Please find some time to view this 22-minute video lecture between now and our Zoom conference call, which will convene at the normal time. You can expect our Zoom conference call to be shorter and more discussion-based as a result.
I’ve inaugurated a new video series, on detective games. The inaugural video is an extended version of this old conference presentation, buffed up with new examples and more extensive sources. The second video will be arriving shortly—I knew I’d be super busy as soon as all three of my current jobs kicked in, so I planned ahead and worked on two videos simultaneously during the summer months, both of which I’m hoping to get out the door in September.
Script below the jump.
Over the past couple of years I have embedded literally dozens of general-audience video essays I have made and posted on my YouTube page. I am very pleased to announce the online publication of my first peer-reviewed academic video essay at the [in]Transition Journal of Videographic Film and Moving Image Studies.
The appearance of this video at [in]Transition has been a long time coming. (I actually first obliquely referred to it way back in October 2018, when I began by “Let’s Study Horror Games” series.) This is actually the first time that [in]Transition has published a piece on videogames, and so it took them awhile to seek out appropriate peer reviewers. I couldn’t have asked for better ones: the reviewer comments, available online (as is [in]Transition‘s style), are thorough, thoughtful, and engaged. Despite the delay, I am seriously impressed by the journal’s dedication to expanding their horizons, and making good on that “and Moving Image Studies” bit of their title. I’m honored to have had a role in their expanding purview, and I hope it is a harbinger of things to come.
This video is densely packed with game examples, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the years’ worth of work I’ve done on these themes, with the help and input of too many people to count. If you are interested in written versions of the material leading to the creation of this video, which has evolved a lot throughout the years, I would recommend this conference paper (by the same title) I presented at the 2013 Philosophy of Computer Games conference, and this conference paper I presented at the 2015 Society for Phenomenology and Media conference.
I did it! I fulfilled my self-imposed goal of uploading four of these in December. (I also accidentally fulfilled my prediction that I’d post one of these on Christmas, which is when I actually uploaded the video.)
One consequence of sticking to this video-making schedule is that I’m now behind on playing games, and won’t be able to post any further run-downs of interesting games of 2018 until January. Following that, I’m going to be diving back into some peer-reviewed work. Not sure when I’ll return to this series, but rest assured: more is planned.
(This one serves as an “enhanced edition” of the lesson plan I originally posted here. Very happy to have a chance to tweak this material further, as it remains one of the favorite in-class discussions I’ve ever had with students.) And even though I don’t credit him in the video, I must give a shout-out to Adam Hart, whose writings on slasher films have been a frequent inspiration.
Script below the jump.
In The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, Bernard Suits offers the following definition of a game:
[T]o play a game is to engage in activity directed towards bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by rules, where the rules prohibit more efficient in favour of less efficient means, and where such rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity.[i]
What does Suits mean by the favoring of “less efficient means“? Well, we could imagine a reductio ad absurdum version of any given game, in which players truly want nothing more than to achieve the game’s end goal. Suits offers this famous description of golf: “if my end were simply to get a ball into a number of holes in the ground, I would not be likely to use a golf club in order to achieve it, nor would I stand at a considerable distance from each hole.”[ii] Of course, the real goal of golf is not to get a ball into holes in the ground. The real goal of golf is to be good at … well, golfing. This leads Suits to his pithiest formulation: “playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”[iii] Games aren’t really about their purported end goals. They are about consenting to manufactured inefficiencies, accepted as the constraints that make play possible.
One means of introducing “less efficient means” into the completion of a task is by using deliberately abstruse user-experience design. We see this in analog game design in classic party games like Twister or Operation. We see this in digital game design in the fumblecore genre, which I have written about before.
Today, I’ll be writing about two games, both of which harness deliberately inefficient control schemes as a key component of user experience: Affordable Space Adventures (KnapNok Games, 2015) and Duskers (Misfits Attic, 2016). Neither precisely qualifies as “fumblecore” (at least according to my own definition), as neither involves the control of a human body. Instead, both games task players with piloting spacefaring vessels, using a technologically-aided science-fiction setup to justify their cumbersome controls.
Despite this congruence in abstract terms, you’d be hard pressed to find two games more tonally divergent, which made pairing them together even more irresistible.
(I’m officially retiring my usual “Ian here” greeting, as, in the absence of student posts, there will be no one but me posting on this blog for the foreseeable future.)
Early in his book Pilgrim in the Microworld, a phenomenological account of videogame expertise that stands as landmark work of first-person game criticism, David Sudnow attempts to describe, to a presumably completely ignorant reader, the experience of playing Breakout (Atari, 1972). “There’s that world space over there, this one over here,” he writes, “and we traverse the wired gap with motions that make us nonetheless feel in a balanced extending touch with things.”[i]
Today, the term “wired gap” is archaic—we sit comfortably in the age of wireless game controllers. But the general logic of this gap, and how it is traversed, nonetheless persists. On the one side, we have the electronic world represented on the screen. On the other side, we have ourselves, cordoned off from the world of the game by virtue of being flesh-and-blood. If we act upon that other world from our side of the screen, it must be by virtue of some sort of electronic input device: keyboard and mouse, DualShock 4, Wii Remote, Jungle Beat bongo drum, what have you. Wired or not, the relationship we have with that world on the other side of the screen is necessarily mediated by technology: sever that particular link, and our involvement with it ceases.
Not all games follow this logic, however. In this post, I’ll be looking at three games, all of which came out around 2012–2014, that ask you to do more, as a player, than simply manipulate an electronic interface. These games have a different sort of contract with their player. They ask you agree to more wide-ranging sets of behaviors over on your side of the screen, which, by their very nature, cannot be regulated in strict procedural terms. These are games that re-map the points of contact between our fleshy, spacious realm and the realm of bits and pixels.
I’ve written about synesthetic interfaces before: that is, interfaces that perform a sensory substitution, translating the information normally associated with one sense modality into the phenomenal forms normally associated with another. In my previous work, I’ve usually focused on forms of nonhuman perception and certain modes of perceptual expertise. The release of Perception (The Deep End Games, 2017) yesterday, however, gives me an opportunity to dip into a new topic: disability.
Perception is a horror game about a blind woman exploring a haunted house. Unlike a game such as Papa Sangre (Somethin’ Else, 2010), however—an experiment in audio-only digital game design that has sadly been taken off of the iOS App Store as of this writing—Perception doesn’t court blind and other low-vision players. Rather than featuring robust, binaural sound localization simulation, Perception re-imagines the auditory perception of its blind protagonist Cassie as a kind of sonar vision, thrown up on the player’s screen in spooky, warbly monochrome.
This isn’t the first time games nominally about blindness have been served up to sighted players. In this post, I take up a comparative investigation of Perception alongside Beyond Eyes (Tiger and Squid / Team17 Digital Ltd, 2015), which drops the horror angle in favor of child-friendly, colorful adventure.
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.)
If I had to sum up a significant portion of the writing I do on videogames, I would offer the following formulation as a précis: The establishment of character in videogames isn’t achieved solely through writing. It is also established through user interface design.
Sometimes, something as simple as how a cursor behaves can tell us a lot about a character. Be forewarned—the breezy tour through the issue below contains significant spoilers for Firewatch (Campo Santo, 2016).
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.