Spelunky, Replayability, and Performance on FPS

A few months back I wrote a speculative post on how performance theory can help us understand the idea of “replay value” in videogames.  I was shortly thereafter pinged by Steve Wilcox, editor at scholarly games writing site First Person Scholar, to ask if I’d like to work on something of a similar theme for the site.  I did, and so have turned out a little thing on those themes, in the context of my play of the game Spelunky.  You can go read it now!

My thanks for proof-reading the article go out to my pals Spam, Victor, Dan, and Alex Pieschel.  Speaking of Alex, he and Zolani Stewart recently started a little joint called Arcade Review, which provides some cool videogames crit that you might wanna check out.

I’d also like to thank Dr. Gerlad Vorhees for his reply to my piece, which provides me with some avenues of research that would otherwise be unknown to me (coming at games studies, as I do, rather catty-corner).

As luck would have it, Brendan Keogh a month or two back published a critique of videogames criticism that I in large part agree with, and makes in a different way many of the points my FPS piece led me toward, so that can also go into your recommended reading.  Also keep in mind comments by Ian Bogost and Daniel Joseph, as well as this thorough reflection and roundup by Zoya Street.  What Keogh is gesturing toward seems to me very similar to what Peggy Phelan advocates in her theory, an idea of “performative writing” that attempts to capture through “thick description” (as Keogh at one point calls it) the embodied experience of performance/gameplay.

Relatedly, in a few weeks (?) I’ll hopefully have another post here on the replayability issue, because there was an entire half of the FPS article that I imagined but, due to word limits and being sensible, did not write.  There’s nothing fundamentally new, but rather, I want to focus more on what it means to “performatively write” about a videogame (for my money this piece by Leigh Alexander on Bioshock Infinite is a great example, in case you’re tired of me).  But I also want to demonstrate a different kind of re/play experience that I find myself repeating for similar yet ultimately distinct ways from my account of Spelunky.  I tend to work and think in terms of illustrative contrast, so this is helpful for me.  But it will also demonstrate, I think, relayability in its more bizarre, persona, idiosyncratic, irrational mode.  This relates to something Vorhees brings up — a possible desire to escape the buying-the-next-game cycle — though as he concedes, this isn’t something we can necessarily (so to speak) bank on.

Thanks for reading!


Performance and Replayability

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.

Catachresis: A Way Too Scary Game

 Catachresis, a fygure, wherby the propretie of a worde is abused: as, Facies simillima lauro [A face most like a laurel tree], where facies oonely belongeth to a man, and not to a tree, although it doth signifye there a similitude or fygure.

-The dictionary of Sir Thomas Elyot, 1538

For a while now I have wanted to write something about Catachresis: A Way Too Scary Game by Cameron Kunzelman, which you can play for free.  Kunzelman set the stage by saying he “didn’t want to make a horror game like all the other indie horror games that are out there,” and with some self-deprecation admitted it probably wouldn’t be all that scary because one of his central influences was Ghostbusters.

How I would flip this around is to say that Catachresis is what would happen if Ghostbusters committed fully to a horror framework but remained rather funny, and also got a healthy dose of the Hellboy mythos.  So if you need an endorsement to go play it before reading further, there it is — the game should only take you an hour or so, providing you are not Way Too Scared to finish it.

Videogame horror is obviously something I have an interest in, considering my other interests of videogames and horror.  Kunzelman lives up to his ambition, I think, of making a different sort of indie horror game.

Most indie horror games work like this: there’s some scary stuff that will chase you/kill you/jump out at you, and you must navigate an environment while this scary stuff happens.  Sometimes there are Silent Hill references.  Context, if provided, is minimal or incredibly fragmentary, in the hopes of being “dreamlike” and “open to interpretation.”  In more story-inclined games there is often a distinct possibility that you — yes you, darling player — might be crazy.  Take a moment to adjust to that incredible twist of the narrative screw.

Here is what happens in Catachresis: you walk around, you talk to a demon computer, and some other things, and then the fucking world ends.  It ends in a way that I can only describe as sublime — in the Burkean sense, that of huge and terrifying and somehow beautiful.

It is horror, yes, but a more subtle, yet also more cosmic sense than what you normally get in games that deal with the genre, and certainly far more careful than what you usually encounter with the horror trope of the apocalypse.

Apocalypse from the Greek means uncovering.  In English it was rendered as Revelation, from the Latin revelare, to “lay bare.”  To tear away the veil — to show that which has been hidden.

