Ok, here is the second part of my Junior Independent Study on Video Games for my English degree. It's rather long, and it's all text so be prepared:
In the model of the puppeteer/puppet, the puppeteer is traditionally invisible (with the exception of Bunraku, a form of Japanese Puppetry in which the visage of the puppet master is entirely visible, while two assistants are entirely cloaked in black). Therefore the puppeteer is obviously the simple producer of the signs expressed by the puppet. This separation between the actor and the âsite of significationâ found in puppetry goes against the Stanislavsky style of acting in which the actor is conceived as both the producer and the site of signification (Tillis). The Stanislavsky System, also called simply âThe Methodâ, or method acting, ârequires that an actor utilize, among other things, his emotional memoryâ so that â[t]he actor's entrance onto the stage is not considered to be a beginning of the action or of his life as the character but a continuation of the set of preceding circumstancesâ (Stanislavsky method). This traditional style of acting, that which conflates the real world and art through confusion of the origin of constructed meaning, is what puppetry and video games counteract. Steve Tillis contrasts a model of acting in which the separation of the signifier (actor) and signified (character) are distinct to traditional acting of sign conflation through a passage quoted from Hamlet:
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wanned,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? (qtd. in Tillis)
Tillis goes on to suggest a conception of actor as suggested by Shakespeare in Hamlet:
[T]his conception of the actor implies an inescapable tension between the producing and the siting of signs that contradicts the virtual disappearance of the actor behind the created character--a disappearance that Hamlet seems to note while considering the Player who suits his whole function "with forms to his conceitâ (Tillis)
If the actor is both the producer and site of signification, then the separation of theatre from the actual world is non-existent; the art is no longer distinguishable as such from any old and ingrained tendencies of the mundane world, thus rendering the practical application of theatre as an art rather moot. The relationship between the puppeteer and the puppet, as conceived in puppetry and in a different light in video games, eliminates the confusion between the actor and the site of signification.
If we take this concept of separation as displayed in puppetry and apply it to the schematic of a video game, the actor/player is not only figuratively removed from the site of signification, but also physically removed; the signification happens in a virtual world we cannot physically enter. Also, in this model, the player assumes the role of both the audience and the actor in the same exact timeframe. This slight yet important change from traditional puppeteering is facilitated by the rotation of stage space. If the stage is equivalent to the television or computer screen, the puppeteer or game player faces the stage while he performs the actions of the protagonist. In this model, Bunraku is effectively a natural precursor to video games. The process of empathizing with the master puppeteer as he is separated from the puppet and as he carries out the actions of the puppet (the site of signification) is akin to the separation between actor and character, audience and performance and, in the empathetic connection between the master puppeteer and the audience, the dual role of audience and performer (in Bunraku and video games). This model, already displayed by video games, may be an unrecognized revolutionary form of theatre.
The theories of 20th Century playwright and revolutionary Bertolt Brecht most approximately encompass the implications of this new brand of theatre (the new theatre of videogames). Brecht aimed to create what I here have made an attempt to deconstruct and examine, namely alienation. Alienation, what in Brechtâs work is usually translated as the âA-effectâ (in German: entfremdung or verfremdung, a different meaning thought by some to be more accurately associated with âdefamiliarizationâ or âdistancingâ) is the central facet of his work as a playwright, dramatist, and philosopher (Shepherd and Wallis 185).
The performers, playwrights, and designers, through Brechtâs practical theories, facilitate the goal of distancing or alienation. Perhaps most important of his theories was his conception of Gestus, in English gesture or gist. In this theorization, â[b]odily relations are made diagrammaticâ and âhuman behaviour is scrutinizedâ (Shepherd and Wallis 186). Here the concept of demonstration is important, where the actor in effect stands next to the character onstage, thus ostending the act of representation (Shepherd and Wallis 186). In fact, the single body of the actor represents three personages. There is the character portrayed by the actor, the actor himself who physically portrays the actor, and the actor as a social apparatus producing his own critical interpretation of the character (Shepherd and Wallis 186). Compared to the model of video games I have provided, this correlates also to the roles that the player performs in a video game. Likewise to the Brechtian actor, the player performs the actions of the protagonist, the player is also securely the player himself, and he is the interpreter of the social implications of those actions. Therefore, whereas the successful Brechtian actor must work to make the separation of actor from character evident, the video game player has the work done for him by the unique structure of the video game itself. The separation of the producer from the site of signification, the signifier from the signified, is performed in the video game by the physical separation of the player from the protagonist, which creates the differentiated association between the player and protagonist.
