How Will Videogames Pass Go?

Marshall McLuhan memorably described the Western phonetic alphabet as the technology that created civilized man, “the separate individuals equal before a written code of law. Separateness of the individual, continuity of space and time, and uniformity of codes are the prime marks of literate and civilized societies.” Lacking the inclusive totality of the Eastern ideogram, the visual assembly of Western letters, sensed independently of function, allowed people to escape the tribe and earn the “freedom to shape an individual career,” giving way to “the mobility of armed groups and of ambitious individuals.”

What a striking characterization of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, an American role-playing game in which you are free to go wherever you want, but you can’t walk down a single street without each bystander announcing their politics, profession, preferences, and what they had for breakfast, their scattershot words jumbling sensation and purpose, all in the name of sketching a continuous space, one with room for you to play a role, and to be separate. You will rise to the top for your ability to read a rarefied alphabet, the language of dragons, carved into the world’s interior. But the written word is in the very atmosphere.

The massive philosophical gulf that separates Skyrim from its Japanese counterpart Dark Souls is one visible from the camera. Skyrim, which aspires to be one game for all people—warrior or mage, achiever or explorer, human or elf, black or white, fat or skinny, man or woman, good or evil—gives the option to play in either the first- or the third-person. This simple player choice to view the world either from your character’s eyes, or from a fixed point trailing after your body, is a deeply noncommittal act of framing made possible by the assumption that players will independently, perhaps during one of their long walks from quest giver to quest item, mentally assemble the game’s swathes of information into coherent meaning. The more meaning is mapped to their choices, the more players think they know about themselves.

This thing that is transpiring between you and the game is the sum total of your choices. This also means that meaning may be drawn and quartered into a kind of math.

For example, increasing your Sneak ability, in a process akin to turning up a thermostat because it is cold, not only allows you to perform a double-bladed backstab but also logically conclude that you are designing a sneaky play style that may or may not be an extension of your childhood tendency to search for dresses in your mother’s closet; or in any case meaningfully developing the “type” of character who relates to the world from the shadows, with a shifty eye, so to speak. As you role-play, you can effectively picture your dark silhouette, the curve of your thief’s stance as sharply defined as that of the sartorius muscle, which I once pulled as a medical student wearing blue gloves outward from a cadaver’s thigh, examining it from all angles. You may likewise move the camera from behind your shifty eye to outside your body, analyzing your moves like an epidemiologist peering through a microscope. 

You are a thief who prefers to kill by backstabbing with two knives using the experience you allocated to Sneak rather than Two-Handed thus making you too weak to wield a battle-axe and implicitly the kind of slight figure with a shifty eye whom everyone in Skyrim would naturally view with distrust, a suspicion that greatly befits your character’s behavior; or perhaps your character is subconsciously growing into the mold of these external preconceptions as you play like a thief. Moving the camera out further, you must play this way because the formative events in your life have shaped you into the kind of person you are. This thing that is transpiring between you and the game is the sum total of your choices. This also means that meaning may be drawn and quartered into a kind of math. The gameplay you fathom is first statistical in preparation, then neurological in action, and finally psychoanalytical in retrospect; an experience like scanning a page of shrink’s notes from inside a straitjacket. At the point of your becoming, you notice that you are netted in the algorithms that have pulled you here.

In the November 2011 issue of The Wire, Drew Daniel described the inclusiveness and the indifference of sound in the real world:

Sound intrudes upon us with the fact of the world, an intrusion which affords us the possibility of forgetting our “me-ist” attachments to our subjective particularity and affiliation and instead forces us to register the everywhere of an ongoing being, an outside where we thought there was no outside.

This “fact of the world” is a tenuous one in the Western mindset. Ambitious games like Skyrim, Batman: Arkham City, and Heavy Rain evince a crisis of believability that begins with wishing to rope the entire conceivable world into the palm of the hand. Every block of Arkham City is a letter forming the sentence “I am Batman”; every action in Heavy Rain is a meticulous recreation of human experience, telescoping from forensic scenes and fistfights inward to getting out of bed and brushing your teeth. In Skyrim, we find a surplus of intersecting systems, politics, viewpoints, and incidental details so seemingly all-encompassing that one reviewer named it a “digital Gesamtkunstwerk,” or total work of art.

The energy that goes into conceiving these worlds is so determined and discernible as to be oppressive. Yet it’s one that flickers easily, as its input goes awry—Arkham City’s overuse of the word “bitch” spoils its otherwise consistent mix; Heavy Rain’s voice actors are all too human to handle its digital porcelain. And Skyrim’s systems break down so easily that recording absurd and unintended scenarios has become a second way to play the game.

Skyrim’s most notable and least commented-upon improvement from its predecessors Oblivion and Morrowind is a dramatic increase in readability. Your stacks of inventory items and spells and shouts, once visually organized as icons in grids and enumerated lists, are now alphabetically sorted into hovering nested menus that overlay the screen. The corporate inhumanity of the white words is overlooked for the heightened ability to sort and interpret the game’s discrete packets of information. In a game that seeks to write all the diversity of human experience into uniform code, is it any surprise that a glimpse into your pockets looks just like a Kindle? Most any game in the West that holds a “world” is understood as a library of insights.