We live in a time when these words mean the End of the World.  We are now inundated with narratives of Apocalypses — biological, ecological, technological, religious, vampiric, zombie, whatever.  The issue with this use (abuse?) of the term however — this catachresis — is that it is a slide from the original meaning of the Biblical “Revelation.”  John of Patmos had the future laid bare or uncovered or revealed to him — the Apocalypse was not the end of the world itself, but the position of seeing it before its time.

By conflating the revelation with the thing revealed, I think we foreclose on its possibilities — its immensities, for one.  At the end of Catachresis nothing is revealed in any sense beyond the basic — you find out the world is ending and then it ends, welp!  But furthermore, there is not a call to speculate as in some games, no sense that you need to piece together the mythology that has led up to this point, because the event (it is clear) is so much larger than us.  There is no uncovering, but a descent into sublime unknowing.

The second foreclosure: I suspect Kunzelman, because I can’t count on him sharing my interest in Renaissance rhetoric, is reaching for Derrida’s sense of catachresis: “the imposition of a sign upon a meaning which did not yet have its own proper sign in language” — the possibility that that apocalypse-end-of-the-world is really a new beginning of a new type of world, a world that radically decenters us in our ways of knowing and feeling but which may not, as one character suggests in the end, be unlike going home.

Gone Home: Dramatic Irony and Other Stuff

For the most part I am agnostic, if not outright hostile, to the idea of spoilers in the traditional sense — for television shows, films, books, comics, even videogames.  My usual point in this regard is that knowing what happens in a narrative does not in any way decrease the workings of that narrative.  Any story worth its salt stands up to readings that do not pivot on you not knowing what’s going to happen next.

Gone Home from the Fulbright Company, available online now, makes me eat my hat in this regard, at least a little bit.  The gist of the game is that you play a college-aged student returning home to her family after a yearlong trip in Europe, only to find the house apparently abandoned and in a state of disarray.  With a storm rolling in and all lines of communication cut, you begin searching the home for signs of your father, mother, and most especially, your younger sister.

I would argue that, at least on a first run-through (and certainly the game can handle more), it is imperative that you know almost nothing more than what I’ve just told you, for reasons I will regrettably have to explain later on, in ways that will ruin the effects I want to document.  This is my way of saying:

SPOILER WARNING.  Do not read beyond this point if you have not played Gone Home.

There is a certain type of narrative irony — dramatic irony — that occurs when characters in a story operate on information the viewer or reader knows to be incomplete or incorrect.  In Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, for instance, a young woman named Catherine Morland, absolutely in love with Gothic novels and their spooky demenses, visits the titular estate and, because she expects skeletons and dark secrets around every corner, ends up making a huge fool of herself and embarrassing everyone.  The comedy of the novel relies on the reader’s necessary disjunction from Catherine’s mindset — ie, you realize, always, that she’s being a bit of a loon.

To make a very important point very messily and quickly: Gone Home makes you, the player, Catherine Morland.

To explain: Gone Home has a happy ending, after a sense.  A beautiful, wonderful ending.  It is not a supernatural game, nor a horror game in the strictest sense, though one can make the argument that it is very much a ghost story.  As you wander your empty family house in the middle of the night, the storm raging outside, your familiarity with narrative tropes — with videogame tropes — begins to eat away at you.

“What happened here?” is a question posed by videogames like System Shock or Bioshock, necessitating you poke around an environment for clues before said environment eventually tries to kill you.  Gone Home‘s story begins with the same question, but carries it to a distinctly different end.  But on the way there the intrusions of these other narrative elements distorts what you expect the game to do — will I see a shadow on the wall ahead, hear footsteps one room over, find a corpse ragdolled on the floor of the bathroom?

But what has happened is this: because you waited until the last minute to book your flight home, your parents have gone to a couples’ counseling retreat they had planned in advance, and your sister has run away with her girlfriend in the hope of finding a better, more understanding life somewhere else.

There is more weight to these revelations than I can possibly describe.  The dramatic irony of Gone Home — and I suspect that may not even be what it can be precisely called in this instance — relies on a slowly building stress that couples with the player’s imaginative reconstruction of the events in the house, a stress which is borne not from anything explicit in the game itself, but rather a skillful manipulation of narrative and gaming premises.  Your sister Sam and her girlfriend Lonnie have held their own playful ghosthunts and seances in the mansion, all which lead into their blossoming romance.  For you, however — you the player, who have for so long come to expect these sorts of stories, these sorts of setups, to eventually wrap around and explain something grand about You the Character, why You are the only person who can Save the World — find out that not only are you not all that important, you are kind of silly, too, for expecting something so terrible to have happened.

When I discovered my father and mother were not descending, respectively, into alcoholism and extramarital affairs — as the scraps of letters and other documents I had found suggested — but were merely out of town at a marriage retreat, the sense of relief I felt was more incredibly palpable than anything incited by non-Twine games in the few years.

