The level “Twin Suns” in Metal Gear Solid IV (Kojima Productions, 2008) ranks as one of my favorite videogame levels of all time. Smack dab in the middle of a game with more than its share of problems—the usual problems of unconscionably long cut-scenes and unconscionably short periods of genuine interactivity, plus new problems such as an inexplicably drab grey-green color scheme—comes something so conceptually audacious that I’m simply floored.
“Twin Suns” takes two of Metal Gear Solid IV‘s central themes, aging and the fear of obsolescence, and distills them into their most undiluted form. In Metal Gear Solid IV, series protagonist Solid Snake is old. (In fact, he’s so old that he’s given a new moniker, Old Snake.) This is used to greater or lesser effect throughout the entire game, but it really comes to the fore in “Liquid Sun,” which sees Snake returning to Shadow Moses, the location he infiltrated in Metal Gear Solid, a game released a decade prior. Given that series creator Hideo Kojima is well-known for using each sequel as a means of interogating the game industry’s lust for sequels, it should come as no surprise that this re-visit is in part a mediation on the way the franchise has aged. What is surprising is that this predictably modernist streak is shot through with something that approaches genuine pathos, and a fairly sincere investigation of what it means for an action hero to age.
(The title of my post pays homage to Simone de Beauvoir’s La Vieillesse, from which I’ll be quoting from sporadically. Although the Patrick O’Brian English translation I’ll be quoting from is actually titled Old Age, I much prefer the English language rendition The Coming of Age.)
What follows is an invited talk I gave last month at a university that will remain unnamed. Here, things get a little awkward: the talk in question was actually a job talk, and I am technically still waiting to hear back on the school’s final decision. Hence, the location of the talk remaining unnamed.
Originally, I was going to wait to post this talk until I had heard official word back on the status of the position (whether that news was good, or bad). I’ve decided to post it now, though, mostly because I attended an excellent panel at SCMS 2017, “Video Games and Queer Affect,” chaired by Bonnie Ruberg (an old compatriot of mine from Bard College) with papers by Whitney Pow (with whom I co-organized this conference) and Diana Pozo. Bonnie and Diana’s papers, especially, shared considerable overlap with the trends outlined here, down to including some of same case studies. It seems, then, that this material is very “of the moment,” and I didn’t want to let the opportunity to make is publicly available pass. I’m planning on moving this material forward into an article in the coming months. It’s exciting to be part of a community of peers who finds it as interesting as I do, and I’m definitely going to alter the direction and focus of aspects of this piece in response to the work I saw happening on the panel.
So, a disclaimer: This is not a lesson plan, not precisely. I did in fact teach Harun Farocki’s Parallels series for the final class session for my SAIC writing seminar “Moving Images and Arguments.” But since it was the final class, and since we were in a phase of the course in which my top priority was guiding students during revisions of their final essays, our discussion of the videos wasn’t nearly as detailed and rich as what you see reflected here.
Really, these are notes toward a future lesson, delivered under ideal circumstances. Although it was outside of the scope of my “Moving Images and Arguments” course, what I am most interested in about the Parallels videos are the connections Farocki draws between the videogames’ imperfect simulations of reality and the problem of philosophical skepticism. Although present to some extent in Parallel I (2012), the specter of skepticism is most pronounced in Parallel II (2014) and Parallel III (2014). I was deep in the midst of writing my dissertation in 2014, and didn’t end up seeing II, III, and IV until 2016. This was a shame, because problems of skepticism actually play a large role in the first chapter of my dissertation, and it turns out that I missed the chance to incorporate an analysis of these videos into that discussion. Parallel II and Parallel III form the main inspiration for this post, as a way of making up for that lost opportunity.
What follows is a lesson from my 2013 course “Comparative Media Poetics: Cinema and Videogames” at taught U Chicago. On the docket for this week: displays of intelligence and expertise in cinema (from Buster Keaton films to contemporary action cinema), and the ways in which the needs for interactivity force a very different visual style in games than we see in contemporary cinema.
The screening/play-session hybrid that lead up to this class included clips from The General (Buster Keaton with Clyde Bruckman,1926), College (Buster Keaton with James W. Horne, 1927), Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006), and The Bourne Ultimatum (Paul Greengrass, 2007), the latter of which is our primary concern here. It also included students playing portions of Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception (Naughty Dog, 2011) and Mirror’s Edge (DICE, 2009). Readings for the week included selections from Noël Carroll’s book on Buster Keaton Comedy Incarnate, and a chapter from James Paul Gee’s book Why Video Games Are Good for Your Soul.
Over the past decade, the term “affordances” has nestled itself into a firm and comfortable position within the vocabulary of videogame theory, having found widespread adoption among both academic videogame theorists and practicing videogame designers. Exact definitions of the term vary, but within a fairly predictable range. So, for a few examples, we have: