I have been a gamer all of my life. But I've really only begun to take
it somewhat seriously in the past couple years. Final Fantasy X is my
favorite game of all time. I don't care what anyone says, it changed my
life and reinvigorated my interest in gaming.
What lies below is the third part of my 25 page essay on player positioning in video games for the completion of my Bahelor's degree in English. Be careful! It's a lot of text and no pictures....
The phenomenon of a player watching his own actions within a semiotic domain has implications regarding Foucaults examination of the Panopticon and his theories on discourse and power. The Panopticon, which Foucault uses as a metaphor for modern western society, are like so many cages, so many small theaters, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible Hence the major effect of the Panopticon [is] to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power (554). Foucault then gives an example of this system operating in context:
The panoptic schema, without disappearing as such or losing any of its properties, was destined to spread throughout the social body; its vocation was to become a generalized function. The plague-stricken town provided an exceptional disciplinary model: perfect, but absolutely violent; to the disease that brought death, power opposed its perpetual threat of death; life inside it was reduced to its simplest expression; it was, against the power of death, the meticulous exercise of the right of the sword. The Panopticon, on the other hand, has a role of amplification; although it arranges power, although it is intended to make it more economic and more effective, it does so not for power itself, nor for the immediate salvation of a threatened society: its aim is to strengthen the social forces to increase production, to develop the economy, spread education, raise the level of public morality; to increase and multiply (556).
The Panopticon provides a system of social reinforcement by means of a mutual and partially democratic, but invisible gaze from the tower. In the original panoptical prisons, this was a literal tower in the center of a circular prison. In its ubiquitous incarnation in Western Society, it is the mutual gaze of ruling discourses engendered and reinforced by its most powerful members (the ruling body). The model of the video game provides a means by which the player can watch the operations of the panoptic schema from a distanced position.
By virtue of the third-person perspective and reverse-theatre schematic, the player of a video game can perform the role of both the outside watcher and the participant in the panoptic system. The player can control the protagonist who is inside the Panopticon, while observing the process by which the rules inside the game act. In Foucaults interpretation of the Panopticon as it operates in modern western society, the tower is the anonymous gaze of ruling discourses divided mutually through members of a society (in its original prison structure, it was a literal tower at the center of the circular prison). But then, who is the tower? In the schematic of the video game, the tower is essentially the characters of the game world who operate the ruling discourse the game developers have decided to create. In a very basic model, individualized characters with distinct AI, such as in Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, will react to certain actions upholding the ruling discourse of the virtual society. In this way, in some games, the protagonist controlled by the player is always under the gaze. For example, if I make my protagonist kill someone or even break a law in Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, virtual characters will either attack him or guards will come and try to arrest him. So, in this particular game world, one can observe the operation of the gaze and the Panopticon on the protagonist while they participate in its operation. This could be argued as a subversion of the panoptic model, in which, instead of the social reification of roles and duties, one is effectively both inside the Panopticon of the game and outside of it viewing the process by which it acts. This schematic alienates the players from the gaze of the tower and in involvement in the Panopticon by engaging them in a deciphering of that gaze, both because they are located outside of the schema and because they are a part of the gaze. The player of a game is forced to distinguish the rules by which the game operates. In a virtual world with narrative functions and real-time AI character interactions, this becomes a deciphering of the ruling discourses in the game and the Panopticon.
Drakengard takes this schematic of the video game and uses it as an integrated theme in its narrative. In this universe, there are towers, the watchers, and two forces locked in constant battle (the Union and the Empire):
The unsuppressed soul
lets flow oceans of blood
drink and raise high the basin of fire
hesitate beneath a crimson sky
As the tears of the goddess
flow, the four lost temples forebode
the coming of the queen
The dragon plummets
from the tower of red thunder
and where it falls no one has seen (qtd. in Shirokage)
During the course of the game, it becomes clearer that the watchers are really the players of the game. This is indicated through two means; most obvious perhaps is that at the end of the narrative, one of the characters (the playable female dragon, Angelus) is transported to modern-day Tokyo, which she calls the land of the gods, shockingly removing the player from the game-world. The other is by the nature of the silent-protagonist. Caims voice is silenced through a soul-pact with the red dragon Angelus. Through Caims silence and the players control of him, it becomes clear that the statements that are directed towards Caim are also directed toward the player, or watcher (god). These are clips of dialogue from in-game action (while the player is controlling Caim):
Dragon: Does only slaughter calm your soul, Caim?
Verdelet: If you are truly her brother, you would not be so quick to bloody
Verdelet: Caim. Do you wish to kill the entire Empire alone?
Such a frightful ambition.
Dragon: There will be no end if you try to crush them all. Enough! (qtd. in Shirokage).
