Embassytown: Before the humans came we didn’t speak

Embassytown: Before the humans came we didn't speak

Artwork by Crush

This piece is community funded. If you enjoyed this article, please support my writing by visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron. 

You should first know two things about China Miéville’s Embassytown. One: it has a pullquote on the front cover from Ursula K. Le Guin branding it as “a fully achieved work of art”. Two: the back cover summary so confused me that I fled to the nearest young adult fiction, which happened at the time to be Railsea, as I was cornered by a small army of Miévilles as if in ultimatum.

Keep those in mind when I say, to talk about the structure of Embassytown is to juggle sand. It’s a wonderful, fascinating, elusive beast, in part because of a thematic richness to which I can’t do justice here, and in part because of its structural metacommentary on left-wing politics in colonial states, to which I can. It’s mainly elusive because of what the end of Embassytown says about the start of Embassytown. And since this is a book interested in describing the breach of a world-shattering status quo change, it’s elusive because in the fuzzy emotional space of newfound self-awareness, my mind four hundred pages ago is estranged to my mind now. Continue reading

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Kanoguti’s Walking Mesmerize

Kanoguti's Walking Mesmerize

Words and artwork by Stephen Beirne. This piece is community funded. If you enjoyed this article, please support my writing by visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron. 

Kanoguti’s Walking is the quintessential walking simulator—sorry, phantom ride. The core conceit is you must oblige yourself to move through the length of a straight, linear corridor in search of meaning, granted through a number of less tangible avenues than is usual for a medium predicated on make-believe.

To this end, Walking slightly resembles titles like Sophie Houlden’s stripped-down The Linear RPG. It’s similar in that you walk a line in lieu of a corridor but differs by its message being more conspicuous to a wayward player. The Linear RPG flaunts the language of RPGs, but not their mechanics, to elicit what many read as a critique of the genre’s modern degradation. It stays aloof and above its kin while allowing the presence of structural similarities, seeming enough like an RPG to remind us of its generic subject matter without becoming it intricately.

Both videogames engineer their messages through reductionist sentiments; they have the luxury of drawing on oceans of precedent to form the basis of communally available metatextual foundation. While Sophie Houlden uses this embedded self-reflection to perform genre reference and (potential) satire, Kanoguti chooses instead to make the player the burgeoning subject matter.

Walking uses only two buttons in mutual exclusivity: one to move forward, and one to crane your neck around to look behind you. Releasing the latter button turns the camera back to its default direction, so you’ll never be able to spin on your heel and head off right the way you came. This initially jars against what we might expect from this sort of videogame: strict restrictions on our trajectory confine and repel, denying us the core appeal of wandering in Proteus or exploration in Bernband.

As a mechanic ‘looking back’ is a novelty, and as we adjust our mental model to fit these unexpected parameters, a curiosity. Why do I have the ability to look around if my path can’t be altered? Why would I want to re-examine the length of the corridor I’ve only just trod? What is ‘looking back’ for? It seems a thing-in-itself, the option to look back the way we came. Juxtaposed against the conventional ability to look around freely in games far and wide it’s ambiguously suggested as a statement, perhaps on all we take for granted, perhaps on the inexorable march of time.

There are a few motifs shared among Kanoguti’s videogames and software, many of which I can’t link directly but you can find here, that illustrate an interest in patterned structures. Sokoe Nobotte and Repeating Stories cycle us upward in space and forward in time before reversing to their origins in tumultuous climax. Evird3D speeds us down an eternal road to rack up a score; Watching fixes us in place while spying on a man creeping away and crashing towards us. Paradise MV hypnotises us with loops of geometry and music, while Re-SMP invites us to make our own loops.

Some of these thread what could be described as elements of horror to affect a sense of disruption inside their composition. Like Walking, Mortuary recalls more common systems of first-person perspective games while withholding the archetype as a whole: we can look freely at the boxed enclosure of a doll’s face but are unable to move, forcing us to writhe in witness as it melts to nothing. Although our powerlessness is important here, we are not stricken as passive due to all that we lack; rather, the act of looking, and our role as witness, is heightened to superluminal through our own raised self-consciousness.

While this runs counter to much conventional thought on the relationship between player and videogame, I should note that it works for Kanoguti because they swing us between the two states of sublime and superluminal by keying into the therapeutic nature of repetitious behaviour.

