Thoughts on nearby covers

Thoughts on some covers - Alien Trilogy

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One of my most vivid videogame-related childhood memories is this. In July of 1996, my brother, the middle one, had done our mam no favours by asking for a copy of Alien Trilogy for his birthday. Despite the game having launched four months earlier, which in modern terms would have made it a hundred years old by July, nowhere in our area had any copies in stock. By which I mean, none of the three local video rental shops had it in stock, because this was Ireland at a time when the commercial exchange of games was a novel quirk and not a viable business angle.

Packed into the car were we for a rare trip to The Tallaght Square, famous in our minds for reason number one of being the only remotely accessible shopping centre in the greater Dublin area at a time before Blanchardstown and Liffey Valley. Reason number two for its fame was that it was pyramidal, not square, and this for us, pre-internet, constituted a joke whose humour was always worth revisiting.

So it was immediately a bit of a journey just to find this game, and when we did recover a copy in The Square, it felt all the more of a treasure. I’m sure there were other errands on that trip but my memory tells me it was the only thing we came away with. My brothers and I passed the box around for the long drive home, poring over the manual and delighting in anticipation of what the box cover suggested, foreboding the Alien’s imminent pounce. Once at home we put it on and certainly thrilled in the experience, but now I suspect I didn’t enjoy it half as much I did its prelude.

Perhaps it’s because back then we had fewer games and an over-abundance of free time that we would so patiently gorge on a game’s extra material like aesthetes at an art museum. Now, as I have no lack of the former but absolute lack of the latter, I seldom consciously dwell on a game’s cover as intensely as I used to. While I still variably note my appreciation for or dislike of any given box art, I don’t study what I enjoy about it and savour the anticipation or place it in context, beyond exceptional circumstances. I miss that.

So, with my limited vocabulary, I’d like to take a spell to put that sort of mindfulness to a platoon of games stationed at hand beside me, them dust-coated sentries what have kept me company these past years of working and writing. Continue reading

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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.

Parenthood

[Minor spoilers for The Last of Us and BioShock Infinite follow.]

Zoe the kitten

The closest I am to a parent is a cat owner. For empathising with parenthood-themed videogames it’s a serviceable enough reference point. A year ago I’d have called myself a dog person with zero hesitation, and yet here I am: I love our kitten, Zoe. The way she nuzzles her face into my nose tells me she loves me.

I can tell a few things about her, which I pretend amount to a singular personality. Zoe loves to climb into the tiny space behind the gas boiler, so we’ve had to block it off with Stephen King books. When the plumbers came around they took away the boards under the kitchen cupboards, and since Zoe saw they could be removed she’s dedicated her mornings to clawing them ajar herself, even if she needs to open the fridge door to get the angle at them. She thankfully prefers the cheap Tesco cat food to the expensive Whiskers stuff. As soon as she was able to jump high enough she took to perching atop doorframes – I’m afraid she’ll one day climb up into the ceiling tunnel leading to the skylight and slip to her death, even though one time she walked happily away from a two-storey fall from the bathroom window. She wants to be friends with the dog next door. They like to stare at one another for extended periods.

So I have a cat, we’ll approximate her to a child. She’s wilful enough. I’m watching her grow up too quickly, learning new things, getting bored of old toys. When I’m not home, I worry she’s wedged herself in some crevasse and died. I wonder if I’m not paying her enough attention or if there’s something wrong with her litter tray and that’s why she’s been pooing in the sink. We tried teaching her to use the toilet but she didn’t fully get it.

Zoe isn’t a gun I point at a butterfly and shoot. She doesn’t “manage my resources” by eating and crapping and letting me clean it up. She is another living being, astonishingly, not a power-up or an accessory that increase my abilities.

And yet, parenthood as described by videogames on a whole generally tells us this is what children are: dreadfully bothersome creatures who suck up all your energy and tolerance, baited with rewards. Apologism follows, as it did with BioShock Infinite, which sought validation of your daughter-figure through mechanical use. “Elizabeth can change the shape of the battlefield”; she can find loot to hurl your way. Irrational makes Elizabeth useful as a gateway to making her endearing, exalting her systemic function.

BioShock Infinite’s vision of parenthood is finding someone of a younger generation to help you do the things you were doing anyway, indistinguishable from a minion but for your tone of voice. In this manner, your daughter is a walking, talking pair of pants that give your bullets fire damage. But they say the relationship transcends because she’s always there on-screen and sometimes points to things and says “Ooo”.

Irrational divines its philosophy from the popular school of thought that says if it’s not happening to you, around you or of you, you will instantly doze off, and Elizabeth’s existence is included in this. Although suddenly free and all-powerful after a life of imprisonment, Elizabeth doesn’t have an ounce of self the entire game through. She can’t even scavenge without Booker’s permission. Elizabeth’s actions are only those which you permit or those cued to environmental triggers, which Irrational boasts you can ignore and she will attend to your convenience. The Lamb of Colombia is a sheep to Booker’s empowerment.