Even more excited I was when I found out my sister was simply up in the attic in her darkroom, waiting out the storm — I knew she was upset about her girlfriend leaving, but I could find her there, and tell her it would be okay, that I was here now, that things would be okay…

I had completely forgotten all of the evidence I’d noticed before that suggested Sam was gone.  I had forgotten entirely the point some two hours before when I thought to myself, “I bet the sister character ran away from home with her girlfriend.”

I went from room to room in the house and shut off all the lights I had left on, because I was so fucking happy that I was home, and everything was going to be okay.

My sister was gone when I got to the attic.  Of course she was.  I knew very well, from the detention notices from school I’d found, from the diary entries I’d uncovered, that though my parents loved her, they did not understand what she had discovered about herself.  Her final letter told me I had to understand.

And I did.

I cried for this game.  Not in the way I suspected one might cry for Bioshock Infinite, or for The Last of Us — the manner of  “this is sad, because Big Important Things are happening in Big Important Ways” that certain blockbuster films use in an attempt to elicit emotion.

I cried because I realized all of this would have to be explained to my parents, who weren’t going to take it well, but at least they weren’t getting a divorce.  I cried because my sister was gone, because I had missed her, just missed her, and I had never really known her.  I cried because my only available form of support to her was staying where I was, of letting her have her life.

You are left alone at the end of Gone Home.  Your family has moved on quite a bit in the year you were abroad.  Their lives did not stop at your convenience, and they won’t do that now.

Gone Home did something I have wanted a videogame to do for a long time: it made me feel like a goddamned human being.


More thoughts on videogames and tragedy

My thoughts on the “tragi-ludic” in Bioshock Infinite have continued to percolate in the back of my mind.  You’ll recall I pinned Binfinite’s innovation in this regard on making the protagonist decidedly not the player.

The results are mixed: the ending is both appropriate and not appropriate, in that we can see Booker DeWitt being destroyed by the system that encapsulates him, and yet we find ourselves for various reasons cut off from the event, in at least the affective way tragedy would require.

“I realized I can’t think of a tragic videogame,” a friend said to me after he read that piece.  “Videogames are all about accomplishment.”

I have been pondering this.  Is the so-called catharsis at the end of tragedy itself a type of accomplishment, and if so, how would we create a game that makes this a goal while remaining appropriately tragic?

In other words, is it possible that a game could, while not necessarily distancing the player from the avatar, spring upon them the moment of anagnorisis where not only is the encroaching catatrosphic failure inevitable, ordained, and perhaps for some arcane reason deserved, but in fact make the player desire their own failure?

I think Porpentine’s Cyberqueen, which deconstructs the videogame power fantasy, moves in this direction.  But is the game tragic?  Perhaps not.  It is definitely horrific, but I would actually say the tone of its ending arguably triumphant.

But we move now into a fuzzy, and from a certain perspective, kinky territory: how to recognize the failure we crave when, in our grasp, it feels appropriate, earned, an accomplishment?  The fact that the player is  being mind-controlled by a homocidal dominatrix AI at the end of Cyberqueen perhaps speaks to this issue in an unexpectedly meta way.


The Tower of the Blood Lord

I mentioned a while ago that I was going to make a twine game (ie, a hypertext game) about a haunted house, which is a thing I still have in the works.  But in the meanwhile, I’ve made a twine game called The Tower of the Blood Lord, which is based on the time I played the first twenty minutes of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.  Obviously 20 minutes isn’t a lot, so you’ll have to forgive me for some of the liberties I take with the game’s overall narrative arc.

Play it online here.

I figured it’s probably appropriate to lay out some of my thanks and acknowledgements for this project in this space.  I’ve been playing a lot of twine games lately, and they’ve all taught me something about the form (though there’s much more yet to learn, I know).  The first one I played several months ago, for the record, was Mastaba Snoopy by gods17, and I instantly fell in love both with that story and with this platform.

Porpentine‘s work in twine is basically some of the best there is.  Of particular influence on Blood Lord was the rightly famous Howling Dogs, though she does amazing work all the time.  Some I want to point out: All I Want Is for All My Friends to Become Insanely Powerful is beautiful and weird and makes me super stupidly happy every time I play through it.  There’s also (very NWS, and also triggers for some sexual violence, regular violence) Cyberqueen, which is terrifying and darkly hilarious and disgusting and the best System Shock sequel we never got.  J Chastain’s Rat Chaos also moved me in the weird surreal seriocomic way all of Chastain’s work does.

