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.

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The scalpel and the axe

 

Ludonarrative analysis of Metro: Last Light

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

[Spoilers for The Last of Us and Metro: Last Light.]

I’m finding new ways to explain my low feelings for The Last of Us, courtesy of Metro: Last Light. Both are shooters, both are set in post-apocalyptic worlds, both revolve around finding the value of living when no future seems possible. In a huge number of ways they’re kin, which certainly helps us to pit them together in the following dual close reading. And yet, one stark difference emerges when we consider either title’s composition: whereas The Last of Us comes across as a clash of conflicted priorities, Metro: Last Light is a great big mess in beautiful symphony.

The three interlocking things I’ll be talking about here are narrative, design and aestheticism—useful analytical tools, although as we play games these might as well be used synonymously. With respect to how these categories interoperate on one relatively minor scale, let’s consider how Metro: Last Light uses mechanical gimmickry to perpetuate concepts of its fictional world, as hostile and cluttered, and represent it back to the player as if player and world are relational, per the game’s overarching themes.

Mechanical Noise

Of the various threads that make up this web, at any given time you’re pressured by a dozen different environmental and inventorial factors informing your basic survival in the irradiated ruins of Moscow. For many of these concerns all it takes is memorizing which buttons to press once you’ve opened your inventory menu, and then, if relevant, whatever not-quite-a-minigame hoop you need to jump through to finish the job.

For instance, like every other device, turning on your flashlight takes two buttons to bring up the menu and equip it. Alternatively, if your light is shining to dim, you may want to power up its battery, which is a different menu selection followed by another few more presses of the R1 button until it’s sufficiently charged.

Putting on your gasmask is also two buttons, but for it to be of any use against the poisonous atmosphere you need air filters, which can be attached by the press of another two buttons. There’s a timer on your sleeve that shows how much air you’ve left with your current filter, although it’s hard to make out the numbers with your flashlight on, so monitoring this involves bringing up the menu on the fly and switching this off while plugging that in and measuring it against the total number over there, then dropping the menu to see your sleeve and bringing it up again to set this back on and maybe charging your battery while you’re at it. Your gasmask has another few things asking for your attention, like having to tap L2 to wipe goop off the eyepiece, and cracks in the glass that tendril outwards the more damage you take, obscuring your vision and promising the mask’s impending failure.

Even the basic act of using a gasmask turns out to be a little bit complicated. And that’s not even getting into how you have to do this while measuring light sources respective to your needs and maybe taking a moment to pump up a weapon’s gas canister as you measure the necessity to search for more filters against the time you can spare on the endeavour.

In one way, it’s the gameplay version of constantly patting down your pockets to make sure you have everything in order. This creates a wonderful sense where surviving in the open is partly determined by your continuous mindfulness of your resources and an almost puzzle-like navigation of your belongings. Bearing in mind exploration and shooting are still the game’s main avenues of gameplay, really what all this extraneous gimmickry amounts to is mechanical noise, complimenting the game’s visual and auditory noise.

And it is a tremendously noisy game, in each of these respects. Walk into a room and, contrary to the laws of videogames, two conversations will start up concurrently, drowning each other out so you’d break your ears trying to decipher them both. But what might otherwise seem amateurish design comes across as a conscious choice given how it fits into the whole. The world of Metro is in many ways very messy, cluttered with debris and information and endless types of shite scattered all about the place, wholly distinct and overwhelming.

Comparatively, The Last of Us is a much cleaner game, to the point of sanitization. Like Last Light, you’re in a post-apocalyptic wasteland for a good portion of the story, but the way you as Joel (and Ellie) relate to it differs vastly from Artyom’s relationship with Moscow. There are shooting sections and stealth sections, again as in Last Light, as well as ‘exploration’ sections where you navigate the land.

But aside from bandits and infected humans, there’s not quite anything to put you in any risk. Places where the air is poisoned with spores have Joel and Ellie putting on their gasmasks automatically—it’s not something you need to worry about as a player, and you’ll never fret about the gasmask cracking open or your air filter running out. In essence, you’re not put under duress other than when you’re being attacked by someone, because the land isn’t actively hostile to your presence.1

These exploration sections where all you need to do is fill your appetite by soaking in the environment serve as TLOU’s downtime. There’s not a lot of mechanical noise you need to wade through as part of your (technical, emotional, psychological, aesthetic) interaction with the world around you. Despite the fact that the cities you pass through represent the devastation this future has wrought on human civilization, they’re actually quite peaceful to stroll through. It’s nice.