In allowing our minds to wander during a routine task, we grow self-suggestive and lull into a daze. Jolting us back into alert with a shock (a jump scare or unexpected twist) provokes us to become hyper self-aware[1]. We blush in realisation at our self-involvement—perception of ourselves as filtered through how we are seen by others. Trapped under another’s gaze, we’re reminded of being fundamentally perceptible creatures.

This is what Walking does extravagantly.

You play, anyway, and soon you grow accustomed to the hallway’s unpredictable and frightening nature. As your feet rhythmically beat out the steady crunch of a gravel path, the two-button layout maybe endears itself. Autonomy falls away behind you. You relinquish the old desire to turn and change directions, slowly mesmerized by the disturbing flow of music and imagery.

Dead in front of you, the flash of a white face stops your tracks. Trick of the mind? The walls themselves flutter through a ménage of now-familiar wallpaper—wisping clouds, human outlines—such that you’d drifted beneath the lip of consciousness. That brief white flick could have been the brow of a cloud, could have been a disappearing texture, could have been, could have been…

You resume on your path, now recalling the other thing allowed of you. A good hard look behind confirms nothing to be seen. Uncertainty in your vision seeds paranoia, turning back to glance across your shoulder every few feet now. The repeated stopping and starting achieves little except to impede progress, so you peter out that behaviour to make good your travel down the corridor. But the seed sits heavy in the pit of your gut, and every couple of minutes you remember to look back the way you came.

A monster is facing you. Impossibly tall, its head brushes the ceiling; its arms gradually end in long, curved claws stretching down below its waist; a small face cracked by a playful smile. It stands still, dormant, patiently watching.

You’re afraid to blink, afraid to move, until you decide, it seems, the monster is content just to survey for now. But still you can’t move because you’re facing the wrong way. As you unfreeze the muscles in your neck, you calm yourself into a course of action. It plays with you; do you play back and test the waters? See how you can affect its presence. See if you can exert some control.

You release the button and slam it again to catch the monster in an act. It’s gone. Nothing there now but the empty space of the corridor and the impenetrable curtain of shadow beyond. But it was there, you know with absolute certainty. You didn’t imagine this one. And it’s still there, inside the gloom. Haunting you. Stalking you. The daydream is shredded. Under its gaze you’re irrevocably changed.

 


 

[1] In the language of phenomenology, ‘pre-reflective self-consciousness.’ Calling it by this name is akin to using a ouiji board to summon the ghost of Wank Academia, so I’ve relegated this trivia to a footnote.

Consquentialism begone

Words and artwork by Stephen Beirne. This piece is community funded – if you enjoyed this article or would like the header image for a wallpaper, please support my writing by visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron. 

Endgame spoilers for Final Fantasy XIII-2 and The Walking Dead‘s season 1.

A group of friends, one of whom is a consequentialist, have gone out to the pub for the night. Once the first round is bought, the consequentialist sits staring at his pint intently, fully aware that if he gets to drinking he’ll wake up the next morning with a dreadful hangover. So he gets up, turns around and runs head-first into the wall. His mates, knowing the drill, pack him into an ambulance and resume with their craic, eventually retiring for the night each of them in some bloody state.

Anthony Burch posted this playthrough of BioShock where he restricts himself to certain rules as sort of an experiment. The idea is, it’s not much of a difficult decision to pick between killing Little Sisters and saving them, so maybe if we tweak the circumstances to a point where the decision becomes pertinent it will mean something. His rules are:

  1. He can only spend ADAM obtained through killing a Little Sister.
  2. Permadeath, for impetus.

His conclusion is that he found himself well able to get through the game without the need for ADAM and plasmids because the system empowers players to excel with firearms. Well, presumably he could complete the game this way; he eventually died from boredom. The closing sentiment seems to be there was no difference brought about by his self-imposed rules, and although the fact that he admits it was a lot less interesting to play without plasmids seems to contradict this, it’s not addressed. From a critical perspective, the experiment peters off in a really sad, unreflective way.

What does this have to do with consequentialism? Burch is of the opinion that the moral dilemma presented in BioShock goes nowhere because the amount of ADAM you get from killing Little Sisters is pretty much equal to what you get from saving them. All consequences being the same, there is no tangible difference between the two actions, so the dilemma collapses.