Leon Arnott does a lot of Twine-specific coding, and I’ve used plenty of it in my game.  I explained to a friend that while I was writing and testing it often felt like I was walking into Arnott’s office and digging through his desk while he was too busy doing a sudoku or something to notice me.  Anyway, he has his own usual and striking games.

Very, very good examples of twine games with less of a direct influence on Blood Lord include Anna Anthropy’s Aegis Wing and Conversations with My Mother by Merritt Kopas.  Just in case you were wondering.

Other influences on Blood Lord: Metal Gear Solid, because of videogame military magic realism, John Milton for describing how angels have sex in Paradise Lost, John Crowley’s 600-page fairy tale Little, Big, which I am about two-thirds through and it is rattling in my head a lot, and lastly, the newest album by the Handsome Family, Wilderness.

Also thanks to my friends Spam and Victor for the reading and debugging they did with Blood Lord!!!!

King Lear and the Blank Page: Reflections on Tragedy, Videogames, and Bioshock Infinite

I have talked about the Bioshock series before, briefly, and only in relation to its first sequel. My opinion there has softened somewhat — I think Bioshock 2 wasin the end, a warmer project than the coldly high concept original, as Richard Corbett has recently argued.  But since we’re back to Ken Levine and the original dev team with the recent Bioshock Infinite, I thought I’d pick up the rubric I implied in my earlier brief mention.  Namely, I hope to ponder in some 3000 words what Infinite can tell us about tragedy and videogames.  Needless to say, there will be some heavy spoilers from here on out.

It seems to me that any sensible videogames criticism would have to take into account to greater or lesser degrees issues of both affect and performance.  Performance allows the critic to account for the sometimes spontaneous, ephemeral (“emergent”) nature of gameplay, the thing which disappears after it’s transpired and may not ever be reproduced.  The study of affect, meanwhile, would allow the critic to assess the relationship between the player and the ludic apparatus: do they care for this character, is this combat sequence frustrating, and so on.

I admit that this is difficult, something of a pipe-dream, and I am my own test subject.  I also admit that “performance” will be less tied to the gameplay itself in this essay, since the gameplay in Infinite tended to float under my radar.

The affect, however, will be thought about in detail — and so I will be thinking about how this game performed emotions for me, how I performed them in return, and what this means for the ludic experience, particularly — as my title suggests — as it concerns the idea of tragedy.

I. I am not Booker DeWitt.

“The refusal of closure is always, at some level, a refusal to face mortality. Our fixation on electronic games and stories is in part an enactment of this denial of death. They offer us the chance to erase memory, to start over, to replay an event and try for a different resolution. In this respect, electronic media have the advantage of enacting a deeply comic vision of life, a vision of retrievable mistakes and open options.”
-Janet Murray

Booker DeWitt is a troubled man whom I don’t particularly like.  He’s a gambler, something of a drinker, and he seems vaguely aware that race relations in the early 20th century are not ideal but is not particularly angry about it.  At least, not enough to try to change things.  In the hours I got to know him, I found out quite a bit about Booker DeWitt: nothing that made me like him more, though, and at least one thing that made me disgusted with him.

But, in the end, I also felt… sad for him.

The Janet Murray quote up above, from her 1997 book Hamlet on the Holodeck, has been quoted often by various people and, I will be quite frank, is rather a relic of a certain older generation of critics who don’t quite seem to have the same relationship to videogames as someone my age does.  I do not enjoy playing as Booker DeWitt in the way Murray seems to expect I should; it is not exhilarating to be him, he provides no Grand Theft Auto-style release of carnage.  In fact, I agree with Leigh Alexander, who in this excellent piece describes how she found the combat of the game ultimately tedious and disheartening.

But I lead with Murray because she still manages to illustrate what I think has been and continues to be one of the prime sticking points of games and their criticism: many games contain “a deeply comic vision of life” that is implicitly not worth taking seriously, because it is escapism — from the dreary workaday world, from mortality, whatever.  (I would say it is worth quibbling with this persistent bias against the “comic vision,” but at a later time.)

Within the past few years — nearly the last decade, really — we’ve started to see games that nevertheless are grasping toward tragedy.  This very short, very rough writeup is my attempt to think through the ways they’ve done this, and in particular, how Bioshock Infinite resonates within the genre, largely construed.

Primarily videogames that fall into this category — which I will term, I guess, the “tragi-ludic” — aspire toward tragedy by asking serious questions about human nature, often with recourse to their own formal elements qua games and the relationships they forge with the player character.

For instance, in 2007 the original Bioshock revealed that the player-character had been, diegetically, a mind-controlled puppet throughout the course of the game, foregrounding the absurdity of the actual player’s own conditioning to the directional cues usually employed by videogames (pick up this, go here, kill this, etc).  The essential thrust of Bioshock is that something terrible has been done, and the player is implicated.