That being said, you do still constantly need to scavenge up some ammo and supplies to fuel your trek, but everything you can conceivably pick up glows white to attract the eye, so finding your business is seldom a bother, contrasting with Last Light where you have to be on top of something before you know if it’s collectible. The game presents scavenging with the same stark minimalism of its overall aesthetic—the HUD is small and visually tidy, as are all the different menus for crafting or switching firearms.2 The design of each system is streamlined and sleek in a gritty, abrupt way; pathfinding, scavenging and exploration mirror this design ethos. It is an exceedingly neat game to play.

Now, it doesn’t do much good to simply say Last Light is messy and TLOU is clean, since whether something is messy or clean doesn’t really inform what we get out of the game by virtue of it being one or the other. Messiness is not inherently positive, cleanliness is not inherently negative. To see how it matters we need to plug this aspect back into the game holistically. By doing this, we’re looking for whether the application of this ludonarrative to its major themes and story arcing ends up producing a smooth, coherent melody or a distorted cacophony.

For this, let’s return again to either gameworld and look at how it applies to the story, and specifically how the apocalypse informs the lives of these characters, since the mechanics we’ve discussed detail how the characters relate back to the world.3

After the Bombs

So Metro: Last Light’s post-apocalyptic scenario is derived from the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust twenty years ago, resulting from a vague war between unknown participants who lived up to a policy of mutually assured destruction. The phantom of the Cold War is seen here, when the threat of nuclear war was very much a present worry for people outside of the political squabbling of the two superpowers, and the thought of losing everything in a conflict between these distant parties presented a fear so large as to be almost inconceivable.

What was only a possibility in Russia’s history is here realized in the Metro universe: a world whose fear of the unknown throttled itself to death. This fear manifests thematically in a few different ways in both Metro 2033 and Last Light—notably, it takes hold in guise of the Reds (and, less prominently, the Fourth Reich) as threats to Artyom’s faction grounded in ideological differences. The communist conspiracy to overtake the metro invites the latter half of Last Light’s story, and although you can say that’s less of an ideological cause and more the result of a power-hungry dictator, it nevertheless harkens back to its Cold War lineage.

On a broader scale, the apocalyptic terror reveals a fear of the alien nature of other creatures, as in the dehumanized race called the Dark Ones, envisioned by the human population as monsters, moreso even than the communist or Nazi enemies. Artyom faces this fear largely in Metro 2033, wherein the monsters are revealed as a misunderstood community of peaceable beings, though canonically too late to prevent their purging by a second barrage of nuclear missiles, to great thematic irony.

The first half of Last Light has Artyom chasing after the lone surviving Dark One, a child, as it’s carted all about the metro by this or that conniving party. By the time you catch up with the little Dark One, Artyom’s resolution to end its life has crumbled into regret that he could have launched the missiles to doom an entire race of the creatures. His newfound empathy for the little Dark One erodes his fear of those of an unknown nature, and he befriends it, as he had befriended an elderly Dark One long in the past.

Larger still out of the looming unknown is a more profound  fear—the fear of being small in a vast world, of being subject to the whims of fate and the machinations of men, of finding one’s life proven insignificant. This is both a cosmic fear and a spiritual one, finding expression within the recurring character of Khan, Metro’s spiritualist and Artyom’s guide to Moscow’s more ghostly depths.

Through Khan we find expression of the moral of the story, a unifying resolution to each of the above thematic fears: to keep an open mind and brave the unknown, instead of recoiling at what might at first seem strange and terrible. This theme is at the heart of the game’s multiple endings and the hidden ‘morality’ system that determines the climax of the story. The mechanical ambiguity of the system works in its favour—it’s less about performing actions that are good or bad, and more about displaying an openness of mind in a variety of different ways, like listening to a whole conversation, travelling off the beaten track, and acting kindly towards enemies who are not distinctly hostile.

