The following is the assignment description for a three-page comparative gameplay experience reflection that I assigned students at about the halfway point of my course “Comparative Media Poetics: Cinema and Videogames.” The theme of this particular week was “Emotion and Identification,” with an emphasis on the differences in both of these things across cinema and games. Students read a selection from Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chain Saws on horror and cross-gender identification, portions of Noël Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror where he expresses skepticism toward the term “identification” and plots out his own theory of our emotional reactions to film based in then-recent analytical philosophy, and a chapter from Grant Tavinor’s The Art of Videogames in which he adapts this same analytical tradition of theorizing about art and the emotions to videogames.
I also assigned students to read Vivian Sobchack’s essay “Breadcrumbs in the Forest: Three Meditations on Being Lost in Space,” because for this assignment I wanted students to focus on a very specific feeling, and how it is translated across different media: the feeling of being lost. Cinema can present us with stories in which we identify with characters that are lost. But videogames can actually make us lost, and cause us to adopt all of the usual behaviors one turns to when lost. I wanted students to plumb this difference in their gameplay experience reflection.
The two case studies I settled on here were Gus Van Sant’s film Gerry (2002) and The Path (2009), a game by Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn, who together make up the Belgian art group/game studio Tale of Tales. I later resurrected this specific comparison in my SAIC first-year seminar course “The Moving and Interactive Image,” where I adapted the assignment description that follows into a lesson plan, using the following questions to animate in-class discussion, rather than form the basis for a paper.
Given that “The Moving and Interactive Image” was a much less advanced class, when I taught this diptych in that course, I jettisoned all of the reading listed above. Instead, I assigned only the chapter “Body, Personal Relations, and Spatial Values” from Yi-fu Tuan’s Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. There is a wonderful quote from this book in the Sobchack essay—one that is extraordinarily relevant to The Path. When designing the reading for this course, I decided I’d go straight to the source:
What does it mean to be lost? I follow a path into the forest, stray from the path, and all of a sudden feel completely disoriented. … There are the regions to my front and back, to my right and left, but they are not geared to external reference points and hence are quite useless. … Let a flickering light appear behind a distant clump of trees. I remain lost in the sense that I still do not know where I am in the forest, but space has dramatically regained its structure. The flickering light has established a goal. As I move toward that goal, front and back, right and left, have resumed their meaning: I stride forward, am glad to have left dark space behind, and make sure that I do not veer to the right or left.[i]
Play Assignment: Instructions for playing The Path
The main menu of The Path presents seven girls lined up in a red room. Clicking on a girl will cue up her scenario (“campaign” in the usual videogame parlance). Please play the “Scarlet” scenario, by clicking on the third girl to the left.
The game presents you with two rules at the beginning of the scenario: “Go to Grandmother’s house, and stay on the path.”
Please play through this scenario twice. During your first playthrough of the scenario, follow both of these instructions. During you second playthrough, disregard the “stay on the path” rule. Stray off the path until you have collected, or otherwise interacted with, at least one object. Then, find your way back to Grandmother’s house.
Allot yourself 1 to 2 hours to complete this assignment. If you find yourself flying through the “Scarlet” scenario, feel free to play through other girls’ scenarios (and write about them in your reflection, if you wish). But start with Scarlet.
To prevent yourself from getting (too) stuck: A general guide to playing The Path
You won’t be able to access a map of the area at any time. A map of the path you’ve taken will, however, pop up as an overlay on your screen every time you have travelled 100 meters. Try to pay attention to it during the brief periods it becomes visible if you want to see sections of the map you have and have not been to.
To interact with an object in the environment, briefly stop in front of it. (This won’t always work, but in general it’s a good policy to stop in front of things to see what happens.) Interacting with objects in the environment can have a large variety of effects, depending upon the object. Sometimes Scarlet will touch, walk around, or pick up an object or piece of scenery. Sometimes text of her thoughts will be overlaid on the screen.
Sometimes translucent superimpositions of objects in the environment, or the faces of other girls, will pop up. Interacting things will help you forward on your journey, and some areas of the environment are richer with interactive possibility than others, so pay attention to cues such as these.
Writing Assignment: Prompt for gameplay experience reflection
I would like you to achieve something of a careful balancing act in this reflection. Just as in our regular semi-weekly reflections, I will be expecting you to analyze the objects looked at during the week, and do so in reference to the week’s readings. But I would like you to flesh out your reflection this week with more details about your personal experience with the game in question. Since this is the only time in the course that all students are guaranteed to have personal, individual interaction with a game, rather than simply watching another student play it, you should strive to be specific about your own successes and failures, your own moments of excitement and boredom, your own personal engagement with the game as a time-based exploration of rules, implemented in a virtual environment, presented audio-visually.
Because your top priority should be reflecting on your own personal experience, I will leave the amount of reference to this week’s readings you want to include in your reflection largely to you. I am setting a floor to this: At a bare minimum, you must engage with Vivian Sobchack’s chapter “Breadcrumbs in the Forest: Three Meditations on Being Lost in Space.” Specifically, you should treat Sobchack’s chapter as an opportunity to ruminate on the media-specific elements of The Path, particularly when compared/contrasted with our screening of Gus Van Sant’s Gerry.
Sobchack notes that Gerry is among a relatively small amount of films—with John Ford’s The Lost Patrol and Paul Schrader’s The Comfort of Strangers standing out among a handful of other examples—where “not knowing where you are” takes forefront as the films’ primary source of drama. To what degree do you think Gerry succeeds in wringing drama out of the experience of not knowing where one is? In what ways do its failures—or, alternately, the audience-limiting choices Van Sant had to make in order for the film to succeed artistically—relate to the dearth Sobchack mentions of films that revolve around getting lost?
Consider Gerry in relation to Sobchack’s points, and also on its own merits. How do features such as shot length, shot scale, color palate, sound design, dialogue, and editing contribute to the theme of not knowing where you are? How do they compare or contrast to The Path’s visual and sound design? How do The Path’s additional, media-specific elements—user interface, player activity, spatial design of levels—allow it to achieve things that Gerry cannot? Try to stay away from overly obvious and broad points here. They are easy to make. Instead, always ground your points in very specific anecdotes relating to your own playthrough of the game. (Taking good notes during both the film and the game will help here.)
So: Be specific about your own first-hand experience, and include at least some mention of Sobchack, specifically in relating Gerry to The Path. This is all that is required in this assignment. If you’re looking for other ways to fill out the required page length, here are some suggestions for other angles to take:
- The block quotes Sobchack peppers her chapter with provide an excellent repository of comments from philosophers and geographers on the phenomenology of being lost. You should feel free to bring these into your discussion of The Path, if you wish. (Her quote from Yi-Fu Tuan on pg 18, for instance, strikes me as especially relevant.)
- Sobchack lays out three forms of being lost she sees as dominant in cinematic representations. How do these map to The Path?
- Bring Tavinor into your discussion of Sobchack, Gerry, The Path, and lostness. Does “being lost” deserve a place alongside “jealousy” and “guilt” among affective responses that videogames can engender that are generally unavailable to other forms of fiction?
- On a similar line, in what ways does the depiction of being lost in The Path depend on exactly that “mind-meld” notion of identification that Carroll dismisses in his discussion of cinematic identification?
- Given its fairy-tale roots, The Path hints back at the Ur-form of representations of gender in horror, so Clover’s ideas regarding gender, identification, and the horror genre are relevant here, as well.
[i]. Tuan Yi-fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977. Pg 36.