This is a pretty common reading of BioShock among some big-name developers and designers. It is horrible. It comes from a place of lud0-fundamentalism[1] where games are ‘about’ their mechanics and so games must show reflection through their mechanics. By this line of thought, a change in the narrative that is not represented by a change in gamestates is existentially deficient. A moral dilemma that does not branch off into two mechanically (or systemically)-differentiated paths is not a dilemma, so therefore cannot speak of morality.

Worse still, this vein of thought is a capitalist consequentialism that can only view states in terms of the rewards and prizes they offer (more or less ADAM), since narrative distinction of an action of consequence is removed from consideration. Which is a pretty evil worldview from my perspective, if I’m being honest. The way to have an impactful, meaningful game is to offer divergent rewards for whatever divergent paths have been presented. This is how meaning is generated through the medium of videogames, it is the only manner through which games can affect players, which is why no-one cried after the first season of The Walking Dead.

Now, as I mentioned Burch’s conclusion is to point to his lack of impetus to harvest Little Sisters as proof of the game’s failure to provide any true dilemma. Frustratingly, he doesn’t plug the result of his experiment back into the text to see how it creates or created narrative. One could posit his lack of impetus to slaughter Little Sisters actually substantiates the Objectivist tones of the game’s cosmology since Burch found self-sufficiency without needing to contradict his personal moral code, and that the game is made more powerful as a text by accounting for this approach/reading/playthrough. Perhaps that is outside the scope of his article, but the fact that he seems to think the experiment bolters Jonathan Blow’s reading of the game suggests it didn’t occur to him.[2]

To get to my point, Burch indicates his playthrough reveals the absence of any real dilemma within the game as a text (i.e. narratively). This in spite of the tautology of the moral dilemma (‘Save the Little Sisters’ versus ‘Harvest the Little Sisters’) as a narrative framing device in the game beyond the mechanical or gamestate effects that might or might not follow. The fact of the dilemma as a (effective[3]) framing device establishes it as meaningful, as impactful on narrative, regardless of consequences. Consider it in terms of this more overtly illusory moment of choice in Final Fantasy XIII-2.

At the arse end of the story, heroes Noel and Sarah finally appear victorious over Caius Ballad, the main antagonist, who has been pissing round with the timestream to try to save a mutual friend, Yuel, from eternal torment. Caius has just realised his own death can put an end to Yuel’s cycle of rebirth and death, so he goads Noel into killing him. Noel is now faced with the crisis of having to decide between ending the tragic villain’s life, thereby fulfilling his mission and letting Yuel rest in peace, or upholding his own respect for the value of human life and sparing his old mentor. As Noel’s sword plunges towards Caius’ heart, the player is given the on-screen prompt: ‘Show mercy’ or ‘Kill him’.

Whichever one you chose Noel will decide to spare Caius’ life (and Caius will go ahead and kill himself anyway) but the moment the choice of input is presented to the player facilitates reflection and inquiry into the circumstances. The dilemma inspires meaning regardless of the single possible consequence.

 


 

[1] The text here originally read “ludic fundamentalism” which is a term I made up to explain the ideas outlines here. About a month after this article was published, there was quite a bit of discussion in critical spheres along the lines of this and surrounding concepts. I participated in that conversation, but I used the neologism “ludo-fundamentalism” (again, I made up on the fly) in all my natterings instead of “ludic fundamentalism.” As it happened, “ludo-fundamentalism” began to catch on. So even though they mean the same thing, I’ve edited the term here to remain consistent with my own writings elsewhere.

[2] Why Jonathan Blow is made an authority on moral narratives is beyond me.

[3] Very important to note that narrative and meaning are self-identifying. An effective plot point conveys meaning and affects the player’s experience, whereas an ineffective plot point fails to achieve anything. I can only rely on my own experiences in this regard, but as an example of an ineffective, on-the-face meaningless dichotomy/choice moment in a game I would personally suggest choosing heads or tails in BioShock Infinite, or deciding between the cage or the bird in the same game, as moments that were intended to frame narrative but at the time felt utterly empty. Of course, we can then feed this back into the text hermeneutically to get something else out of it and have it produce meaning that way, chasing our tails until the end of time.

Framing Identity – or: How Can I Be Both Lee and Clementine

Framing Identity or How Can I Be Both Lee and Clementine

Art and words by Stephen Beirne. This piece is community funded – if you enjoyed this article or would like the artwork as a wallpaper, please consider supporting my writing by visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron. 

