In the fall of 2008 I was a sophomore in college. I had a friend who reliably purchased hot new AAA videogames, and it was our custom after dinner to retire to his room and play something or other for a few hours, rotating play responsibilities while the rest of us chatted, made remarks about the game, discussed classes and campus life, and so on.
This friend purchased StarWars: The Force Unleashed. At a certain point in the game, you are tasked with pulling a Star Destroyer out of the sky with the Force. As with so many other parts of the game, it was a lengthy quick-time event that made an elaborately choreographed scene marginally interactable. Here’s a video:
What was important about my friend’s game is that it glitched. At the final stage of the event (about 3:30 in the video) the player avatar locked into place, the icons indicating the player needed to use the analog sticks appeared, and a crackling disembodied voice commanded him to “Pull it outta the sky!”
And then nothing else happened for probably more than an hour.
The game didn’t freeze, the music didn’t stop, my friend could still move the analog sticks and influence the movement of things on screen, and every few minutes the game would remind him, as if he had somehow wandered off or forgotten, to “Pull it outta the sky!”
My friend, a tenacious game-player if there ever was one, kept at it. We watched as he became increasingly agitated, leaving him to stew in silence as our conversation drifted away from him and the television in the center of the dorm room. On the screen was something that I imagine we might only ever see again if Samuel Beckett somehow got a job writing one of the new Star Wars films: a snarling Jedi caught in cinematic stasis, a waggling Star Destroyer suspended indefinitely in front of him while the brass blared heroically all around: —We must pull it out of the sky! —Oh, but we couldn’t. —But if we did? —Could we?
I don’t know how long it took us to suggest to our friend that maybe it was a glitch, and to reload from a prior save, but this event became sufficiently notorious in our social group as to constitute its own in-joke, a tendency to shout a misremembered “Tear it outta the sky!” at one another during moments when we were feeling frustrated, irritated, or overwhelmed.
This has all been a roundabout introduction to the issue of affect and games, and in particular the ways in which videogames often seem to confound the epic and exhilarating with the banal and irritating. This precise confusion has been described by Sianne Ngai in her book Ugly Feelings, under the neologism of “the stuplime” — a bizarre crossroads of the unpleasant, thick, and “stupid” with the vast and terrifying wonder of the Kantian sublime, where the human mind is supposed to successfully recognize its own inability to grasp the totality of, say, a mountain or a storm, and then takes comfort in its own self-conscious boundedness.
Contrasted to that, as Ngai explains it, the stuplime is
…a bringing together of what “dulls” and what “irritates” or agitates; of sharp, sudden excitation and prolonged desensitization, exhaustion, or fatigue. While the Kantian sublime stages a competition between opposing affects, in which one eventually supersedes and replaces the other … stuplimity is a tension that holds opposing affects together. … Stuplimity reveals the limits of our ability to comprehend a vastly extended form as a totality … yet not through an encounter with the infinite but with finite bits and scraps of material in repetition. (271)
I obviously would like to suggest that stuplimity has something to offer the study of videogames. I am not the first person to do so; in an insightful article on “the digital sublime,” Eugénie Shinkle invokes Ngai to describe the affect of gameplay as one of potential stuplimity, of boring and repetitive tasks punctuated by moments of heightened attention, energy, and exhilaration: “…this suggests that we situate videogames in the context of the general waning of affect that is said to characterize postmodern experience” (6).
It is Ngai’s contention that stuplimity is a specific and symptomatic affect of our contemporary late-capitalist world, which is why it warrants the neologism. Indeed, if she is correct in this, and if I am correct in my hunch that stuplimity describes game-experiences with an uncanny accuracy, then the fit might be because the videogame is the late-capitalist aesthetic object par excellance.
Shinkle’s search is, as I indicated, for the elusive “digital sublime,” and in the end she asserts that stuplimity will not get us there, because in games “the two affects [ie, astonishment and boredom] are not collapsed into one another but continue to exist, in tension, as discrete categories” (10-11).
Shinkle contrasts the stuplime with Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of “flow,” which accounts for the large expanses of repetitive or abstruse gameplay we may endure without actually becoming irritated. A good example here might be how many people, at a certain time in their lives (particularly the 90s) were able to buckle down and grind through thousands of random encounters in Japanese RPGs with nary a grumble.