Since Metro is really about Artyom’s journey to understand the world around him, it fits that this ‘morality’ system presents a mechanical expression of the same for the player: even interacting with the system and trying to figure out how it works is an act in its favour.

It’s in the same spirit that while we travel the metro we’re forced, for the purpose of playing the game, to decipher meaning and relevancy from all the visual and mechanical chatter that clogs up our senses. The process of managing your inventory and juggling all the different gimmicks that facilitate your survival means acquiescing to the cosmic state of affairs—this is a gameworld where, if I am to interact with it, I must think and behave like so. The ludonarrative meshes nicely with this theme of relaxing oneself into cosmic chaos and discovering order among the chaff.

Mechanical noise in Metro: Last Light

Porcelain Masculinity

The Last of Us’ post-apocalypse is more psychological and personal than nuclear and cosmic. Here were see America twenty years4 after a zombie outbreak tore apart its infrastructure and left the bulk of the land lost to the state of nature. Surviving civilization built around the wreckage of such a massive loss again takes inspiration from its past trauma. In this case, the fear of zombies is a fear of losing one’s mind, represented as it often is first by the disintegration of concepts and customs of normalcy, specifically the collapse of society as we know it and the structures which define our present lives.

This theme takes the background throughout The Last of Us—it’s not quite about exploring topics raised in Night of the Living Dead or The Walking Dead. Instead, it’s taken for granted that what little humanity survives hides in walled-off settlements or nomadic groups, with the wilderness in-between the domain of bandits, survivalists and entropy. Although we briefly see glimpses of Boston’s quarantine zone as dystopian, and we know the Fireflies fight a cause against the present authorities, they’re never expanded upon. Not once throughout the duration of the story are we made privy to the motivations and details behind these societal struggles, since it only really serves as ambiance for the journey of our main characters. Joel accepts that society has fallen and the world’s turned to hell, and there ends his interest in the subject. He has adapted to it.

However, rather than the zombies of TLOU being of the old fashioned walking dead variety, it takes a more original spin on the old formula. Cordycep-infected react to prey much like the livelier crazies, but heed the underlying causes and logic from its real life reference: a parasitic fungus which consumes the brains of insects and overtakes their bodies to further its propagation. A cruel horror made more sinister by the reality of its existence.

By this, the fear of these zombies carries a teleological edge, since Cordyceps essentially function as mind control that irreparably degrades the host victim. The fear is less like dying and being replaced by a living dead, where there’s at least a clear delineation between where you end and it begins, and more like being eaten alive from the inside out while being made to do the bidding of some unfathomable lifeform.

The fear of losing one’s mind is more literal here. It’s a degradation and perversion of self, a corruption of one’s brain which would set the host upon their nearest and dearest. Partly, it’s a fear based in the betrayal of intimacy, which haunts Joel more than anything throughout his character arc, albeit subtly, since he roots his concept of self so heavily in that more personal societal structure: the family unit. And he disdains the world for taking it away from him.

This is a tricky one to pin down because Joel at once derives so much of himself from these interpersonal relationships at the same time as he holds them at arm’s length for the fear that they and he might destroy each other. To highlight how this fear is thematic within the game, we’d need to both show how integral family is to Joel’s sense of self and his resistance to succumbing to that self-perceived weakness.

So clearly his mourning for Sarah and his longing for the restoration of father-daughter bonds inform his relationship with Ellie the whole game through, since it’s the central relationship of the story and the one which most defines Joel at any given point. Otherwise, with Tess he lives within a certain comfort zone, a stable working relationship—their partnership being clearly defined to the ease of Joel’s self-establishment. With brother Tommy things are a bit rockier after their falling out: their relationship is strained but still Joel feels he can depend on his brother when his need is greatest.

To greater or lesser degrees, Joel’s emotional and psychological stability is linked to how well he feels himself fitting into each of the three roles of father, partner and (elder) brother. When his self-image is farthest from any of these roles he is at his weakest and most volatile; for example, after Tess dies and before he begins to form a fatherly bond with Ellie, and when Ellie rejects this bond coinciding with Tommy’s shirking of Joel’s brotherly authority.