[Spoilers for Telltale’s The Walking Dead seasons 1 and 2]

In my recent piece about Project Zero 2 I made a brief note that its use of a second-person camera perspective has a wonderful effect on player identity. I fairly left the point there.

We’re all familiar with the use of first-person and third-person perspectives in games, at least in terms of what that means for the camera’s location relative to player-character. It seems much less often that we articulate how use of either convention conveys a distinct sense of narrative direction, rather than merely visual perspective, in the same way as we accept the use of first-, second- and third-person perspectives denote the position of a narrator in relation to the reader/viewer/audience in other media forms.

Conventionally, stories told using these forms rely on addressing the protagonist with the appropriate pronoun—“I”, “you” and “he/she/they”, respectively—to ascribe a relationship between the text and audience. Games do something a little odd on top of that, since players often situate themselves within the world as a matter of course seemingly regardless of perspective. For instance, in first-person perspective games, especially those with a silent protagonist, the sublimation of narrator and player perspective suggests the player is altogether audience, protagonist and narrator, since we associate each role with “I” pronouns.

There’s a contradiction there continuing into the common language we use to talk about games. Typically a text using a first-person perspective differentiates between audience pronouns and protagonist pronouns—Goodfellas’ Henry Hill tells us he always wanted to be a gangster, but we are not Henry Hill. There’s a clear distinction between our identity as audience/listener and Henry Hill’s identity as character/narrator; we experience no overlap. Put another way, in this relationship our role as a participant in the text (people always participate with texts) is that of audience, not narrator or protagonist.

But in a game like BioShock Infinite, which also uses the first-person perspective, the distinction is dissolved via placing me in the role of Booker DeWitt, though not entirely eradicated, since DeWitt maintains a discrete identity disassociating him from me.

If we follow traditional narrative lingo, from the text’s standpoint in relating the player to the protagonist this would suggest BioShock Infinite is actually a second-person perspective game rather than first-person, contrary to common knowledge: if the game could literally speak, it might be phrasing its fiction as “You are Booker DeWitt.” It would also bring up difficulties in deciphering when a game is first-person and when a game is third-person, since even when playing in the third-person perspective players still use “I” pronouns to describe player-character actions and events.

This whole problem can be phrased in multiple ways, not limited to: Is the language we use to describe games inappropriate to our experiencing of them? When we say “first-person perspective” and “third-person perspective” in relation to games are we not referencing the narrative devices as they’re used in other media but instead some other novel phenomenon? What determines whether a game is narrated in the first-, second- or third-person?

Now, I’ve a bit of a soft spot for the ways we use language to put ourselves in a game so I don’t think we’re collectively insincere or misguided in how we use our pronouns this way; I think the confusion of identity is being generated and it’s not just a linguistic quirk. I also think our use of narrative perspective is not just imported jargon stripped of its traditional narrativistic meaning, that when we say “first-person perspective” we mean by it what it usually means.

Instead our identity confusion can be resolved by understanding the role of camera as (primary1) narrator separate from characters and audience, moving away from the theory of the camera in a purely functional sense as a mundane viewport for the player and towards perspective as a narrative tool simultaneous to being a visual tool. Same as in cinema, the camera is a representational device and what it represents constitutes narrative—it abstracts and contextualizes to produce meaning. And one of the functions of the camera as narrator is navigating player identity into the fiction. In this way our player identity at any given time is a relationship into which we enter through participating with the text similar to the concept of gaze: a process of incorporating the fiction of a text into our self-individuation.

Framing Identity - or: How Can I Be Both Lee and Clementine

 

A note of clarification is warranted at this point as to what ‘identity’ means in this context. Increasingly often when we speak of identity in games what we’re referring to is representation, as in the representation of social identities. This ties in with identity politics as the acknowledgement of group affiliations as being innately politicized and is followed through on by considering identity within one’s media analysis.

Often in part this is informed by a concept of ‘player identity’ as self-insertion: the popular line of thought that a player-character can, does or ought to serve as an avatar for the player. Character creation tools and customization can help facilitate self-insertion under this model, in that they allow the player to self-represent to their heart’s content (or more usually, until the customization limits are reached), as does organizing a game’s cast of playable characters with the intent of satisfying a diverse playerbase seeking to self-insert. Under this model, a player’s identity is therefore facilitated by a game’s willingness to represent various social groups.