Cat pyjamasThe Last of Us carries a similar message more expertly told. Joel’s ward, Ellie, serves little in the way of gameplay functionality. I think she offered some bullets once and they were discretely added to my backpack, although I could be wrong. Sometimes she will stab a bandit to death, sparing me the cost of combat, and she does it off her own back, without my say-so. It grants her a voice outside of mine. Baddies can even grapple with her, making her a little bit less invisible than Elizabeth.

If your relationship with Elizabeth is utility-based, with Ellie it’s behaviour-based. TLOU is less concerned with making her beneficial to you and more concerned with making her feel real: speaking and acting in natural or unpredictable ways, existing alongside me.

Still, she plays second fiddle to Joel because, ultimately, the game revolves around Joel growing up. It’s the story of him reconciling the death of his daughter and learning to trust again, to love again, albeit in a terrifying antagonistic way. Joel’s patriarchal need to command Ellie supersedes her autonomy – each major step in their relationship begins or ends with his assertion of dominance over her. The climax centres on Joel’s inability to accept her self-sacrifice for the good of all humanity. It’s hard to believe Naughty Dog didn’t intend for Joel to be a selfish and frightening villain and Ellie the relatable heroine.

Parenthood is nevertheless a major theme in Joel’s character arc, although told across the narrative of an increasingly subverted father figure. I like to imagine TLOU’s sequel is Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver. “Joel was deified.”

So to the extent that BioShock Infinite and TLOU are about parenthood, they conceive it as control. Two of the biggest games of recent years dealing with a narrative as old as humanity, and this is the best they can figure: two father-figures to whom a daughter is but a mechanism for their own wish-fulfillment. More accurate to what I imagine parenthood to be, at least by the meagre extrapolation of having a cat, is for the burgeoning autonomy of the child to take centre stage, which can take the form of the child increasingly stealing narrative focus or performances. In strictly systemic, mechanical terms, when I think of parenthood, I think of A Mother in Festerwood.

Here it’s a harsh world. Monsters lurk deep within Festerwood – you can see them all around, great big purple behemoths and red-eyed, tentacled ghouls. Jotted around the woods amidst the dangers, however, are harmless bunnies, treasure chests, and what looks like a sword sticking out of the ground. In the centre of this bustling world is my home, where I live with my son, who I’ve decided to name Sprog.

Sprog wants to wander outside the house. He’s compelled to. From the moment he’s a tiny sprite, he drifts towards Festerwood as if it’s calling to him. My son, the adventurer.

But should he wander in, dinky as he is, he will surely die. Within the clearing surrounding our house I know he’s safe, but beyond that, where I can’t go, there’s so much danger all around. I coddle Sprog and keep him within the clearing, pushing him home again and again. I can do nothing but use my body as an obstacle, encouraging him homeward. The forest will kill him. Anything could kill him.

As Sprog wanders around the clearing, he experiences the world. Since this is a JRPG mock-up, he levels up his health and strength as he wanders. Every time I push him back to the house, the experience bar empties. Regardless of his rate of levelling up, time passes on and with it Sprog is also growing up, getting bigger and bigger, faster and faster. Soon I won’t be able to stop him from leaving. He’s always been an adventurer; try as I might, one day he will outmaneuver me and run away to see the world. So I skirt around the clearing as far out as I can manage and I try to encircle Sprog within it. I can’t dote on him: I need to let him roam and learn how to deal with the world while I’m still around to accompany him.

Then comes the day when he finally breaks past me – is he too young? Is he prepared? Was I over-protective? Should I have been paying more attention and stopped him? Should I have guided him northward when I had the chance, away from the dragons down south? He’ll die. He’ll stumble into a cyclops or be run down by a sleuth of bears and he won’t make it home. Sprog will blip out of existence and all that will be left is his grave. And the game ends.

2014-01-16 03.31.31Interpersonal tension comes about from conflict of autonomy, mine and his. He wants to leave and I want him to stay. He needs to learn and I need to keep him safe. I can’t stop him from growing up. I can’t fawn over him and, in my fear, deprive him of living his life. I can’t throttle away her agency and her individuality. But I’m scared Zoe might run away one day. She might not be able to find her way back, or she might not be able to reach the apartment. We live in the centre of town – I’m scared she’ll get run over. She wants to go outside so much, I’m worried she might transfix on a butterfly and pounce right off the balcony. She’s still only a kitten.

My mam gets worried if my brothers or I don’t answer her calls. She knows we have lives of our own, we’re tired or busy or out and about. We’ve long since left the nest, but still she frets.

There’s another ending to A Mother in Festerwood: if Sprog survives for long enough, he comes home to his elderly, grey-haired mother waiting by the porch. He tells me about his adventures, the treasures he found, the beasts he has slain. His speech bubble expresses love and he enters the house. Mine does too, and I join him.

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

 

 

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