The game extends the theme of family outwards to its minor characters, Henry and Sam, and Bill and Frank, so we’re given several stories of how the family structure is a guard against the horrors of this world and how loss of those relationships affects a person’s mind. Never so deeply as in Joel, however, whose psychological need to be a father ultimately compels him to doom humanity. This is the culmination of Joel’s arc, his “happy ending”—the overcoming of his fear of loss of self, and the cementing of his self-perception as a patriarchal figure to Ellie.

Which brings us to the last facet of the world’s trauma which I’ll be talking about: the fear of loneliness. Inverse to the comforts of family and friendships, when the gripping terror of turning against one another grows too much to bear, then we see the rising fear that one must face the world alone. It sparks many of Joel’s character traits—his over-protectiveness, his jealousy, his antipathy towards risky altruism and his hatred for self-sacrifice. As he grows more and more volatile after Tess’ death we can see how this fear consumes his soul. The very way he reacts to his daughter’s sudden demise as an abandonment, and the way he crawls up from his sickbed to rush to Ellie’s side, further suggest that Joel is petrified of being left alone.

This is The Last of Us’ spiritual component, or rather, how its world seeds a spiritual fear. We see through Bill how loneliness gnaws at one’s soul; we see it in Henry’s suicide; we see the spiritual sacrifices David’s crew chose to make to maintain their community. And all throughout, we see Joel’s petulance in how he clings to his current comforts and aptitudes, and the toll his chosen life is taking on his humanity, to which he is oblivious. It is a condition he supposedly triumphs over as the game arcs to a close, although bearing in mind how he prescribes his own spiritual completion perhaps that victory remains dubious.

Misused scalpel

So throughout each of these facets of the gameworld’s central theme, where fits the ludonarrative of the player’s interaction with the world? We have an abrupt and clean ludonarrative, almost peaceful and accommodating to the player in how it relates the world around them, and we have the various ways in which the world tears at the psyche of its inhabitants, threatening them with loneliness, insanity, and brutality. How does the manner we as players view the world play into or against the narratives of these characters or the story on a whole?

Perhaps the answer will come to me in time but as I write this I can’t for the life of me see how the one part could apply to the rest. The themes we’ve gone through are so heavily predicated on horror and one’s inner destruction that the pleasantry with which we come to the gameworld and engage with it is alarming, almost sociopathic. It’s as if Joel’s personal conception of the world is so stoic and emotionally divested, the fervour we then see in cutscenes where he shouts and laughs and cries is entirely faked for the benefit of the people around him. Or in other words, we have to doubt the passion of this game towards the emotional journeys of Joel and Ellie in order to adequately contextualize this ludonarrative within the whole.

Half of me is inclined to take that interpretation at face value and accept it as canonical. It’s an arseways jigsaw puzzle where the pieces don’t often fit each other very well, and you know, that’s generally the way of it. The other half of me balks at how artificial that reading would actually be, how much of the narrative we have to contrive to have it end up making sense, and the fact that this interpretation has us disregarding huge portions of the text as hollow, contrary to the clear effort gone in to making it.

Of course, this incoherent totality is a product of a design ethos that deliberately splits narrative from gameplay and formally compartmentalizes them. You have your cutscenes (where the story and narrative goes) and you have your gameplay (where the act of play goes), and never the two shall meet. It’s a delineation that comes, not from the loading screen that separates the two bits, but from the mentality with which its authors approached the game’s composition. That would be my exegetical explanation.

 


 

1. To clarify, there is a flashlight in TLOU that you can turn on and off as per your needs, and it sometimes flickers and dims as if the battery is coming loose in the casing. There’s a great solution here where the player waggles the controller to put the light back in order, so it’s not like TLOU is absent of gimmickry. Except, by the way the game is structured, you’ll never have your light on if you want to keep a low profile, and places where you don’t care about your profile are also places where you can take all the time in the world for waggling the controller. In effect, the gimmick is playful, not stressful.

2. All the nameless bits and bobs you collect are grit for the game’s crafting mechanic, or for upgrading Joel’s weapons or his personal survival prowess. We can haggle over whether these aspects succeed at simulating Joel’s resourcefulness or charting an arc of personal growth in his abilities—I’d argue crafting loses its touch once your inventory overflows with weaponized toys and supplies, which is bound to happen if you collect every glowing trinket that presents itself, and that most of Joel’s survivalist upgrades are so underpowered as to lack utility.

3. For the sake of setting these two games as analogous to one another, a few points of clarification: Metro: Last Light uses a first-person perspective, and given how the story plays out (Artyom is a silent protagonist, except for diary entries and loading screen synopses; his/the player’s actions influence the plot’s trajectory) it’s safe to say the player is expected to identify with Artyom through an appropriate lense. The Last of Us uses third-person camerawork—we can see Joel and his expressions, read the silence on his face when he can’t speak words he wants to, understand and extrapolate narrative from his body language in relation to Ellie. While the game uses various techniques to bring us close to Joel, I don’t think we’re quite meant to identify with him as if he were an avatar. Instead, Joel is held as an independent character to player self-identification. We like him or hate him, but we are not him. This is all a preamble to point out the fact that Joel’s and Artyom’s methods of interacting with the world differ by fact of their representation on-screen as well as in their relationship with the player. It’s not a 1:1 comparison. Anyway, some of this business about camera perspective impacting player identification might be contentious so I’m relegating it to a footnote.

4. I don’t know why twenty is the magic number for post-apocalyptic worlds.

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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Exploring A Dark Room

Exploring A Dark Room

(This article may have spoilers for A Dark Room and Candy Box 2)

I used to think the joy of exploration was in gathering up hidden packages and unlocking nodes on a skill tree. There’s the caricature of an ultra-conservative mammy screaming “Videogames rot your brain!”, but here, I was raised on a diet of games and this is the nonsense they imparted to me. Videogames are king at making sure you suffer from Stockholm Syndrome; it took a long time to divorce myself from that belief.

So there we go: I used to think games where you had to first gather something in order to unlock the node were the height of system cohesion. The Last of Us unveiled the lie in that, all of Joel’s possible upgrades melting into one long groan of boredom, each option as mundane and timid as the last. Nothing of interest lay there, so nothing of interest lay in the nooks of desiccated Boston housing the pills needed to upgrade.

When I was 15 this was enough for me. I remember devoting myself towards finding all the hidden packages in Grand Theft Auto 3, with pictured lists and a map I’d attacked with a pen sitting permanently beside me as I pored over that bloody game, wracking myself trying to find the last fucking collectible. I told myself this was a thing I needed to do, so I burned far too much of that horrid gameworld into my memory in pursuit of—I don’t know what. I didn’t enjoy it, I didn’t feel complete after it. Even thinking about it now is making me cranky. When Vice City came out I lied and swore I’d never do that again.

So nowadays when a game dolls itself up to inspire a rush of completionism, I see these trinkets scattered throughout the world only as incentives for travelling there, to cynically justify the time and effort of building this place with these nooks. It kind of dampens my connection to the gameworld, like the developers thought so little of it that I wouldn’t care if it weren’t populated with prizes. A shrug and the ding of a trophy say their reward as collectibles is self-fulfilling, that their pursuit nets their worth through the trouble in finding them, and in this is exploration: the scouring of a level to get all the things.

Some games remove the trinkets as middlemen and the motion of travelling is thought enough, as with No Man’s Sky’s glee over its world generation: “if you see a mountain you can go over to it.” This is what they reckon exploration feels like–going. Moving yourself from one place to another. Were this so, I must have explored my apartment every time I’ve lost my keys, for all the sense of physically doing that involves. And when I visit the bathroom I’m Jacques Cousteau.

In truth, exploration lives in fresh beginnings, in the sense of your future lingering in the air, waiting to be plucked up and brought to life. A strange new world, not explicitly travelled but learned and understood in its nature and its systems, its meaning as a playing field, the meaning of me as a person in it, in the expanding ways I relate to it as a player– this is what gives exploration its flavour. Fundamentally, it’s a feeling inside of me embodying my actions, since exploration can be walking or collecting or conversing but it isn’t necessarily these things, just as hearing doesn’t necessarily mean listening.

I’ve heard A Dark Room [iOS version here] compared before to Fallout in its dusty setting, or The Road in its fractured diction. Neither speaks of what endeared it to me, of the mystery and lure of a narrative entreating my desire to discover. It feeds a hunger barely staved in a medium of journals and audiologs, little nuggets of unbridled narrative potential. I love the way in Dark Souls, collectible items are represented by this warm golden glow. It might be a magnificent shield or a dainty heirloom, there’s no way of knowing until you pick it up. Because each item comes with a dollop of text that gives a little bit of the world away, every single glow is potentially invaluable.  The way Dark Souls uses lore to conjure up thoughts of undiscovered truths inscribes a litany of wonder through the relationships of items and creatures to their place in Lordran. It’s like that Windwaker cutscene of Link opening a treasure chest, except here as an atmospheric constant.

Likewise, what differentiates normal everyday loot from what lies within A Dark Room is the fantasy of possibilities, the promise of discovery allowed by mechanics and world.

A Dark Room starts plainly with just a few lines of text and a button to press. As a text adventure it has the advantage of a mechanical language shared with journals and diaries – any word or phrase in the English language has the potential of an action. So it starts with the stoking of a fire, which opens up the option to gather wood, which makes available a cart to build, and so on. With each newly uncovered action the screen fills up with a new button to press or more information to survey, and you realise the clean empty space of this textual world exists as a void to fill. A scrolling column of narration expands with new words alongside your actions, turning the world from the blank canvas of a cold dark room into a village, a wasteland, a battlefield, a roadside picnic, with more outwards and outwards.

So there comes a mystery with every new option of actions as each new step forward in your hovel’s growing economy pushes you deeper into the world. You start to hear shuffling and whispering behind the walls, you find missing traps torn to splinters some ways afield, the tattering of cloth and scales, and a crudely made charm, but for what? Everything is dust and dry and dead and tired, being pulled back slowly, warmed to life, revealed by the light of your fire. Through your expansion, the world revives. But with every revelation of new survivors and families and sickly beggars are more questions, and more to learn.

Here discovery is perpetuated by continuance of mystery, through the tantalizing imagery of shattered bones of the world revealed further as a corpse and further as alive, together with the shrinking canvas of your mechanical limitations. It presents you with a wanderer, who is you, and a world to read, then to fear, then to see, with understated questions stretching right until the end. It doesn’t frontload its secrets, it can afford not to be the kind of game too heavily funded to be coy about its systems and narratives, the kind unable to withhold itself. So it doesn’t need to funnel you forward with Pavlovian tricks and junk collectibles. A Dark Room shrouds its substance for your unveiling, drip feeding you with a patience rationed by the destitute world. As we learn about what we can do, we come to find out what has happened.

Another text-adventure, Candy Box 2, takes a different approach, hiding itself with irreverence instead of mystery. Here the world is upbeat and brims with magic and talking squirrels and witches and three-headed monkeys. It isn’t cloaked in abridged descriptions of a haunting landscape, but in the wonder of a bizarre cosmology. The map opens up much sooner and is more inviting and forthcoming, for it’s spatially imagined from words of text and images of type, rather than from its prose.

From a world where anything can happen extends the same opportunity to your actions: your verbs are less sophisticated than the economics of A Dark Room but much more carefree to the constraints of its narrative. You can plant lollipops for revenue, mix and stir and boil up a magic potion, liaise with a morose Cyclops, or dig through the title screen for a chocolate bar. In this Candy Box 2 enjoys a childlike freedom to its mechanics, the sense that anyone and anything is possible and you the agent that brings it all to life.

Most games lose their magic for me within a few hours of their beginning, as soon as the last big system of their gameplay opens up to reveal everything you need to know for all the hours to come. So I latch on to their stories and favour their mechanics and items and systems to this end. The joy of exploration comes not from climbing a hill but in discovering what’s beyond it. It’s in using Cinna’s Hammer and God Save The Queen to revisit old friends and see resolution to their stories. It’s in uncovering the lonely painted world whispered by a peculiar doll, and wondering how it came to lie in your asylum cell. It’s in the shuffling figures beyond your firelit lodge and ghostly shapes making off into the night.

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Edit 14/3/14: While the browser version of A Dark Room is completely free to play, they’ve also recently released an iOS version for 99 cents, available here, and an upcoming version for the iPad. I can’t recommend it enough.