These games, fully readable, obsessively precise, drawing maps of all that matters in the world, recall the Italian Renaissance, in which painters of linear perspective slotted nature into compartments in a grid; and French academic painting, which later contrived each item and human gesture as a vessel filled with meaning. The impulse is also seen in Western contemporary photography’s pretension to capture human truths within a unified field, one visible from the camera. But unlike the photograph, videogame reality in the West is dubious, often actively unconvincing, leaving in plain sight its stiffly formulated syntax, which McLuhan called “the net of rationality.”

How might such a game transcend its straight lines? In his A.V. Club review of Skyrim, John Teti wrote, “You might be anointed by an ancient priesthood as the greatest warrior in all the land, only to walk 10 yards down the road and get slaughtered by a stray bear. … Skyrim lets these rough edges show, because the element of chaos lets players feel like the game is happening to them, and they are alive in it—not just cogs in a pre-fab Game Experience.” At the point where the interlocking systems begin to tangle, they shatter the illusion, and reveal the game’s moment of truth. Play is, after all, also about being made to laugh. This nonetheless registers objectively as a failure at the level of conception. The bear is an issue because it is inconsistent with the other fact that has been spoken.

Dark Souls is a game that “forces us to register the everywhere of an ongoing being, an outside where we thought there was no outside.” Its radical gesture is that it cannot be paused. A disruptive event before settling into a game, it peers in from outside the rigid behavioral frames of thief or paladin, achiever or explorer, good or evil, suggesting another kind of relationship: not the ingredients that make up the meal but the totality of hunger. Dark Souls is nominally a role-playing game in which you play as a character with unique skills who may form certain affiliations with characters in the game, but somehow these subjective particularities fade in the fact of the world, which consumes you. The game, like a shark sensing movement, does not care what is inside you, and it embraces you with indifference. Enemies do not speak, and yet all is understood the moment you glimpse three spearmen staring blankly in your direction from the other side of a footbridge. You may die, and be reborn elsewhere, but your course is unbroken, and you trace a continuous 80-hour line through the world that is like the unbroken stroke of a calligrapher, whose ink wash leaves countless marks that sit equally on a paper plane, not ordered into layers and ranks. The reason your character is Hollow is that you and the game are already whole.

It is not a coincidence that the so-called “crazy” Japanese (this gaming generation’s “hysterical” woman) games I played this year—Dark Souls, El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, Yakuza 4—routinely and casually “break” the fourth wall, in this case with messages scrawled by other players on the walls and floors, to no earth-shattering effect. There is no break because there are fundamentally no walls to confine the universe.

/ / /

Let’s telescope outward. In a talk this year at the Game Developers Conference, Area/Code Creative Director Frank Lantz characterized the sublimity in the rules of Go and Poker. I swiftly realized that I could use his eloquent reasoning to finally, once and for all, justify my hundreds of hours spent playing Neuroshima Hex! and Samurai Bloodshow. Of course, these newfound meanings are functional because the line of thought appears to be eminently reasonable. The rules of Go, and potentially any rules, are beautiful. Rules are beautiful not like an object, but like an act. They produce a behavior in players that is profound because “each move is a claim about the universe.” Each participating player “is both the subject and the researcher” of infinity. Their newfound knowledge is “like a brightly colored dye squirted into the fluid of our thoughts just at the point where they unfold into turbulence.” This beautiful, potentially self-destructive game plays out a confrontation with the sublime.

In games, we can play and replay the cognitive and spiritual dawning that is an aesthetic encounter. Game designers don’t need to make art, because they are in the process of demonstrating the way it works. This makes sense. It seems a fine model for understanding the beauty of a rule set, one I am compelled to agree with even though I don’t know how to play Go. But there are a few things to note about the way that it makes sense. Lantz’s talk inspires not only for the integrity of his ideas, but also for the electricity of his performance. It is a bid for the expressive value of abstraction. Rules, which are elusive things to behold, must be pinned with meaningful values. A situation on the board is “a fight brewing.” A move can be a “sword strike” or a “butterfly wing.” The interaction between players is “a dialogue in pursuit of truth.” Go is “about” thinking. 

His ideas aren’t a passive document of the game’s beauty, but an active reading of the rules. The framework underpinning the beauty of Go is not built procedurally, but evoked poetically. He exhorts game designers to make the leap from system to significance by leaving “space for the infinite in every room that you make.”

The difference between videogames and other games is that these beautiful dynamics, once only felt intermixing with the fluid material of human thought, may now be inscribed declaratively in the fixed lines of a program. When the mandate to fill game design like a vessel with beauty is read like a computer instruction, however, for generating meaningful rules, function once again threatens to abandon sense. The split between the two occurs when the game design is meaningfully filled with its intended beauty, and the game actually experienced has only room for intentions. What we find, once the paint has trickled down to the user, a being of naïve understanding, is a game that is making sense like a toaster makes toast.

