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The Ludic Rashomon

This article was written by Mark Filipowich and originally published on Big Tall Words.

It was brought to us by our friends at Critical Distance, who find the best in critical writing about games each week. You can see more at their site, and support them on Patreon.

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A Rashomon, named after Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film, is a story repeated several times from different characters’ perspectives. Each retelling adds more information from each character until, in the end, a full story emerges. The Rashomon effect is a psychological phenomenon wherein multiple witnesses view the same event but describe it with different or even conflicting information, emphases, biases and so on. In Kurosawa’s film, each character recounting the plot adds their own spin and obfuscates the events with their own subjectivities. The bandit has a different way of seeing the world than the woodcutter. To be dramatic but still accurate: the world is different to the bandit than it is to the woodcutter so their ways of seeing are different.

There are several homages to Rashomon especially in television because a long-running series gives viewers the chance to really connect with the minutia of familiar characters (indeed, that’s often the appeal of television), so having a camera frame the world from one perspective in contrast to a different established subjectivity is a fun way for fans familiar with the characters to see personalities grind against one another. For example, there’s an episode of Due South in season three (“Seeing is Believing” s3. ep.5) where several primary and secondary characters witness a murder, each from about the same physical location, but flashback dialogue and actions are coloured by each character’s personality with increasing absurdity. Almost the exact same thing happens in The X-Files (“Bad Blood” s5. ep.12) in an episode where Mulder and Scully report to Dir. Skinner about a vampire town, both recounting the same events but augmenting the dialogue to valourize themselves and ridicule their partner. It’s one of the funniest and most layered episodes that subtly comments on each partner’s annoyance with one another’s methods and the egotism that inevitably creeps into their professional relationship. Which is most of the reason why people watch The X-Files.

This kind of narrative doesn’t just exist in film. One way of reading Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is as a series of responses to one another. The premise of The Canterbury Tales is that a group of travelers covering the entire social strata meet up at an inn on a pilgrimage to the town of Canterbury. When they stop for the night, each takes turns competing to tell the best story. Though Chaucer never lived to complete his extremely ambitious project, there are a number of threads in the material he did leave behind. The first story, The Knight’s Tale, is a run-of-the-mill epic of two warrior champions falling for the same damsel in distress, competing to liberate her, dueling one another to claim her and tragically seeing their sacred brotherly love destroyed over a woman, where one is vanquished and the victor wins the woman at the cost of the one friend he could count on in the world. Please take this moment to shed a single tear while I refer you to Eve Sedgewick’s writings on Homosocial desire.

Honestly, it’s a boring story with little going on in it, a rarity in Chaucer’s work. But the story is not to be taken on its own, the story is reflexive of The Knight telling it. The story champions the warrior class’s war theft and, according to Terry Jones (yeah, the Monty Python guy), The Knight’s story demonstrates the true interests of the aristocracy’s military arm as much as it demonstrates war’s true interest in resource acquisition (Chaucer’s Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary. 1980.). For Jones, who liberally connected Chaucer’s story to American imperial projects in the 1970’s, the Knight is a thug with a title and his story is the narrative performance of his interests: fighting, taking and pillaging. Now, you won’t find universal support for Jones among Medievalists, but I think it’s an interesting reading because there’s some reason to believe that Chaucer was more clever than his Knight.

Immediately following The Knight’s Tale is The Miller’s Tale, which recodes the high noble epic from the Knight into a bawdy sex-comedy. Where The Knight’s Tale is a rudimentary and boring epic war story, The Miller’s Tale turns all of the values coded in its precedent and inverts them. In The Miller’s Tale, two warring brotherly knights turn into a horny student and a sexy idiot apprentice, the damsel in distress becomes a lascivious town girl, the wise fatherly figure becomes a half-witted religious fanatic. The quest to win the girl’s heart becomes the sexytime adventures between the woman and the apprentice, the student becomes a pining ninny whom the lovers play jokes on and literally fart on. The same values uncritically championed by the Knight—if you can get through his story—are flipped on their heads.

Body overcomes spirit, woman overcomes man, consent overcomes competition. These two stories communicate with one another from different frames of reality. By contrasting them largely through class, Chaucer deconstructs the Knight through the Miller. Each character in The Canterbury Tales composes a narrative with their vision of the world in mind. And remember, their purpose is to tell the best story for a free dinner so their one-upmanship counts, the relationships of one story to all others counts and the many stories play on the values of each storyteller. Keep in mind that the storytellers don’t have names, they are known only by their social role (the Knight, the Friar, the Shipman, the Reeve, etc.) and so become a synechdoche for their class. They talk with one another from different genres and different interests, and those differences matter, but ultimately they are connected to one another.

As in Rashomon, the pilgrims each bring themselves into reconstructing reality. Naturally, Chaucer wasn’t referring to Kurosawa’s film in 1380 but time is an invention so I think the point still stands. Like I mentioned, subjective truth is a psychological phenomenon, Nietzsche made this point in “On Truth and Falsity in their Ultramoral Sense” when he calls Truth “A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms…” His point is that truth is in the telling, and different tellers compose different truths. It isn’t that objective reality doesn’t exist, it’s that human beings can only access it subjectively. Objectivity is out of bounds and the Rashomon, as a method of framing a narrative, exposes this.

It’s comparatively easy to see how films focalize through different perspectives. When Due South‘s Ray Kowolski sees one man stab another in a heated argument but Harding Walsh sees an orchestrated mob hit the gimmick isn’t unraveling the mystery of who is lying and who is telling the truth—as far as they’re both concerned, both are telling the truth and technically, nobody is lying—it’s teasing out how their distinct subjectivities reframe a shared reality. Similarly, when Scully sees Mulder barging in on her night off with a case but Mulder sees Scully as throwing up a barrier against their duties, the comical exaggeration of each character from their partner’s viewpoint demonstrates something about each of them, which allows us to make meaning out of characters and the show in a new and satisfying way. The fiction creates a world like our own: a world made up of many stories of different weight.

Likewise, The Canterbury Tales are not an anthology or oeuvre, they’re a single work composed of different stories. Cracked‘s “After Hours” series just released an episode that reframes popular stories as Rashomons (“7 Characters You Didn’t Know Were Totally Bullshitting You.” May 11 2015.). I’m not sure whether every one of their examples are Rashomons or if most of them aren’t just interpreting a new focalizing agent in popular tv shows and movies but I don’t want to nitpick too much because it’s still a valuable, interesting and entertaining video (in spite of the shitty title, but all of Cracked‘s titles are shitty and clickbaity; then again, they probably get paid…). I raise the point only because reimagining Cheers as the escapism of an unhappy cast of characters is not quite the same as reapproaching the same plot multiple times from multiple perspectives.

It isn’t often that a game will narrate through a Rashomon but I think it holds a lot of the same qualities found in the filmic and television Rashomon or epistolary Rashomons in text. For example, there’s a scene in Final Fantasy VII where Cloud recalls his time serving with SOLDIER, the elite military organization working for the Shinra electrical company. In this flashback, the player controls Cloud’s return to his hometown with his childhood hero, Sephiroth, the game’s villain. In this scene, combat plays out a little differently than normally. Normally, combat is an abstraction of unique individuals coming together to achieve an intersubjective goal (Filipowich, Mark. Plural Protagonismbigtallwords. various.). Moreover, menu-based combat is an abstract representation of combat experienced through a set of rules (Devon. “Critical Switch Guest Episode: JRPGs and Simplicity.”The Silver Grinding. May 9 2015.). But Sephiroth’s presence changes the rules. Where normally the player distributes actions of three different characters through menus equally, balancing their health with their attacks and gaining experience upon victory, with Sephiroth the player only controls Cloud as Sephiroth acts independently, with no risk of defeat and no possibility of growth.

Cloud is a mere level 1, compared with Sephiroth’s level 50. Cloud falls against any attack where Sephiroth is impervious. Narratively, these battles demonstrate Sephiroth’s power in contrast to the average nobody like Cloud. However, it also details Sephiroth’s collapse into the monster he is for most of the game. In those first battles with Cloud, Sephiroth will go out of his way to revive Cloud when he falls with the spell, Life 2. Like all of Sephiroth’s spells, Life 2 is far more effective spell than any the player has had access to up to that point in the game. But using Life 2 not only reiterates how powerful Sephiroth is, it shows that he is kind, or at least capable of kindness. Cloud is weak and useless in combat, but Sephiroth will still use his power to keep him safe. Eventually, after Cloud falls a few times, Sephiroth will give up and just finish the battle, but he will still independently show a level of concern. The player has no input in how Sephiroth acts and the input they do have over Cloud is insignificant. The player is totally dependant on Sephiroth and there is never a mechanical reason to abandon that trust. Moreover, Sephiroth’s capacity to care is reinforced in the plot: when a faceless mook disappears during the group’s ascent up a mountain, Sephiroth urges the survivors forward but notes “This may sound cold but we’ve no time to look for them.” In this early event, Sephiroth is not cruel, angry, violent or selfish; he isn’t especially kind, but he seems to have it in him to be. We see the possibility that he could care in a line of dialogue, but also in play through his use of Life 2.

However, this flashback is an illusion. Cloud was not Sephiroth’s partner but one of the faceless mooks. The memories he shares with the party early in the game aren’t his own, they’re Zack’s, Sephiroth’s real protege. So, that Life 2 spell wasn’t actually used on Cloud. Does that mean that Sephiroth never had that molecule of kindness and Zack misremembered it? Was Sephiroth’s kindness invented by Cloud, who was more interested in finding someone to look up to than accomplishing his dreams? Does it matter? Maybe. The point is that these different perspectives are created through play. It’s only a scene, but it does create new narrative spaces to explore in the game.

That said, I don’t often see a Rashomon in a game outside of a single scene. Sometimes multiple characters act in the same spaces, but their subjectivity doesn’t really change its reading. Even the Final Fantasy VIIexample doesn’t assert Cloud’s subjectivity in contrast with anyone else’s. But in Monaco, the different subjective experiences of one event is the game’s primary thrust. Monaco is a low-fi heist game where one to four players snag coins and treasures from a variety of maps and makes off with glorious riches. The game is narrated analepticly, with the crew caught and locked in prison, each member of the crew individually speaks with the detective assigned to their string of heists.

The player, then, slides into the role of the non-playable detective in that both the player and detective share an interest in uncovering what “really” happened. Each crew member becomes a storyteller who narrates the plot by introducing each level and detailing the results of each increasingly daring and outrageous heist. In play, the player becomes the flashback. However, after completing the game from the perspective of The Lookout, most of the maps open again with new obstacles, layouts and challenges when the detective begins his interview with The Pickpocket. After progressing to a point, The Lockpick’s interview changes the levels once again, and so on.

Where this becomes interesting, though, is that none of these characters are reliable narrators. By the end of the plot, the second half of the eventual 8-person crew turn on the first half, sending them to prison, at which point each captured crew member tries to disparage the other prisoners to lighten their own sentence. All the while, the detective refuses to trust that they aren’t still trying to pull a fast one over him.

Each member overwrites the previous story the player completed, adding new perspectives to the same maps. Moreover, like Chaucer’s pilgrims, Monaco‘s crew members are named according to their function—The Cleaner can whack guards over the head and stun them, The Gentleman can blend in without arousing suspicion, The Hacker can disable electronic security—and even though the narrator of a particular level need not be present, the change in success conditions is based on the subjectivity expressed in narrating. As each member of the team goes through the plot, the detective becomes less and less clear about the truth while every member builds on and deconstructs the previous narrator.

I’m not sure that a Rashomon narrative is unique in a videogame, but I do find it curious that examples of it are rare. A part of it might be that the typical mainstream western videogame has earned its reputation as individualist escapism and so hard focuses on and from a single agent. But like television shows like Due South and The X-Files or long, interconnected works like The Canterbury Tales, games last a very long time and their ability to create easily identifiable characters out of types opens the space to play with subjectivity, as Final Fantasy VII does briefly and Monaco does extensively.

I don’t know that games are necessarily more hyper real than other forms of fiction, but games are several steps removed from real-world representation (Cross, Katherine. “I’m Being So Sincere Right Now: Gaming as Hyperreality.” The Border House. Sep 2 2011.). Hyperreality is a simulation based on another simulation, one that becomes a substitute for reality. I’ve never been to Monaco, France in 1930 but I can look at a picture of it. I can also play Monaco, but that game is based on a illusions and abstractions of a time and place and reconstructed by developers and players both of whom exist as political agents. The detachment from reality isn’t a big deal because, remember Nietzsche from near the beginning of this article, there is no reality except that which can be reconstructed with language. Games create meaning through abstraction.

A Rashomon exposes hyperreality through many subjects. Now that I’m nearing the end I think all that I want to say is that I’d like to see more experimentation on these grounds. Characters abstract meaning through perspective but perspective is not a camera neutrally capturing data and doing nothing with it. Ultimately, maybe all I’m doing here is repeating a familiar call to reassert humanity in the experience of play.

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This article was written by Mark Filipowich and originally published on Big Tall Words.

It was brought to us by our friends at Critical Distance, who find the best in critical writing about games each week. You can see more at their site, and support them on Patreon.