Outside of sociology, another referent by ‘identity’ is its philosophical application defined as the relationship a thing has to itself, otherwise phrased as A is A, where ‘is’ signifies an ontological relation between the subject and predicate of the proposition.

My identity to myself is a tricky thing to pin down despite in practice feeling self-evident. For instance, if I am no more than my body, do I undergo a transformation of identity whenever I trim my fingernails or have a headcold? Is the virus a part of my identity, much like how my internalizations of cultural values seem to me (however foolishly) as inseparable from myself? Or am I, as phenomenologists might say, merely a bundle of perceptions somewhat removed from my materiality?

It is a very contentious subject. It’s so contentious there are even people who think it’s not contentious at all.

Anyway, for the purpose of talking about player identity here what I’m referring to is the metaphysical concept of identity rather than the sociological one. Although one’s social identity obviously plays a part in one’s metaphysical identity and can be a criteria in ascribing player identity, it is not a prerequisite for me to be able to identify as my player-character. There’s a subtle variation between the sociological and metaphysical application hinting towards these phenomena actually being two slightly different experiences—identify-with and identify-as, respectively. I don’t need to identify-with a player-character to identify-as them, or in other words I can experience embodiment without actually being anything like my player-character. If we allow these two sensations to belong to either field, identify-as would indicate relation whereas identify-with signals representation.

Understanding the camera in the role of primary narrator allows us to contextualize identify-as within its remit as a narrativistic function on top of its visual and mechanical functions, where applicable. This is not to say that visual perspective directly correlates to player identity. A player’s self-identification is the result of craft, a million interlinking threads, or two interlinking threads, which align for the player just right so that they experience that sense of embodiment. While (camera) perspective can facilitate that it is not a law of nature that it be so. Rather, what I want to emphasise is that perspective and identity form a relationship through their conjunction that the narrative experience exhibits. I am (not) Cloud. I am (not) Squall. I am not Captain Martin Walker.

So how for instance the camera frames a scene gives us insight as to the relational characteristics of our player identity. BioShock Infinite puts us in an intimate position with Booker DeWitt; The Last of Us displaces us slightly from Joel so that ours is an external perspective to his. This is not to say we necessarily identify less as the player-character in a third-person game than in a first-person one because of how the camera is positioned, but rather it describes the difference of relation between player and player-character on a case by case basis, the externalizing sensation of which may contribute to our confusion over the metaphysical location of our identity.

Let’s use an example to see this properly in motion. I’m positive this won’t have been a universal experience among players so please bear with me.

Framing Identity - or: How Can I Be Both Lee and Clementine

In the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead we played as Lee Everett who finds himself the ward of a young girl named Clementine. Over the five episodes of the season, a parental bond developed towards Clem both from Lee and quite a good number of the game’s players, to the point that the ontological distinction of Lee in his relationship towards Clem became negligible to them.

Well, Lee then died, and when the second season came around players then took up control of Clementine. Speaking for myself, it was at first not unlike a sensation of projected inheritance of Lee’s legacy and guidance onto Clem. Over a short space of time however, Clem shifted in her role from ‘daughter figure’ to ‘self’, in that my perception of her in relation to me changed appropriate to her newly adopted role as protagonist.

As if to complicate that, at the start of every episode Lee’s voiceover would introduce a ‘Previously on The Waking Dead segment, stirring up old feelings of parental identity which clash with my self-identification as Clementine.

This all comes to a head in the final episode of season two when Clementine has a dream-hallucination that returns the player to a point midway through the first season, to a scene that never happened. Lee and Clem are in transit between disasters and Clem curls up to him for reassurance and guidance. Although during the first season this point in their journey felt chaotic, retrospectively it almost seems nostalgic to relive a moment with the old group, and especially with Lee, for delusions of stability and security it offers us and Clementine.

So through this scene I experienced a very unusual thing: I was at once Lee and Clementine in my mind, for my identity as Lee still lingered long after I’d lost control of him many episodes ago. As Lee I reflected on my impressions of the gameworld ingrained from the first season, including my parental bond towards Clem, and vague, naive hopes that everything would be OK, which then conferred onto my identity as Clementine as reassurance. But by facing this parental bond I acknowledged my identity as Clementine existing as another part of myself, so in that moment there grew within me a relationship between myself and another version of myself—my self-perception as Lee and my self-perception as Clementine. Each facet then shared across their relative perception of the other character so that I suddenly identified intimately as two characters observant of each other.