But Shinkle does not simply argue for flow over stuplimity, pointing out that both of them rely on an implicit notion that “the technology itself – software and interface – disappears into functionality” (8). She then turns to the issue of a game’s “failure event,” which breaks flow. This, then, is why games (for Shinkle) do not “collapse” the affects of astonishment and boredom, because a game that is “working” will result in an experience of flow. What Shinkle calls the digital sublime, then, is always ultimately an accident, a moment when the game as artifact retreats from the player indefinitely:
In failure events, both the game and the technologically-enabled posthuman self cease to exist as such. Instead, the subject is confronted with a mute technological artifact – a featureless surface that bears no decipherable relationship to the unimaginably complex workings that it conceals. Contemporary digital technology lacks the capacity for representation that allowed nineteenth-century artifacts to function as sources of awe in and of themselves. As objects, contemporary digital technologies are destined for obsolescence, their production driven less by a wish to celebrate human ingenuity than by the late capitalist imperatives of novelty and innovation. (9-10)
Shinkle’s digital sublime relies not on the hopeless muddling of boredom and astonishment, but rather irruptive moments when digital artifacts at first cast us off and, contrasted with Kantian natural phenomena like storms and mountains, we recognize them as “banal” consumer products, things made for us but which exist in some inscrutable and frankly-not-very-exciting way beyond us. (In this sense I think Shinkle’s idea resonates to some extent with Tim Morton’s idea of the hyperobject, especially as it describes the styrofoam trash that stuffs our landfills and will outlast us all.) As Shinkle summarizes, “In the contemporary digital sublime, the experience of the limitless potential of human ingenuity is
lodged within artifacts whose material existence is fleeting and insignificant” (11).
And yet I think, in the search for the sublime, Shinkle brushes past far too quickly the potential insights of the stuplime gaming experience. I find myself returning to the moment when my friend could not tear the Star Destroyer from the sky. On the one hand this is precisely the failure event Shinkle discusses, the moment when the game seemed to clam up and resist my friend’s attempts to act on it or with it, and we recognize it as banal, overhyped, mass-produced Star Wars merchandise, indistinguishable from any copy in any other Xbox anywhere else.
But on the other hand, the object was not at all “mute” — the icons were there telling my friend to use the analog sticks, the game itself kept urging him to “pull it out of the sky,” the Star Destroyer bobbed like a cork in the sea, and yet despite all of this happening, nothing actually happened.
Or rather, nothing happened in terms of progression through the game. Outside the game, my friend became increasingly and obviously angry; my other friends and I became increasingly bored and increasingly uncomfortable about our friend playing the game; in the end the experience was so affectively strong that it left its mark on our group dialect, and many years later, brought me to write this blog post.
Not only that, but games can be affectively deadening, irritating, and uncomfortable even when they work correctly. This seems to have become more pronounced lately in gameswriting, especially regarding AAA titles. Consider Leigh Alexander’s excellent critique of BioShock Infinite, which describes her dismay at encountering a gamespace that is technically excellent, artistically ambitious, and yet at the same time unsatisfying and hollow:
I’m in the land of the Vox. Some shantytown. A man stands on a crate, preaching about the misfortunes of the working class. I want to snap a picture of the juxtaposition between the way I always want to listen to him and the way I am always waving a gun in his face, and so I put the controller down and held my phone up to the screen. As I am picking the controller back up, my finger slips, and I shoot him by accident.
What Alexander describes here is not a failure state. It is the way the game is supposed to run — you are supposed to be able to shoot that street preacher. Someone somewhere in the game’s development thought, “The player may want to shoot people on the street. We won’t force it, but we’ll allow it to be a possibility.” But for Alexander — who by this point is quite disenchanted with the game, anyway — it is merely one more absurd setpiece of murder in her episodic journey through a game consisting almost entirely of instances where you brutally murder strangers on the street.
We might also look at Paul Tassi’s review of Call of Duty: Ghosts. Calling the game “modern military shooter fatigue incarnate,” the flat affect of his opening line succinctly encapsulates the stuplimity of videogames: “I’m in space. I’m shooting a machine gun, in space.”
His follow up: “I don’t know what else is left to do at this point.”
One might fairly object that these are unfavorable reviews. They are, of course, rhetorically positioned to figure their objects as stuplime; in a “good” game, or at least a game the reviewer likes, there is less attention devoted to issues like this because the player either buys into the game’s absurdity in a sincere way or the gameplay (which, almost definitionally, will be somehow repetitive) produces the “flow” necessary for “proper” enjoyment.
To further crowd an already populated essay, let me point out the phenomenon of the cynical video review — I think most specifically of Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw’s Zero Punctuation, or James Rolfe’s Angry Video Game Nerd. Croshaw’s persona as a reviewer is predicated on him being sardonically unimpressed with most games he plays, delivering his comments in a brisk but generally disinterested tone. The Angry Video Game Nerd’s format, while focusing on vintage or classic games, relies on being similarly unimpressed, though Rolfe’s delivery is considerably less manic.
In both cases the reviewers repeatedly present their positions of darkly humorous cynicism as being a viable viewpoint to take in regard to videogames. They form a counterpoint to the “hype machine” of the enthusiast press and, I suspect especially in Croshaw’s case, earn a sense of “authenticity” in their opinions among viewers. Both seem to be chronically on the verge of echoing Tassi’s weary observation: “I don’t know what else is left to do at this point.”
What is left to do? The answer is actually quite simple: review another game!
What if the tired cynicism of the video reviewers, the tone of floating distress that invades written reviews of bad games, illuminate something fundamental to the aesthetic experience of videogames?
Inducing a series of fatigues or minor exhaustions, rather than a single, major blow to the imagination, stuplimity paradoxically forces the reader to go on in spite of its equal enticement to readers give up … pushing us to reformulate new tactics for reading. (272)
Is this not how games function? Are not all games just a little bit boring, chains of “minor exhaustions,” challenges and puzzles and unfamiliar mechanics, requiring us to chip and click and press and shoot our way forward again and again and again? In reviews where games are figured as boring or bad, are we not simply seeing highlighted and disparaged the very mechanics that, in another configuration in another game, might become a part of the “flow” of gameplay, perhaps unpleasant or imperfect but “natural”-feeling enough to keep us from giving up? Might not any “bad” game mechanic, if pulled into the proper assemblage, or experienced by a certain player, come off as rather tolerable, if not outright “good”? In short, what if all games are basically stuplime?
I have already brought up the example of the JRPG as a game whose tedium might be subsumed by the trance-like state of flow. I was one of those players who experienced their share of very grindy JRPGs in the 90s, and I hold fond memories of all of them — but I question whether this was the result of flow, or rather the result of a selective memory and a selective fondness.
I certainly don’t think I have the patience to play through Final Fantasy VIII again, despite the fact that it’s one of my favorite games. I remember, in fact, being bored and irritated by extensive bouts of grinding in it and just about all the JRPGs I played. I continued with these games so long as it seemed possible to make the next non-grindy section of the game more palatable; I continued to play JRPGs so long as I had a taste for melodramatic stories about teens with nebulously environmentalist or anti-fascist messages looking sad and/or beautiful while staving off cosmic catastrophe.
This is all to say, pace Shinkle, that astonishment and boredom do in fact collapse into each other during gameplay. There are certainly instances where one is winnowed from the other: boredom overcomes all and the player quits, or those moments of heartfelt wonder and astonishment. But I would argue that, for the most part, games are experienced precisely in the middle of these two extremes. Games are filled with “gray” time — unremarkable time, filler, which we may or may not recognize as such and may or may not care about, given a variety of external factors. The game does not cede to a pure functionality, but rather the player’s affect and attention exist in tension with what the game asks or requires the player to do. (Consider the varied responses to David O’Reilly’s Mountain [scroll down to the website logos for reviews] for some rather lucid expressions of these tensions.)
My friend did not restart Star Wars: The Force Unleashed immediately because he genuinely could not tell he had entered a failure state. It bore none of the more egregious marks of a glitched game, and it had occurred in the already vastly narrowed playspace of a quick-time event, without any of the hallmarks of that event being failed. We waited so long to restart because we could not “comprehend a vastly extended form as a totality” — ie, because we were inoculated to games as complex systems designed to present challenges, to urge us to “stop” or “give up the fight,” while hiding the fact that progress was indeed possible, implicitly demanding we try anyway, that we attempt a new tactic, keep attempting the QTE, or (eventually) reload a save.
Is there, then, a fundamental way in which games teach their players to embrace a certain type of stuplimity: “Do this. Keep doing this. Now do that. Oh, you messed up — try again. Yes, again. Do it again. You may not like it, but the cool stuff’s ahead — I promise”? And perhaps the player sees it — or thinks she sees it: that cool stuff, that Thing, the payoff, the promise of affective astonishment hovering just ahead, bobbing helplessly in the air, waiting to be pulled down to her with just the right combination of button presses.