Brendan Keogh in Killing Is Harmless sketches a rough idea of the so-called “post-Bioshock game,” a game which is aware that it is rail-roading the player into making certain unhappy choices and is nevertheless insistent on reminding the player that by continuing to play the game, they share culpability (like Spec Ops: The Line).  Cameron Kunzelman takes a view of the post-Bioshock game I find more amenable, one that at least allows for an alternative to endless Brechtian shaming of the player: Infinite, as its own post-Bioshock game, “is a moment of reconciliation and cooperation–not ‘we are glad you are here to save us all’ in a classic (and non-reflexive) games sense, but instead a ‘we are all in this together’ mode.”

Overall Kunzelman asserts that Infinite reaches a level of maturity most videogames lack, and I basically agree with him.  Of course I must now qualify “maturity,” because there is plenty of objectionable and ridiculous cartoonish stuff about Infinite in practice.

So I will be specific: what I mean by maturity in this case is the ability to take seriously precisely the things which, according to Murray, “electronic games and stories” let us disavow: things, like, for instance, death, and our lack of choice in the matter.

You die at the end of Bioshock Infinite.

II. Sides of the same coin.

Or, rather, you don’t die.  Booker DeWitt, the player character, does.  I want to emphasize how incredibly crucial this is, because it is by no means the only recent big-name game which killed off the player avatar in the end.  Whereas Commander Shepard was a deeply personalized avatar, though, Booker refuses to be a cipher.  He is a character, an entity of the game independent from whoever is playing him.  It is this fact, I think, which allows Infinite’s ending to be mostly successful while Mass Effect 3‘s was widely reviled.

Murray, I would wager, is half right: there are certain types of games, the ones in which we as players are led to identify most strongly with our avatars, which — due to our deeply personal affective investments — seem to demand a comic resolution, a certain postgame infinitude (shall we say) for the characters we have worked so hard to make ours(elves).  (I think here also of the original ending to Fallout 3, and the DLC remedy.)

In the original Bioshock, where the player-avatar (unnamed in the game) functioned as basically a cipher for the player, a certain affective investment was similarly fostered — and, it turns out, skillfully deployed in the “Would You Kindly” twist.  Though the avatar in Bioshock was not customizable a la Shepard, there was still a way in which the plot’s grand existential prank on him was also the game’s existential prank on the player.

But after the plot/game calls out the avatar/player for following its carefully laid rails, the player obviously would not want to continue — but, given the nature of the medium, there’s no choice.  (Keogh mentions the ability of the player to turn off the game console, which is indeed a viable exercise of the player’s agency but seems something of a dead end.)  The end of the game gave us a player-character who apparently had learned nothing, while the player herself would be all too conscious of what had transpired, and desperate to choose something different.

Infinite resolves the original Bioshock’s deadlock by removing the question of the player’s “choice” from the game almost completely.  Admittedly there are some moments that allow the player the purely cosmetic option to, as Austin Walker puts it, become “authors of tone, aesthetic, and character.”

This does not mean the player ever fundamentally changes who Booker is, but they are allowed small moments of influence: where to toss a baseball during a despicable public execution sport, which brooch Elizabeth should wear.  Walker is correct, I think, in highlighting these moments as particularly useful not for changing the game per se, but rather in establishing a certain surplus connection between Booker, the player, and the game-world.  Paradoxically, to be truly meaningful the choice itself must be meaningless: unhindered by possible metagaming or worrying about stat-bonuses, the game provides the luxury of an illusion of choice, choice for its own sake.

This makes the intense, later moments of the game all the more notable for the ruptures they introduce between Booker and the player, when Booker chooses what he wants at the expense of the player’s desire.

During the scene in which Booker drowns the mad prophet Comstock — echoing at least narratively Bioshock’s mind-controlled murder of Andrew Ryan — the game simply does it in a cutscene, because this is a murder Booker wants to commit.  But Comstock was on the verge of revealing something — something Booker doesn’t want to hear, not yet, but which the player quite definitely does.

Before Booker realizes the truth  (that Comstock is a version of himself from an alternate reality) he sets out to kill him “in the crib,” to which Elizabeth asks — hesitatingly, knowing more than she says — if this is what he really wants.

If, by this point, you’ve pieced together what’s coming — and I had — it does not matter what you think Booker should do, because he’s made his choice, and this is not a game about what you want, but about what he wants.

Against all sense, all reason, the character is pushed toward his tragic end — and the player is drawn along in his affective wake.

