Misty-eyed Modernism

Ian here—

In 1982, longtime Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman penned a famous essay entitled “Vulgar Modernism.” In it, he pointed out that medium-specific reflexivity—the use of “art to call attention to art” that Clement Greenberg proposed as the defining feature of modernist painting—was, in fact, everywhere in American mass culture in the 1940s and 1950s.[i] It was in Tex Avery and Chuck Jones’ Daffy Duck cartoons, chock to the brim with distanciation jokes and forthright acknowledgements of film form. It was in Bill Elder’s Mad Magazine cartoons, parodies that sometimes literally broke through their own frame. Hoberman coined the term vulgar modernism to name this “popular, ironic, somewhat dehumanized mode reflexively concerned with the specific properties of its medium or the conditions of its making.”[ii] Vulgar modernist works hold no pretensions toward being anything other than mass culture, but they demonstrate an astute awareness of the history of their own medium, and puckishly call attention to its conventions.

Hoberman’s essay is a helpful reminder that artistic devices don’t come pre-packaged with aesthetic aims. Greenberg observed painters embracing flatness, brushstrokes, and the properties of pigment, and considered such medium-consciousness as a crucial element of modernism in the fine arts. Hoberman observed similar devices employed by Warner Bros. and Mad, bent toward parody rather than Kantian self-criticism.

I offer this opening excursus because I’ve noticed a growing popularity of “modernist” devices in videogames. As in Hoberman’s case studies, these devices aren’t offered up in the spirit of intellectualized self-criticism. Rather, they constitute what I’ll call misty-eyed modernism: reflexive devices used to emphasize the vulnerability of a fictional character, a foregrounding of the specific properties of a medium for the purposes of empathy or tear-jerking.

About a month ago, I professed to not having played enough games from 2016 to name any as among my “favorites.” I have taken decadent advantage of the past 30 days, however, and I’m in a position where, yes, I can actually count the two discussed below as among my “favorite.” And, wouldn’t you know it, they both share misty-eyed modernist tendencies. Significant spoilers for both Oxenfree (Night School Studio, 2016) and OneShot (Team OneShot, 2016) below. If you’re spoiler-averse, then you should just take these above-the-fold recommendations and do with them as you see fit. If you don’t mind spoilers (of if you’ve already played the games in question), continue … but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

She needs, she needs my guidance

Canadian indie rocker Owen Pallett, who used to record under the name Final Fantasy (yes, Final Fantasy), has a song called “He Poos Clouds,” from an album of the same title, conceptually organized around the schools of magic in Dungeons and Dragons. (Yes, you read that sentence correctly. Yes, you are now 15% more geek.) There are a few lines from it that are worth quoting here—I’m botching things a bit, as I’m smashing some slightly-different refrains together, but the following is accurate enough, in spirit:

All the boys I have ever loved have been digital
I’ve been a guest on a screen, or in a book
I move him with my thumbs
I move him with my thumbs
He needs, he needs my guidance
He needs, he needs my time
But I am not the only one

The lyrics here, which may come across as cryptic to the uninitiated, are about controlling a videogame character—specifically, Link, the player-character of Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda franchise. Unlike many theorists of the player-avatar relation, Pallett doesn’t characterize Link as a mere extension of his agency in the gameworld, as a vehicle for his intentions. Instead, he posits Link as a fictional character, with whom he has an intimate relationship. This relationship is based, at its core, on care. Pallette doesn’t propose that he “is” Link when playing Zelda. Rather, he proposes that he cares for Link. He plots out his movements; he provides his needs; he keeps him safe, and on-task. Link, as a fictional character on a screen, is vulnerable. Like a child, he needs cared for. He needs your guidance. He needs your time.

Misty-eyed modernism is primarily centered around encouraging this sense of care. Misty-eyed modernism allows game developers to forthrightly acknowledge games’ characters as fictional constructs. These constructs are guided by player’s decisions and actions, but ultimately exist as bits of animation and code on our hard drives. They are developer’s creations, and we, the players, are their guardians, their mentors, their gods.

One example of such an acknowledgement comes late in one’s playthrough of Oxenfree. Up until this point, I had already enjoyed the game immensely. The dialogue and voice acting was sharp, charming, and often laugh-out-loud funny. The story’s sense of foreboding mystery made it successfully creepy in ways that so many all-out horror games fail to achieve. The music and sound design were both fantastic. The visual art was a delight. So were the character animations. Really, the game is so fantastic that I have almost nothing bad to say about it. My only niggling complaints are about two small issues in the interaction between dialogue and UI. (It’s often too hard to get the timing just right so that you enter into conversation without interrupting people, and I do wish that the characters would acknowledge when you’re tuning the radio, rather than continually remind Alex that the radio exists when she’s searching for the frequency.) Other than those, it is an absolute gem, and you should really just go and play it before I spoil a late moment of it for you.

Anyway, back to that moment. As I’ve established, I already loved the game so far, but I was nonetheless surprised when it made this particular move, which was bold in ways I hadn’t anticipated. At a certain moment, the game’s player-character, Alex, finds herself severely unstuck in time. Already by this point in the game, she had entered into “time loops,” repeating certain game events with minor variations, and glimpsed what appeared to be snippets of alternate, darker timelines. But this time, things are different: she actually sees herself at some crucial moments from earlier in the game, and is able give advice back to her earlier self.