I became aware of the location of my player identity as a spectator to myself through the fiction of the game. Similar to Jacques Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage in a child’s development, this one scene bore identity consciously as a compositional technique of perspective, rather than through conceptual models of social representation.

 


 

1. With secondary narrator as, for instance, another character’s voice-over.

Notes on Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward

Notes on Virtue's Last Reward

This piece is community funded. If you like this article, please consider supporting my writing by visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron.

0.

What follows is a light canter through some of the themes of Virtue’s Last Reward. Not even all of the themes, just some, since here we have a game so intensely dense it would take far longer to do justice than I can spare at present. For some reason, Virtue’s Last Reward is not a very widely written-about game despite the favour it has won within a fiercely passionate fanbase. These notes are my contribution to change that. So I’ve made an early executive decision that this will almost completely be a spoiler-free zone, bar some points of lore and sci-fi, with the hope to entice you into picking up this title at some time preferably soon. I could gush, oh I could gush, though I’ll leave that till another day.

Lastly, I apologize in advance for writing while hungry. Also: VLR’s developers are named Chunsoft—this will come up again at the end. It’s not important that you remember, it’s just the little editor in my head will bug me endlessly for even the slightest lack of clarity on the matter.

1.

In a small, fearful whisper of a voice I say Virtue’s Last Reward is one of my favourite games.  Normally I’m quite skittish about these things. After the credits have rolled and the disk’s box has accumulated a healthy film of dust, it’ll still take me an age to decide whether I want to take a game, frame it and hang it on my wall. You know, that kind of post-game meditation where, once it’s over and done, you don’t just put it down and move on with your life, but instead keep it with you and carry it along as a part of you, buoying yourself with your past wonder and joy. I only played Virtue’s Last Reward maybe a month ago but I treasure it.

2.

You might be pleased to know, for the benefit of fleshing me out as a person1, that VLR is the sequel to 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, which at first I utterly despised. Oh god did I hate it. As well as burdening the narration with the unfortunate design decision to over-indulge in our shockingly dull protagonist, Junpei, said narration was also restricted to the Platonic form of a snail’s pace. It wasn’t until I eventually and thankfully died that something clicked. The sensation I remember was as if my brain spun an entire 360 degrees in my head and thanked for its exhilaration the nearest thing at hand, which was my DS. In an instant, 999 snapped from all the way from ‘intolerable’ to ‘sublimely magical’, and it, too, became one of my favourite games.

3.

This is my way of saying: I absolutely recommend you play these games, starting with 999.

4.

But where would a videogame be without some completely superfluous sexism. Where 999 had entertained itself by damselling virtually every female character in existence, Virtue’s Last Reward takes the more sombre approach of granting its protagonist, Sigma, the bad habit of creeping on women and framing it as comedy. I won’t give examples because even typing it out makes me regret Point Number 1, though rest assured they are many. The fact that Sigma’s horrible antics recur so frequently, and with him never being substantially reprimanded to an extent that would prevent his continued misbehaviour, suggests we’re expected to laugh it off as all in good fun. I was not so inclined.

5.

Incidentally, I haven’t forgotten that another character, Tenmyouji, at one point states rather firmly he is moved to nausea at the thought of a man dressing in women’s clothes. Now, while I put forty glorious hours into devouring VLR and these moments made up just a tiny portion of the whole, they were a blight on an otherwise happy experience. You kind of come to expect horrible stuff like this from videogames but this was very trying.

6.

I adore mysteries, and more so murder mysteries—I’ve a cavernous hunger for the genre. In this metaphor I play games with my belly. I understand this flatters neither myself nor VLR since by this imagery the main thing it has going on is that I’m a great big glutton, but look, it is the truth. So, VLR is a trough full of wonderful and I am a pig.

That might be the ultimate cause of my enjoyment of the game but still VLR does quite a few clever things with itself outside of the central mystery. First, a little backstory:  college student Sigma awakens to find himself imprisoned in a facility alongside eight other individuals. Together they are forced to play the Nonary Game, an escape-the-room tournament, under penalty of death. The identity of their captor, codenamed Zero, soon gives way to the larger question of the purpose of the Game. Throughout the Nonary Game, our cast comes across curious snippets of lore from the worlds of science, mathematics, archaeology, and so on, patterned to clue the player in to the themes and plot twists lying at the heart of the answer to this question.