III. Tragi-ludic?

If games — at least as Jane Murray sees them — are innately comic, then what must happen for them to become a tragic medium?

Tragedy, by at least one definition, is a terrible thing.  It excites unpleasant emotions which, paradoxically, gives us some amount of pleasure.  We do not want to be the tragic character, but at the same time we recognize in, eg, Oedipus one who has taken the brunt of the truth for us, paying the price for exposing the comfortable lie upon which his world is built.  This is what he was meant to do; we never allowed him a choice.  It is the role that he was, so to speak, born to play.

This is the problem of the one and the many.  How can one being’s particular troubles speak to a multitude?  I would argue that this does not require an identification with the singular entity — with Oedipus, with Booker DeWitt — but rather a particular sort of affective investment from the spectator/player, one that recognizes the terrible, self-destructive agency of the other and appreciates it not only despite but because of its alien nature.

In the context of the tragi-ludic videogame, this suggests a need to both maintain and elide the player/avatar connection in ways different than those one would find in film or drama.  Tragedy largely requires the spectator to understand the characters in the fiction as independent entities, at least insofar as they are subject to individual terrible ends based on actions partly of and partly not of their own doing.  The issue for the tragi-ludic, however, is the tendency for the players of videogames to see their avatars as extensions of themselves rather than as characters.  Overidentification would render the tragedy absurd or, from the player’s standpoint, “unfair.”

Does this mean that any game that aspires to tragedy must divorce the player from the avatar?  My argument is tending this way, but it is nothing I would assert wholesale.  Nevertheless, when a character like Commander Shepard is meant to be our wish-fulfillment fantasy, it makes us angry when we are forced along the rails of a heroically tragic ending for which we were never prepared.  Killing “my Shepard” is like killing me.

By contrast, killing Booker DeWitt was killing Booker DeWitt, and Zachary Hale Comstock to boot.  And Comstock notwithstanding, to repeat myself: Booker DeWitt was a troubled man whom I didn’t particularly like.  In the hours I knew him, I found out quite a bit about Booker DeWitt: nothing that made me like him more, and at least one thing — selling his daughter — that made me disgusted with him.

But I saw him realize what he was, and though he could not change, not entirely, I saw him try to make good.  So nevertheless, in the end, I also felt sad for him.

Sad at the life he lived, and the death he faced, all the lives and deaths with which his were ignorantly entwined, the lives and deaths that were not mine but which, in some nebulously way, I briefly shared.

But perhaps not sad enough.

IV. A Tear

“My brother has presented me with an ultimatum: if we do not send the girl back from where we brought her, he and I must part. Where he sees an empty page, I see King Lear. But he is my brother, so I shall play my part, knowing it shall all end in tears.”
-Rosalind Lutece

It is coincidence, I wager, that a tear (as in, a tear in the fabric of space-time) and a tear (as in, a drop of water gathering in the corner of your eye) are homographs.

I did not cry at the end of Bioshock Infinite.  But maybe some did, because I could see, very faintly, why I would.

Let me use this as a point of transition: If there is a character who truly comes anywhere close to being a player analogue in the game, at least in my experience, I would say it’s actually two characters.

Robert and Rosalind Lutece, quantum physicists and quasi-dead trans-dimensional siblings and Stoppardian observers, embody the analytical stance the player can take when distanced from Booker’s first-person narrative.  It is implied that they have run a high number of Bookers through a high number of trials, what you see during the playtime being only one turn through the rat-maze.  They are experimenting, though they are somewhat agnostic on their outcomes.  What is different this time, they wonder, and what will change because of it? (Very often, it seems, the answer is: nothing.)

I realized, in retrospect, that I play games the way the Luteces wander through the world of Bioshock Infinite.  I try to climb up to places I’m not supposed to, I jump in front of NPCs unexpectedly, harass them with seemingly pointless action button commands, do my best to walk outside of scripted events — not simply for the absurdity of it all, and to see not just what will happen, but to see if something will happen at all — can I escape the game in some way?

Robert believes that the bloody cycle at the heart of Infinite can and will be broken, that the destruction engendered by Comstock and his sky-city of Columbia can be averted.  Rosalind, less cheery, suggests she sees only a tragic ending.  But what tragic ending does she foresee?

The game would have you believe that she sees the destruction of New York City by Columbia’s forces in 1984.  But, given her reference to Leardoes she perhaps mean the inevitability of death and unhappiness no matter what she and Robert do?  On the one hand, NYC is destroyed.  On the other hand, a girl drowns her estranged father in a river, perhaps dooming herself to nonexistence in the process.  How can we reckon one with the other?  How does the one relate to the many?