Except, no … I’ve described it wrong. It is not Alex who sees her earlier self. It is us, and we act through Alex. This detail is made clear through one small visual detail: In the screenshot below, you can see the username of my Steam account (even_odder) hovering over Alex’s head. It is a subtle touch, but a striking one. For a moment, I am jostled out of the feeling of role-playing as Alex, and into an awareness of my role as a player, a player who is not “being” or “playing” Alex as much as authoring her behavior, guiding her through the perplexing and spooky predicament she finds herself in.[iii]

oxenfree-screenshot-01

Oxenfree‘s coda includes a pie chart, illustrating how your decisions on how to guide Alex—and thereby guide the decisions of her circle of friends—stack up against the decisions of other players. I had seen similar moments in games before, notably in Catherine (Atlus, 2011) and The Walking Dead (Telltale Games, 2012). Functionally, I suppose the pie carts that conclude Oxenfree are identical, but given the fact that the game took the time to remind me that I was playing a game before they came up, while I was still in the midst of controlling Alex, their overall effect felt slightly different. I suppose one could compare it to the difference between credits that role at the end of the film (safely slotting acknowledgement of the film as a constructed artifact away in the conventional place), versus having the film’s characters read out the credits in mid-film (acknowledging the film’s constructedness in mid-fiction, and encouraging distanciation). Rather than just think, “huh, that’s an interesting piece of analytic data, I guess,” it drove me to consider what a player’s responsibilities might be, as a moral agent.

Do Note Be Afraid to Ask [Local Account Administrator Name] For Assistance

OneShot is very difficult to talk about at all, without spoiling absolutely everything. By talking about some of the modernist devices that pop up in Oxenfree, I ruined just a couple of moments of the game. But to talk about such devices in OneShot is to ruin just about everything, given that so much of one’s first encounter with the game should ideally be driven by a sense of surprise and wonderment.

But, anyway, here I go.

OneShot released in December 2016. It is apparently the spiffed-up commercial remake of a freeware game released in 2014 by Eliza Velasquez and Casey Gu (available here). However, that earlier version completely slipped my radar, as I imagine it did a lot of people’s. I came to OneShot, then—as, again, I imagine a lot of people did—with Undertale (Toby Fox, 2015) as a reference point.

There’s a fair amount that OneShot shares with Undertale, in terms of tone and style. Each, in its own way, distills and amplifies the melancholy dimensions of Shigesato Itoi’s Mother series. But whereas Undertale was mostly content with acknowledging its influences and generic conventions, OneShot more ambitiously acknowledges itself as a piece of software running on the Windows platform.

Sure, there were glimpses of this already in Undertale. (In one of the final boss fights, for instance, the game force-quits itself every time you lose, and, once you boot it up again, the boss boasts of replacing your previous save with one in which you’re stuck in an unwinnable battle.) But OneShot is much more radical. Within the game’s first twenty minutes, one thing is clear: The player has a role in its story. I don’t mean this in the sense that the player adopts the role of the player-character. Rather, the player as someone positioned on the other side of the game’s fourth wall, who has access to things that in-game characters do not, outside of the proscenium of the game’s frame. This includes things like their desktop, their documents folder, and even the directory in which OneShot‘s files are kept.

oneshot-screenshot-01

Now, games cheekily acknowledging the platform they run on is nothing new. Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid series has been rife with overt references to everything from the rumble features of the PlayStation’s DualShock controller (and, famously, the multiple controller ports on the front of the machine) to the storage capacity of a Blu-ray disc. However, whereas Kojima’s distanciation and frame-breaking techniques often come across as either cynicism toward the medium he has made his livelihood in, or as out-of-place jokes (akin to the series’ longstanding streak of scatological humor), there is a precise emotional aim to OneShot‘s modernist touches. They serve to highlight the vulnerability of the game’s player-character, Niko.  Within the game’s fiction, we’re constantly reminded that Niko is a small child, unsure and alone, unable to sleep without a nightlight. But beyond this, we’re also reminded the Niko is a character in a videogame. We are his gods. We can control him as we play—and we can control him in other was, as well, since he resides on our hard drive. Even if we’re not currently running the game—if, for instance, we have exited to allow Niko to “sleep,” as he requests on several occasions—we can still poke around in its directory. We could even delete our save file, if we wish. He is completely at our mercy, whether or not the game is running.

As I said above, artistic devices don’t come pre-packaged with aesthetic aims. One can certainly imagine a version of OneShot in which the same platform-revealing techniques were used in a smartass or irreverent manner. But that’s not the one we have. The version of OneShot we have is a game that is almost unbearably sad. Undoubtedly, it will be too sentimental for some. But it’s fascinating to me that it takes devices that don’t have a long history of being associated with sentiment—the reflexive baring of certain medium/platform-specific properties—and employs them in service of this sadness.

[i]. Greenberg, Clement. “Modernist Painting.” In Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology. Edited by Francis Frascina and Charles Harrison with the assistance of Deirdre Paul. New York: Harper and Row, 1982. Pg 6.

[ii]. Hoberman, J. “Vulgar Modernism.” In Vulgar Modernism: Writing on Movies and Other Media. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991. Pg 33.

[iii]. I have already expressed my admiration for Home (Benjamin Rivers, 2012), which does something similar in terms of splitting the player-as-author from the player-character. I suppose Oxenfree can be considered the care-based companion to Home‘s more acidic paranoid/adversarial relationship that emerges between player and character in some of its endings.

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