters. That might mean would could speak about them with much less authority and even less certainty.
As a person who nominally studies drama, I’m highly indebted to Phelan’s insistence on performance’s unrepeatability — to paraphrase her in Unmarked, the way in which performance as an art-form resists the forces of reproduction of a representational economy. Every performance of a certain play is different from the one that happened the night before, or 400 years before — different audience, different actors, different props, different stage, different theater. Write-ups of performance are not the performance itself, nor is the script, nor are videos, nor are pictures.
Even a thought experiment, such as a holodeck-type apparatus that can wholly record and project a theatrical performance, fails because in its archiving the performance loses its life, the thing that makes it what it is in the moment, which ironically is the very possibility of the performance’s own failure: an actor forgets her line, a prop is misplaced, a malfunction in the lighting system causes a fire. Performance disappears itself: it is the precarious relationality of human actors, human spectators, and the multitude of nonhuman participants as they align in a particular way only once.
But in the same way that an edition of Hamlet is not a performance of Hamlet, a copy of a game is not guaranteed to produce the same play experiences for all players — and thus, replay value is not something that can be extricated from the individual player’s multifaceted relationship to the game.
I will posit, now, that the very soul of “replayability” or “replay value” in a game is the way in which the experience of gameplay itself disappears. We replay a game when the always already lost initial experience of gameplay inspires in us the desire (for a multitude of very likely personal and particular reasons) to recuperate that experience. It is precisely this desire, I think, that Abraham is getting at when he talks about the aspects of gameplaying that do not persist under the “harsh light of objective analysis.”
When we talk about games having “replay value” we tend to think “lots of content that can be viewed on multiple play-throughs” when what we really mean is “some sort of affective hook, some sort of surplus value, that will bring me back.” Very often this can get translated into “a set of conditions of performance that will result in discrete and discontinuous experiences that nevertheless reliably provide me with the type of mental stimulation I desire.” As Abraham suggests, replay value is always partly a function of the relationship between the player and the game, rather than anything intrinsic in the game itself.
Let us think about it like this. The point of Peggy Phelan’s family’s game is not to win, not to unlock content and branching paths, but eventually and inevitably to lose. Losing the game in the appropriate way is a goal in itself, an avenue for relief that short-circuits the dreadful tension the children sense in their mother’s emotional and mental state. There is not a walk-through for this game, because there is no way to win, only to move forward. The game ends so it can be repeated in the future.
The repeated performances of the game — its iterations within the family, and the relationships it was predicated upon — built on one another. It connected Phelan with her siblings, with her parents, with the car and the road, and even the dead sister whom she sensed was in some way responsible for her mother’s emotional precariousness. This is what gives the game its power, makes it meaningful — game-as-performance-as-ritual.
This is all half-thought at the moment, so I’ll leave you with a reflection on the ultimate phantom of gameplay, the equivalent of the fire on the theater stage: the discovery of a glitch.
I was 15 years old. While playing TimeSplitters 2 at a LAN party with some friends, the game fucked up in a marvelous way: my character died, the body ragdolled, but I did not respawn. I did not lose control of my avatar. I could not fire my gun (I had no gun) but, with the camera locked low to the ground, I could move my field of view and, I discovered, my position in the level. So I used my horrible, broken body to skitter and slide around on the floor of the map, spying on firefights, freaking out my friends who only caught glimpses of me before I disappeared around the corner. Eventually a stray grenade double-killed me, and I respawned normally.
I never encountered the glitch again.