Falstaff. Miss Havisham. Anton Chigurh.
Much like yesterday’s category, today’s sub-list is partially a lament that baseline competency in storytelling seemed so long unachievable in games. Defending games as a potential storytelling medium seemed like a silly project, as the games stories had opted to tell just simply weren’t very good. Good stories need good characters. Creating characters as good as the ones listed above, in any medium, is probably an unrealistic goal. But it’s not unrealistic to ask for characters with interesting personalities and motivations.
If I am being perfectly fair, games have historically struggled less with characters than they have with pacing. The 1990s and early 2000s are filled with RPGs and adventure games with memorable characters, even as they might struggle to recount their stories efficiently. In the wake of GLaDOS, though, the ante has been upped. I am happy to report that developers have risen to the challenge. The past decade has been awash in sharply-penned dialogue, superb voice acting, and richly emotional character beats. Here are a few of my highest recommendations.
The first half of my “Frames, Claims, and Videogames” course is devoted to five major debates that have hovered around games over the past couple of decades. Some of these are legal, some have occurred in the art world, some have occurred in the sphere of popular discourse, and others are academic. For the first academic debate, I pitted Janet Murray‘s ideas about the storytelling potentials of new media agains the hard-core ludologists.
When prepping for this lesson, I found re-reading the ludologists in 2017 to be an unpleasant experience. Looking back at the early-2000s era writing of folks like Espen Aarseth and Markku Eskelinen, it’s pretty clear that they were the academic precursors of the game police. And not the snarky, tongue-in-cheek Game Police parody twitter account that arose in 2013. I mean the angry young men, who would later become Gamergate, but who already, in 2012–2013, were barking back at “corrupt” journalists praising games they didn’t see as games: games that told stories, rather than let you shoot things. These young men took it upon themselves to politicize the term game, to define its boundaries and beef up its border security. A “videogame” became a medium you couldn’t freely pass into until you showed your papers, and proved that everything was in order. The most vigilant among these enforcement agents, the Joe Arpaios of gamer culture, enjoyed a wide jurisdiction and acted at their own discretion, with great impunity. (Is it really any wonder that this burgeoning culture of alt-right gamer trolls would evolve into one of Donald Trump’s key blocks of support?)
As I said, it is tough re-reading, let alone teaching, the ludologists in 2017. As a consolation, though, it is a delight teaching Janet Murray. Time has proved her to be an exceptionally good predictor of the future, meaning that reading her twenty-year old Hamlet on the Holodeck is a surprisingly exciting experience.
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.