Take two canonical games of meaning, Jason Rohrer’s Passage and Jonathan Blow’s Braid. My reaction to Passage is as disconcertingly reliable as a German watch. It is a model of life, death, and relationships, not necessarily in that order, which plays out from left to right. You move through time and space, possibly join a woman, possibly get a little lost along the way, your companion dies, and you die. Approximately one-third of the way into each playthrough of Passage, I begin to shudder. At the point where my character becomes a tombstone, I shed a tear. This is because I see that I was trapped in the algorithms of time; and that is because they were brightly backlit on the screen. On the level of affect, two stylistic decisions are vastly more powerful than any acts of code: the tragedies of the foreseeable future that visually weep at the right margin, and the plangent minor-key motif that sounds like a lullaby tapped on Game Boy by one of the 80-year-old children in Akira. The aesthetic realization at game over is as sharp and consistent as a nurse drawing blood, and the actual feeling is as narrow as her needle: it amounts to the sentence, “Life is sad and then you die.” If this were merely an issue of design, we could stop at clarity and efficiency of message; but it is much too finite to impart the breadth of aesthetic possibility. 

Unlike in Passage, the stylistic ornaments of Braid tend to undermine the insistence of its systems. The mechanical premise of this platforming game is that you can rewind time in various ways to undo mistakes or pass obstacles, and the meaningful premise is that the game mechanics represent quantum mechanical precepts. Playing at rewinding time is a way of asking yourself what happens when time separates from space, and whether your past determines your future, or your future actually chooses your past, and if the idea of choice will dissolve with the progress of human understanding, which cannot anyway be said to progress, because things are all out of order, if anything can be said to be in or out of order, or even a thing. And this is exactly the sensation of playing Braid, which is that as you try to understand a backwards puzzle involving a key and a sad Goomba, you should also be trying to understand what this process has to do with scientific inquiry; and that at some point you will fail at both, and thanks to irrational factors like affect and atmosphere, involuntarily come up with your own reading, to Blow’s well-known bemusement. 

Rules, which are elusive things to behold, must be pinned with meaningful values. 

Braid is the mind of the creator separating from the mind of the audience. It is a ceaseless definition of itself, a model of Blow’s thought process. Perhaps the game’s “mistake” is that it is very pretty to look at, which makes us want to talk to it. This is why people are not being flippant when they say an experimental game is a chore. That means that interactivity is being shut down under the weight of premeditation; and the average person instinctively stops playing, repulsed by the mathematical tyranny of code, which for more experienced players is palpable in Braid as a conceptual tyranny.

These too are matters of readability, Passage being as unambiguous as the statistic in Skyrim that measures how many sword swipes it takes to ascend, and Braid being stuck arguing with you, a failure at the level of conception to bring its conceptual seriousness together with its ability to be seriously taken on its own terms, unless you were already serious about this sort of thing. The effect recalls much contemporary art, which now that Marcel Duchamp’s signed urinal has shown that anything can be art if you say so, is most successful as a written justification of its own existence on the gallery one-sheet until its formulations break like a dragon crash-landing in a quiet village.

/ / /

In other words, I like games, but I am exasperated by videogames. More accurately, I dislike when the discursive lines drawn in bold to separate order from chaos are coded into the call and response of playing a videogame as a pedantic demonstration of ideals, instead of the cybernetic gospel choir in outer space that it really ought to be like with all of this technology. These rational lines make the difference between lifting an Iron Longsword of Turn Undead (Exquisite) to damage a dragon at the sartorius muscle, and swinging a sharp blade in your killer’s direction while shattering all the furniture in the house. They are the reason that, when Nintendo President Satoru Iwata goes onstage at GDC 2011 to tell us that a game must have “universal appeal,” we blink blandly behind our glasses and think he actually means the word “cute.” They may allow a game to seem more clearly itself, but they do nothing to bring us closer to ourselves.

Skyrim does do this, but it is not when it is working and not when it is broken. It is when you are walking on a cobblestone street and suddenly an hour later find yourself balanced on the steep side of a white mountain, staring into a cloud of snow that is blowing into your eyes and ears. The unknowable fact of the world, previously hidden beneath the game’s lattice of known quantities, is revealed. Your transition might sensibly appear to be a model of the act of journeying, or the rite of pilgrimage, but it is nothing so abstract. It is the ability to, with a minute twitch of your thumb, move the house immediately to your left, the man directly before you, the mountain in the horizon and the cloud above it, until each has expanded and vanished into memory. The world before you is unmade, and the game’s definition blurs into movement, a fact that is simply, confoundingly, sensed. When you have wiped the screen bare, then you have finally traced an unbroken line, and made an encounter of your own.

This is the second of a three-part series. Read part one and part three.

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