The game is not entirely successful at this gambit.  As Sparky Clarkson wrote, “I am more irritated by the asymmetry between problem and solution.”  Is this a failed character arc?  If so, what would its successful completion really look like?

I’d say: tragedy.  In other words, this is not simply a failure of medium or character or narrative, but also a failure of genre.

Bioshock Infinite is probably a watershed in games.  It is something that will be talked about in the future.  It is something that will have to be dealt with if the medium and its field of criticism are to evolve.

It is also not perfect.  Especially not in its representations of race, of social struggle, as many have pointed out, and far better than I could.  It also, on the whole, obviously falls a bit short of the emotional mark it wants to hit.

In terms of genre it comes close to being a tragedy — almost functionally is, except for the post-credits stinger, where Booker possibly-maybe-probably awakes in a world where he never sold his daughter, and can now live in peace.  This short and (I think) unnecessary scene returns us to Murray’s claim that the comic vision of the videogame evinces the desire to “erase memory, to start over, to replay an event and try for a different resolution.”  This time, the game wants to say, this time, things will be different.

It is not a tragedy, not fully, definitely not some Sophoclean Great Tragedy.  But it is a point of transition for these sorts of narratives, and for this medium.

And so we are indeed the Luteces.  We play these games, we press their limits when we can, we see what they can do — and we wonder, what will be different this time?  Far too often, yes, the answer is nothing.

Will the circle be unbroken?

But something was different here, or at least almost different.

Perhaps this is a transitional stage.  Perhaps things are starting to change, and as a result of this game in the future something — something — will happen.

I look at Bioshock Infinite and I see a blank page.

But, looking hard enough, I notice in the center of it a single tear.

And beyond that page, on the other side of that tear, just barely visible: I see great poetry.


Game Review: Lone Survivor

Lone Survivor is the latest offering from Jasper Byrne of superflat games.  It is a 2D sidescrolling survival horror-cum-adventure game wherein you take control of a character known only as, um, you.  So you have been holed up in an apartment while the city outside was evidently overtaken by a plague that transforms human beings into gibbering, featureless flesh monsters.  You spend the game wandering around the desolate world, looking for other survivors, scavenging for supplies, eating crackers to manage your hunger, and having nightmares.

To be quick and to the point, I’d definitely recommend Lone Survivor if you want to play something different and unsettling.  The game is available via its own website or on Steam for a mere ten bucks.  If you want to know more about the game or have already played it, then go ahead and read on, as I have more to say.  If you haven’t played the game, be warned that there will be a small amount of spoilers.

As I said, I very much enjoyed this game.  However, there are some questionable design decisions (like how to get the motherfucking can opener) that can leave you scratching your head at certain junctures.  Also, while the relative simplicity of the graphics is unsettling in its own right — I think there’s some sort of uncanny primal horror for people of my generation about terrible things happening to approximations of SNES sprites — the overall corroded and dim look of environments can make certain sequences rather frustrating to play.  I’m thinking in particular of the basement chase sequence, where the various corridors are so samey that it’s difficult to remember where to turn and which direction to run.

But on the more positive side, Lone Survivor recovers what I feel is an essential problem of contemporary survival horror: player choice.  I mean like old school survival-horror/adventure player choice, things like “I want to investigate this room because it may contain ammo, but that ammo may be guarded by a monster, but if I skip this room maybe there’s also an important puzzle item hidden in a corner and and and and— ”  What I’m getting at is the feeling that the game itself is something you should be scared of, something working against you in unseen and unguessable ways.

One of my biggest issues with, just for sake of example, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, was how it made a big deal of tallying your choices in very visibly flagged arenas, which invites you to game the system.  Lone Survivor owes a lot to the old Silent Hill style of evaluation, where your play style is silently judged according to unknown criteria and you are given access to certain types of content based on your actions.  It’s not an incredibly dynamic and emergent thrill ride (there are only three endings, currently, and two of them are pretty much the same), but it also never claims to be.  If jackasses like me didn’t say stuff about it in reviews and forum posts, you wouldn’t know until the ending screen that the game has been tracking you all along.

Now onto the biggest point I want to make.  People have been talking up the game’s story, which I think is interesting, as the game is essentially sort of plotless.  It’s very similar to Braid in that there’s a collection of disparate narrative cues that refuse to cohere into a single reading, but at the same time these elements are all a lot more thematically unified and cogent than Braid’s self-aware pretensions toward profundity.  At best Lone Survivor is a seedbed for rabid theorymongering in the darkest forums of the internet, which is not necessarily a bad thing; at worst it relies a bit too heavily on David Lynch pastiche, though the Lynchian elements, when they are effective, are effective indeed.  But to assume that any game that is good — as Lone Survivor certainly is — is about the plot dodges one of the medium’s greatest strengths.  All in all, this isn’t a game about the story, it’s a game about an atmosphere, or a feeling — and it conveys that feeling well.