I should not neglect a theorization of the audience in this conception. The audience in a video game is usually also the player or players (in comparison to theatre, I have equated the game player to actors and puppeteers). Since the audience participates in the production of signification by receiving and interpreting it, they form an essential part of the successful implication of Brechtâs theatre. The audience/player in a video game, as in Epic Theatre, in order to fulfill his function to the dramatic action, must engage mindfully and actively with the signs of the play or game. In a game, particularly a difficult game, the intellectual engagement is guaranteed by the interfacing of the player with the game system. In the ideal situation, the audience member in a play of the Epic Theatre would engage with the dramatic action in such an active and mindful way.
Martin Esslin, in critiquing one of Brechtâs early poems, the Ballad of Mazeppa, emphasizes the reasons for Brechtâs work:
In Brechtâs poem Mazeppaâs fate becomes an image of the human condition. Helplessly tied to a blind elemental force that carries us along, the conscious part of ourselves is condemned to watch the skies rush past as they change from light to darkness and back again to light, waiting for the inevitable end, while the vultures already circle above.
Sentiments of the helplessness of human beings to influence their own nature and actions were prevalent in many of Brechtâs works and form an essential part of his fundamental experiences. He tried to change this condition by creating an unfamiliar and âalienatingâ theatre, a mode through which audiences could distance themselves from human events, and so gain some control over the subconscious machine of society. The crux of this theatre aims to encourage a critical knowledge of self. Video games appropriate this goal by creating the reverse theatre I mentioned earlier in which the stage space is rotated to face the actor. A useful analogy for Brechtâs work is that of a fun-house mirror, an artfully distorted representation of self, emphasizing and accentuating certain qualities, in order to facilitate a distancing from self and to encourage self-conscious scrutiny. It is a parabolic mirror, because a normal mirror, like that of which the Stanislavsky method of acting creates, presents a normalized image that the audience expects to see and so empathizes with, reifying the automated subconscious.
Traditional theatre, or dramatic theatre, encourages empathy with characters and behavioral naturalism. Let us say that, for instance in the case of the classic tragedy Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, we take Oedipusâ behavior as natural, it is what we expect, and it follows the course of typical action, though it is out of our control (as it seems out of his control), therefore its outcome is tragic and undesirable. An oracle predicts Oedipus will kill his own father and sleep with his mother. His parents take a prudent course of action by banishing him, later he is even told his own fate, but he still fulfills it. His fate is pre-determined by the characters following a natural course of action without self-knowledge or criticism. Oedipusâ parents who intend to kill him, the shepherd who saves the infant Oedipusâ life, and Oedipus who does the so-thought right thing by saving his parentâs kingdom from the curse of the sphinx all are doing the prudent thing. So, the play Oedipus Rex raises a mirror to the world in which the characters act as expected by the audience and so are deemed normal by way of empathy. The tragedy is inevitable, because the world presented in Oedipus Rex is one where humans do what follows the natural course of action germane to human nature without self-reflection. Brecht writes (wherein he animadverts upon dramatic theatre):
The dramatic theatreâs spectator says: Yes, I have felt like that too â Just like me â Itâs only natural â Itâll never change â The sufferings of this man appall me, because they are unnecessary â Thatâs great art: nothing obvious in it â I weep when they weep, I laugh when they laugh (Brecht 71).
The characters and actions are normalized in Oedipus Rex, so the audience deems their actions and the resultant tragedy as natural, forthcoming, inescapable.
Conversely to such dramatic theatre, video games perform a fun-house mirror operation through differentiated association, both through the differentiated actions of the player and protagonist (button A equals jumping or running), and through the differentiated residual self-images of the player and protagonist. The video game also is a true mirror, if one takes into account the rotated stage space and the quality of actually performing the actions of the protagonist, unlike theatre, where the audience watches the actions portrayed. It is a theatre in which the audience is the actor in a facilitated fun-house mirror (the virtual game world) for his own actions, encouraging distanced self-reflection. This self-reflection occurs through the playerâs projection onto, and reflection from, the fun-house mirror (something I will explore more later through the theories of Jacques Lacan). As said, the mirror of the video game is a true mirror for the playerâs actions through the protagonist, so this self-reflection is made more concrete by the fact that it is physical, in a sense like an actual mirror. The qualities of differentiation and narrative alienation in Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) display the operation of the fun-house mirror.
In the game KOTOR, the player can usually choose between several dialogue responses or statements in any given situation. For example, within the game letâs say a character, my protagonistâs assassin droid, HK-47, engages me in conversation. He calls me âmaster;â in response I can choose to say âYou donât need to call me master, you know.â He then says in response, âQuery: Donât I? I was under the assumption that organic meatbags such as yourself enjoyed such forms of address.â To this, I can choose three responses: (1) ââOrganic meatbags?â,â (2) âWell I donât, so stop it,â or (3) âBut Iâm ânotâ your masterâ (Knights of the Old Republic). From these three choices the dramatic action of the game ensues, resulting in various dialogue paths or reactions from my droid. In this way, the player can reflect upon his own choices within the context of the alienating and unusual semiotic domain of the virtual game world.