Because Caim cannot respond, the player has the sense that the characters are directing the dialogue toward the player as much as Caim. In this way, Drakengard uses the schematic of the game which creates the liminal space between player and game-world as a motif. In other words, these pleas are directed as much at the player or the watchers, who also form the ruling discourse of the game by playing it and continuing the violence. This motif places the player both inside the narrative and outside of it, as a watcher or god in the virtual game world and as a player of that game, in a sense conflating both in a liminal space.
The self-referential structure of a video game used as a motif in Drakengard resembles the operation of power structures and the Panopticon. The game narrative admits to the existence of the player and creates a character for the player within the game (the watchers). Since the watchers or gods in the game are presented as the ruling body and are equated with the player, the player is presented as a ruling body. The game consists of a narrative that integrates the player in a liminal space and asks the player to consider himself as authorial of the ruling discourse (as the watcher or god) in a perverse and violent world. So, the player is both a character in the narrative (the watcher) and the observer of that character as they carry out the actions of the game. The game presents a basic model of power structures as a theme in the narrative by placing the player as at least part of the determinant of the ruling discourse of that world. This ruling discourse is one of chaos and violence. The structure of Drakengard itself asks the average video game player to consider the ramifications of his actions as at least a part of the ruling discourse of many games as he plays them, which is violent discord. Also, the game asks the player to consider the nature of power structures outside of the game in the world we live in.
In order to observe anything in the hopes of investigating its true form, we must have separation from it. Nothing can adequately describe anything that is integrated into its germane nature or quality. A rock cannot tell us what a rock is like, grass cannot tell us what grass is like, trees cannot tell us what trees are like, flowers cannot tell us what flowers are like, a person cannot tell what their face is like if they have never looked into a mirror (in itself a means of separation from self). But a rock can tell us what grass is like, or of the qualities of trees and flowers. A rock is capable of this because it is different from grass, trees, or flowers. So it is the same with language and everything else in the universe. The qualities of objects, especially material, are only discernable by their difference, as Saussure put it:
The conceptual side of value is made up solely of relations and differences with respect to the other terms of language, and the same can be said of its material side Everything that has been said up to this point boils down to this: in language there are only differences (68).
It is because of this, that in order to truly know ourselves we must attain differentiated knowledge of self, or knowledge of ourselves through a different lens. We must be separated. This comes in an altered perception of self through the context of a distanced reality, or domain. Video games provide a model for this separation from self through projection onto a distanced semiotic domain, providing a strange environment where from the player questions conceptions of self that are dependent upon a world that is determinate of that self. It is by separation from this natural self-determinate that we may finally gain a true sense of an independent self. This entails the process of discerning and decoding signs in different semiotic domains. The structure of video games aid in this process. They provide an alienation from self and the self-determinate world by presenting an interactive reality (semiotic domain) that has not determined self.
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.
What lies below is the first part of a 25 page analytical paper I wrote for my English dept. Junior Independent Study. I realize many people here on this site won't enjoy or even want to see someone posting something like this, but I just thought it would be fun to put it up, just for kicks. If you don't like to consider games or narrative in an intellectual way or don't like to consider anything in a intellectual way, save your time. Anyway here it is:
Watching someone master a complex game system is fascinating. It is like watching someone learn a new language in the space of a few minutes. When I played my first video game at age five on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), I was learning a language, or perhaps I should say, learning how to learn a language. The thousands of language systems comprised by the video games on computers and the seven generations of video game consoles since the popular Nintendo Entertainment System (1985 in North America, Europe, Brazil, Australia) or Famicom (1983 in Japan) have profoundly affected my generation.
The oddity and entrancing quality of video games struck me when I was watching my college roommate play a popular zombie/horror game, Resident Evil 4. He began by learning the button system: first the analog stick to make Secret Service Agent Leon Kennedy walk or run, a button to call the presidentâs daughter whom Leon is rescuing, a shoulder button situated in a place of a trigger to shoot his gun, another button to equip or unequip the weapon, another button for contextualized actions, a button to draw up the item inventory and another for the map. Then he had to learn his objectives. In this case, first he had to explore a dilapidated building in order to navigate past an upturned truck that is blocking Leonâs way. Then he had to find a way to kill a zombie quickly (scary!). Then it was time to conduct search and rescue through a complex series of passages, enemies, and traps.
As I watched Tom play it struck me how much he had to learn to even take his (or make Leon take his) first steps in the game. What also struck me was the way in which he was playing the game. It was quite amusing to see my roommate matter-of-factly, with a stern expression of concentration, dispatch rapacious zombie creatures. He was engaged with the story and the atmosphere, but primarily he was engaged with the mechanics of the game. Tom was able to so calmly defeat the zombies because he was one-step removed from the horrific story and atmosphere by virtue of the game system.