7.

One of the major themes is consciousness, particularly the nature of it. Both 999 and VLR incorporate the metanarrative that comes from a player’s routine act of dying and replaying a game into the story proper. The information you gather on one fatal playthrough (which becomes a timeline) carries through to the next timeline both in your mind, Dear Player, and in the mind of Sigma by virtue of the knowledge you act upon through him. This grows and develops into a doctrine on consciousness as a certain arrangement of data—knowledge of your name, your past, the characteristics of the people around you, the secret password you need to bypass a door—that can be manipulated and distributed much like we do with electronic data. The manner by which consciousness is distributed in VLR relies on some delightfully hokey science, which is ok. It’s a game, not a thesis.

This seems outrageous until they bring up the Chinese room, a thought experiment where a man relays pre-programmed responses to questions fielded at him, and he oblivious to the meaning of any message in the communication. The experiment juxtaposes actual understanding against the mere appearance of understanding, aiming to disprove the possibility that a computer could attain consciousness as humans have it. But it sparks intrigue on the connections between meaning and knowledge (in the form of information), and on those between consciousness and understanding.

The question Virtue’s Last Reward asks is this: if information can be sent from one person to another (such as in the case of writing it down and handing it to them), can understanding likewise be communicated in some form or other? If so, might that constitute a transmission of consciousness?

8.

To this end: robots.

9.

Another theme presented is causality. Extrapolating from Schrodinger’s Cat, which draws on the dual likelihoods of a cat being either alive or dead at a particular moment in time through the magic of quantum mechanics, VLR posits that by understanding conflicting events as existing within a superposition, they can be retroactively resolved one way or the other by an external cause. There are some implementations of this logic taken literally where a character’s earlier actions change state from ‘yes’ to ‘no’ according to the player’s present decision. But the more interesting2 application relates, again, to consciousness.

Given how actions are largely interpreted in conjunction with their consequences, we typically rely on retroactive information to tell us the meaning of an event. For example, a vicious comment is realised as hurtful through the effect it had on the person it was targeting; if that person never heard it and was never harmed, perhaps the comment would not be thought of as mean. Although the act of a recipient hearing a comment and becoming offended by it is a separate, later event to the act of a cruel old bastard shooting their mouth off, still we attribute the effect as innate to the cause, as a characteristic of it, and not as happenstance. This is just the normal way we conduct ourselves in how we model reality.

When we make a decision, be it a moral choice or, as in VLR, choosing between ‘yes’ and ‘no’, a lot of the time we can only determine whether it was an important decision by the events that unfold because of it. Sometimes your choice might seem to be crucial as you are taking it but is later proven inconsequential, while other times the opposite happens. So if the means by which we value or regret our decisions stems from an understanding taken from information that was unavailable at the time the choice was made, does that mean we have little way of understanding our thoughts and actions in the present tense?

Going by the Chinese Room, does this deny us the possibility of consciousness? Are we no different than a computer autonomously reading from a script it could never comprehend?

q.

So the game has themes. Many games have themes. Nothing new there. But the beautiful thing about this particular game is it respects your intelligence. I say that in contrast to the vast majority of titles I’ve played in recent years. This is a game that exists as it is and knows you’ll either discover a perfectly VLR-sized hole in your brain begging to be filled. Or you won’t give a toss, in which case, grand, nobody can befriend everyone. Chunsoft knows that the baddies and the goodies resonate thematically—sure didn’t they make the game—but they have faith you’ll pick up on it if you’ve the passion to go hunting. It is not the sort of super smart game that makes pretension out of its insecurity, so feels the need to temper itself. I’m looking at you, The Last of Us, with your bloody action setpieces and your bloody ladders. Sorry playerbase, you’re all as thick as mud.

VLR is a narrative puzzle twisted around a stock of ludic puzzles. As you unwrap it and start to tie together all the dangling plot threads, you gradually discover this wonderful harmony deep within the core. The solving of this puzzle becomes an aesthetic joy.

 

1. Which I am, and not a bot.
2. And perhaps saner—I am neither a quantum nor a mechanic.