This distanced self-reflection is dependent upon and bolstered by alienation in form of the fun-house mirror. The fun-house mirror facilitated by the virtual world is abstracted through its differentiated sign relationships and rules. In KOTOR, there are the distinct languages and cultural systems of the droids, Wookies, Sandpeople, Selkath, Mandalorians, and many more. These languages and cultures are obviously not equivalent to the real world, so the fun-house mirror allows the player to reflect upon his own decisions within the context of a disconnected world, at the same time forcing the player to question cultural constructions and his own operation within semiotic domains. This stands in contrast to the traditional forms of theatre in which the audience watches a set narrative passively, creating a mirror where from the audience is effectively told who they are through their own inability to affect the proceeding image (the mirror image), e.g. the play Oedipus Rex. It is akin to looking in a mirror where from the mirror image is controlling your actions not vice-versa. The structure of the third-person perspective video game eliminates this passive viewing of an imposed self-reflection.
Under the terms of Laurie Taylor, this fun-house mirror does not operate in the way I have stated, or at least not in a useful way. She has used the identification theories of Jacques Lacan to describe the trans-relational reality created by connection between the player and protagonist:
We have only to understand the mirror stage as an identification, in the full sense that analysis gives the term: namely, the transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes an image â whose predestination to this phase-effect is sufficiently indicated by the use, in analytic theory, of the ancient term imago (qtd. in Taylor).
Taylor then goes on to make the point that this identification process takes place in order to succeed in the domain of the game world:
In video games, identification as the perception of a common quality with an other, subject or object, occurs with relation to the player and the player's position to the game space as the player incorporates the player-character, which is her image in that game space, into her identity so as to become immersed in the game spaceâŚ. Identification with the player's position in the game space, experienced as both a simple extension or duplication of the player and as the narcissistic incorporation of the image of the in-game position into the player's specular image, allows the player to enter into the game space as a valid and verisimilar agent of the game space (Taylor).
Taylor is indeed correct that the player must identify with the protagonist of the virtual world in order to function in that world, but Lacan did not write about identification in video games, because they did not exist in his time. The identification process involved in video games is much different precisely because of the playersâ involvement in two distinct semiotic domains. For instance, if a baby looks into a mirror (an example Lacan used himself) and sees itself enveloped in a completely different world within the mirror, then the process of narcissistic self-projection cannot take place; when the baby leaves that unreal mirror, he will not see his image inflected on the same world. This differentiation would cause the baby to question the projection of his image, if anything, because the object of self-projection is itself different. Lacanâs mirror stage therefore, within the model of the video game, is not so simple because of the differentiation in domains, and in the quality of reverse-theatrical performance in video games. Some might claim that these qualities are an even more extreme indication of narcissistic self-projection. But self-projection onto the protagonist is not possible as Taylor suggests it because the player is engaging in a performance. Is any kind of performer (a puppeteer or an actor or dancer) unaware of his separation from and projection onto the site of signification (character)? No, he is not, or else he is a dolt in his craft. So, if the player does project himself onto the protagonist, he is at least aware of this. Actually, the terms of identification Taylor has presented are useful to the player in engaging the liminally alienated space of the game (the fun-house mirror), but only if the player is aware of this projection.
Brecht aims to tear down the fourth wall, so called, in order to destroy the sacrosanct illusion and wonderstruck stupor created by suspension of disbelief. It is the illusion of reality created by theatrical naturalists that Brecht was fighting against. Brecht writes of the stage as addressed by a new epic theatre:
The stage began to tell a story. The narrator was no longer missing, along with the fourth wall [the acknowledgement thereof]. Not only did the background adopt an attitude to the events onstage, by big screens recalling other simultaneous events elsewhere, by projecting documents which confirmed or contradicted what the characters said, by concrete and intelligible figures to accompany abstract conversations, by figures and sentences to support mimed transactions whose sense was unclear â but the actors too refrained from going wholly into their role, remaining detached from the character they were playing and clearly inviting criticism of him (Brecht 71).
So, the stagecraft itself and the actors in admitting to their own theatricality acknowledge and remove the fourth wall, involving the audience in the artistsâ commentary of the proceedings. This then eliminates the traditional one-way mirror by providing multiple mirrors reflecting the onstage action, on which the audience views the reflection of the dramatic action from afar, not their own inflected image by way of empathy.