Video games produce an effect of liminal alienation. The player, at the point of picking up the controller is engaging the liminal space between worlds. Therefore he is alienated from them. The interaction, substitution for and confusion of game and narrative are substantial in this act of alienation. The quality of the game in tandem with narrative functions displays the structural nature of language and encourages knowledge of semiotic domains (language systems). The schematic of a game is a more straightforward way of simulating the interactions of an individual within a semiotic domain. Video games encourage intellectual activity and domain awareness through their complex process of distancing and engaging the player, and by the nature of their varying game domains combined with narrative and theatrical elements. They also encourage intellectualism through the ways in which they distance, or alienate the player, much like an unrecognized form of theatre. As video games relate to theatre, the issue of semiotics informs the way that relationships between player and protagonist operate and the general dynamics of the video game space. Video games are essentially a participatory theatre. The implications for this new form of theatre are multifold.
Third-person perspective in video games, which consists of a sort of puppeteer/puppet relationship between the player and the in-game protagonist, performs an alienating function on the player. In the context of a narrative or game, the instigation of this brand of puppetry effectively removes the player from both his own self and from the in-game narrative and action. The player, instead of resting either entirely in his own domain or in the domain of the game, rests in between, performing the actions of the protagonist while he watches them being performed. The phenomenon of being aware of oneâs own actions in relation to semiotic domains is not unusual, this is simple cultural awareness or awareness of systems. It is the separation of the player from the exact physical actions of the in-game protagonist that creates this effect of liminality. The gap in translation between pressing buttons and the physical actions of the protagonist creates this effect. As the player presses the buttons of the controller or keyboard to perform the actions of the protagonist, the player is forced to acknowledge the gap between personal and in-game domains.
Pressing buttons instead of performing the actual physical actions of the game or narrative also encourages the player to think about the signification of the actions of the in-game protagonist. It widens Saussureâs gap between the signifier and signified. Let me explain. In Saussureâs scientific analysis of language, he conceived of two distinct elements in language. These are the signifier and the signified; together these comprise a whole sign that is a word or concept. Saussure defines the signifier as a concept, and the signified as the correlative sound/image of language (60). The relationship between signifier (letters and a word) to the signified (sound/image) is arbitrary; therefore a âgapâ exists. This gap is further widened through the dual game and cultural languages of video games through the effects of differentiated association. In this case, as in most cases, differentiated association refers to the idea that there are two signifier/signified sets pertaining to performing the actions of the protagonist in video games. Differentiated association can also be described as the translation between associated, but separate and therefore differentiated actions within the same time frame. So first, there are the buttons on the controller or keyboard that signify the actions in the game, and then there are the actions in the game that signify a particular meaning. The gap between the quality of pressing a button and the separate distinct action performed by pressing the button is alienating and calls into question the domain-based association with symbols and signification.
An example of this phenomenon can be found in just about any video game, but I shall give an example. In the game Shadow of the Colossus, every time the player presses a button it corresponds to a single motion or action within the game. In order to jump in the game, the player presses a single button; in order to perform multiple actions such as holding onto a ledge and moving, the player must press two buttons simultaneously. In some cases, such as horseback riding while shooting a bow, the player must conjunctively press three buttons separately or at the same time. This creates a close, yet differentiated, connection between the physical actions of the game player and the corresponding actions of the protagonist. The nature of this in sync correspondence involves the player effectively in the distinct actions of the protagonist. Although there is an intimate tie between the player and protagonist for every action, obviously their respective actions (that of pressing several buttons and shooting a bow) are very different. Due to this differentiated association, the player is at once within and removed from the in game action and narrative.
These dual sets of signifier/signified relations do overlap in the case of the video game as the actions of the in-game protagonist form both the signified in the signifier of the exterior playerâs actions, and in the signifier of the signified meaning of these actions within the game or story. Nevertheless, this overlapping does not preclude a full connection between the actions of the player and the actions of the protagonist, because their respective actions are operating within separate and distinct semiotic domains. Any given game has its own set of rules (semiotic domain) for which buttons signify certain actions. Within every game that possesses narrative functions, this set of rules correlates to a separate and distinct set of sign relations. The actions of the protagonist in turn signify its final situational meaning, which lies within the larger semiotic domain of society. Can separate semiotic domains, that is, two separate sets of rules and agreements concerning language, communicate between each other? According to the model I have just provided, they can in fact.