I didn’t have a good place to mention it in the post but “anthropocentric bag of dicks” is the best line in Mass Effect 3

So I am on Spring Break, and to celebrate I played Mass Effect 3.  I’ve written about Mass Effect before, and as I’ve said, I’m partial to the series.  I was excited for ME3, though I’d heard some things about it after its script leak that made me wary.  The good news, I suppose, is that the game itself is very good. I am going to talk it about it now, a lot, and there are going to be some pretty MASSIVE spoilers, for all three games, so you are warned.

There are still some questionable things that initially worried me: the series has always been kind of screwy with regards to sexuality and gender, and while the representation of some sexual relationships (especially male homosexual relationships) has some bright spots, there’s also the problem of EDI’s sexy robot body, and the general egregiousness of the sex scenes I’ve come to expect.  But I’m not going to focus on gender for this post.  Rather I’m going to focus on THE ENDING.

Oh, yes, the ENDING.  The ending three games in the making!  In case you haven’t heard, it’s quite controversial.  If you’re reading this, I’m assuming you’ve played the games and will know what I’m referencing, so I’m not going to bother explaining a lot.  Instead I’m going to make a fairly concentrated post on how I think this ending fails, not just narratologically (which it does, as other people have explained, though demanding a new ending is not my plan of action).  The thing about this ending, for me, is that it fails aesthetically and philosophically — to put it another way, by being so bad narratologically it fails to bring the franchise and videogames as a medium closer to art.

This mostly has to do with the principal villains, the Reapers, which when they were introduced I might have described as “giant spaceship Cthulhus.”   They stopped being this somewhat in the second game, and very definitely stopped being this in the last five minutes of Mass Effect 3, when their purpose was very much explained and, upon scrutiny, didn’t make any sense. I personally think the Reapers should rather have been presented as more recondite in origin/function, something we had to grasp at on our own. I really dig the current body-horror angle they have (and loved the Prothean massacre flashback in ME1), and the idea that they are a technological singularity dedicated to ensuring another singularity never gains traction is a compelling germ of an idea, but it was all handled very clumsily and incoherently.  While it might have done well otherwise, the end of Mass Effect 3 — wherein you are forced by some consciousness in control of the Reapers into a false dilemma among three separate choices that all have practically the same effect on the end of the game — really screws this up.

Before I continue with all these words I will add, yes, I know, this is a lot to expect from a videogame, and probably more than a bit goony. But dammit, if we don’t expect some sort of deep thinking from the medium, even if it’s pulpy space opera, how can we ever hope for it to finally meaningfully comment on human experience.


Essentially, I think there was a really cool subtext and a recurring theme of the games in general that could have been played with a bit more. The Reapers embody the philosophical knot at the heart of the series, because (as we know from the first game on) they completely override the subject’s ability to choose. At the same time they claim all power for themselves — Sovereign claims each Reaper is its own nation, and hell, that specific one is even named Sovereign.

As it currently stands the Reapers reserve the “right” to condense entire species into a homogeneous entity that is, paradoxically, sovereign unto itself but also subject to the greater Reaper collective (or that dumb little kid AI or whatever). The Reapers we encounter are so convinced of their self-sovereignty that they basically tell us “We do what we want, and your understanding or consent are not required” multiple times.

The catch is that full sovereignty — a complete state of exception — is impossible, as the above paradox of the Reapers’ thinking shows. Every individual is subject to something — if not a sovereign, that is if you are the sovereign, then you are subject to the social conditions which uphold your own sovereignty.

This is what makes Shepard important, because as a player you are ostensibly in control of the game and what happens; you are sovereign as player, but still subject to the game abstractions to get what you want, though they’re divvied up via a ridiculous morality system. The current ending even underscores how ridiculous this is by collapsing the moral distinctions that the player has come to depend upon. You are forced to recognize the conditions of your own sovereignty.

This is pretty goddamn cool. In theory. It’s actually just infuriating, poorly written, and an anticlimax. I think the better way to have handled it — the way I was hoping it would pan out — was that the ending would simply have no choices to be made. You simply defeat the enemy (or not) and see what happens (or not). You would, finally, see only the consequences what you’ve, the things that have resulted from or contributed to your sovereignty.

When defenders  make the claim about how the ending is “deep” I almost want to think this is what they’re seeing. But maybe not, because I’ve been looking for it since the first game and all I see is a weak, shallow gesture at what could have been.