Video games produce a similar effect. The âstageâ or virtual world in a video game is almost never illusionary, if only for the simple fact that it is the obvious theatre through which the player performs the protagonistâs actions. But there are other reasons. Video games have always had âconcrete and intelligible figures to accompany abstract conversationsâ that Brecht wanted to create in theatre. In video games these âconcrete and intelligible figuresâ are textual subtitles. Narrative driven video games have always had subtitles because before voiced dialogue, this was the only way to use dialogue. This self-referential factor became a tradition in video games and is still used in games today with fully voiced dialogue. Also, the music of a game is wholly referential to the dramatic action and exists outside of the virtual world, informing the player of it, even commenting on it. The prominence of âsave-pointsâ and other extra-narrative references to the player and outside world litter games, reminding the player that the game and narrative in the game is a theatre, not real life. As it were, the fourth wall in a video game is automatically broken down simply by the connection between the exterior player and the protagonist in the virtual world.
The form of alienation created by the fun-house mirror and the deconstruction of the fourth wall is peculiar and useful because, in addition to the effect of alienation, it encourages a more intimate union with the work and intentions of the artists as they and the audience come together to criticize and contemplate their work. Brechtian theatre, and as I argue, the theatre of video games, in order to be effective toward the aforementioned goal of cooperative enterprise, require the audienceâs participation as much as the artist, if not more. So, I do not presume to claim that all video games perform this function, or that even the best ones will with every person. I only claim that the video game structure is evident to create the effect of mutual cooperation between the artist and the player. So, in the ideal case, the artist presents a problem to an audience, and the two of them then decipher the problem together. The new form of theatre created by video games is an advanced Brechtian Theatre. It is that which distances emotionally and empathetically but connects simultaneously intellectually and critically.
In the game Knights of the Old Republic, the player is prevented from mindless empathy by the mental work required to operate the game mechanics and navigate the game world, and by the ability to choose alternatives within the game, i.e. the game narrative is not set. The mental activity of deciphering the different sign relationships in the game and the mental activity of engaging with the game mechanics (a sign relationship in itself) prevents the passive flow of intemperant emotion. Also, the possibility of experimentation with alternate game narrative forces the player to think of the narrative in terms of the alternate signs the different narrative paths create, so that the game/narrative becomes an observation of cause and effect. The possibility of varying narrative choices effectively alienate the player from any set narrative, allowing this comparative observation of cause and effect. If the narrative of the game is not set, then the player cannot grasp onto one solid set of meaning.
Within the game KOTOR, generally one can choose to destroy certain people or save them, build certain relationships and ignore others, and take different courses of action or choose different dialogue leading to different outcomes. For example, as I control the protagonist when confronting his/her Sith Lord and fellow Sith student, I can choose between four dialogue options, (1) âSorry Uthar, Iâm with Yuthura on this one,â (2) âIâm with you, Master Uthar,â (3) âYouâre both mistaken, I choose me,â and (4) âIâm tired of playing along with your Sith scum. You both die!â (Knights of the Old Republic). Very different outcomes result from each of these four choices, and in repeat playing one can choose a different path leading to different outcomes. If I choose one of the first two, I will have to fight to the death one of the respective characters. If I choose âYouâre both mistaken, I choose meâ, I will be forced to fight both Uthar and Yuthura and will be given light-side points (good guy points), which affects my protagonistâs appearance, skills, and future interactions. If I choose âIâm tired of playing along with your Sith scum. You both die!,â then I will have to fight both, but I will be given dark-side points (bad guy points), which will affect my protagonistâs skills, appearance, and future interactions in an opposite way from light-side points. These oppositional choices and reactions provide a means for the player/audience member to think about the story in terms of the different significations of the different narrative paths. It alienates the player from any sense of close reliance on the narrative because there is no one set narrative to empathize with. Even in games without branching narrative, the quality of even temporarily controlling the protagonist gives a sense of the instability of narrative structure. In effect, the story becomes the game and the player is forced to intellectually decipher and interpret that game. Video games effectively advance the participatory and intellectual qualities of the epic theatre by these unique integrative game qualities.
The unique gameness that is integrated into narratives within video games is a progression of Brechtian Theatre in that it encourages the deciphering of semiotic domains, rules, and codifications by the player. If the story becomes the game, then the player has no choice but to engage himself actively and intellectually with the sign system of the story. Reading a piece of literature or watching a film or a piece of art does not demand participation. These mediums can involve participation if the viewer or reader is able and willing, but it is not required. The medium of the game demands participation in its rules and codifications in order to engage with it. A game is a system of signs and constructions just like art and language, but a game requires engagement with these signs by a player in order to exist.