Video game theorist Laurie Taylor explains the arrangement of a video game and player according to spatial dynamics:
The video game player must perform at multiple levels while playing a video game. In this regard, the player in play is present in more than one spatial domain. Lev Manovich and Sherry Turkle have argued that this multiple presence is typical of new media interactions. One might argue that the video game player, because she generally accesses information stored on her local computer (online games with remote servers are an important exception), does not experience multiple presences as she does with other new media objects which are housed remotely. But, this observation neglects that the telepresent state is based on existing in multiple conceptual spatial domains, not on existing in separate physical areas. The telepresent state means that the subject exists in multiple areas in such a way as to be able to effect change in that (or those) other areas while also being able to effect change in the subject's physical space (Taylor).
So, the telepresent state is a phenomenon of one being both here and there at the same time. This telepresent state is not exactly the same, but is equivalent to the communication between semiotic domains I have mentioned (or at Taylor names it, spatial domains). As I have said, this telepresent state in video games accounts for semiotic domains as well as spatial domains, because a telepresent state in video games (at least) is not created simply by a visual or sensational extension through space. It is facilitated by extension through differentiated space; in this case, differentiated means the difference in distinct semiotic domains. The telepresent state begins to explain video gamesâ similarity to the theatre-space and especially the telepresent relationship between puppeteer and puppet. For the purposes of this paper, Taylorâs telepresent state is what I call differentiated association.
As the separation between signifier and signified conceived by Saussure relates to puppetry, this raises questions about the nature of the communication between the puppeteer or game player and the in-game character. In the model of puppeteer and puppet, this differentiated association encourages the player/actor/puppeteer to consider particularly the signification by the signifier of the protagonistâs unique movements. As the player puppeteers control the actions of the protagonist, they are effectively located outside of the semiotic domain of the game and its cultural meaning in that they must be presently situated within the separate domain of the correlating buttons and actions. For example, in the game The Sims, the player/puppeteer controls a family of up to eight Sims. The player directs the Sims on the basis of instructing them to interact with objects, such as a television set, a piece of furniture or another Sim in order to fulfill eight basic needs. The actions of the Sim as manipulated by the game player form the entirety of the narrative. The action of the player pressing a button to make the sim enter a hot tub forms the first semiotic domain. After the playerâs actions, the narrative of the game plays in front of the player, forming another distinct domain, which is the culturally constructed meaning of the narrative (the Sim stepping into the hot tub). In pressing a button to make the Sim enter a hot tub, the player is observing and therefore removed from the larger cultural sign relationship that the narrative elements in the game belie, through his involvement in the more specific and intimate sign relationship of performing the game outside of the narrative.
It was my passionate, despondent, and crying-after-sex affair with Final Fantasy X that lead me to further entanglements in the RPG, and more specifically JRPG world. Never since have I encountered such a lover. Ahhhh, she was complex, gorgeous, relaxing, and the vision of the elegant romance of her bodice burned deep into my mind has still not worn off. Yet no other could fulfill like she could. That's how she keeps me coming back for more after almost eight years. (It's ok, I won't do the entire piece like this) Like all Final Fantasies since the first, FFX is both a continuation in the tradition of and a departure from past installments in the series. It's CTB (conditional turn-based battle) system is similar to the ATB system seen in many FF's, but it bears most resemblance to the (some would say archaic) traditional gameplay found very first installments of the series. The only adjustment to this was the ability to swap characters in and out during battle. I loved this, because it allowed for so much more strategic thought and allowed you to get to know and make the most out of all of the playable characters. In other words, the CTB system forced the player to keep all of the characters in mind and not forget half of them during combat. In addition to being more relaxing, the CTB system made the player <i>feel</i> like they were the arbiter of the game and story, and not a victim of time. Somehow the fact that the game only progesses when you do creates a more intense symbiosis of game player and game. YOU are responsible for the continuation of the game, and are not compelled by passage of time within the game. I loved this, and to this day I still appreciate wait-style gameplay in RPGs. It emphasizes strategy in the vein of chess, not the knee-jerk action which has recently infected RPGs and is a bastardization of their true nature. <br /> <br /><img src="http://www.lithiumstate.nl/images/RogueGalaxy/logo.gif" border="0" /> <br />You call <i>this</i> an RPG?! <br /> <br />I also loved the sphere-grid. Instead of auto-leveling characteristics, the player got to actively participate in the evolution of their characters through a visible course, connecting them with the playable characters and making the entire game feel like more of a bona fide journey. <br /> <br />The Aeons were one of the most beautiful and felicitous character and story integrations into gameplay I've ever seen. And their implementation in FFX is still my favorite use of summons to this day. The best narrative-based games are those that integrate gameplay into the narrative. We've seen this with ICO, Shadow of the Colossus, Okami, etc. This effect was done to near perfection with the Aeons in FFX. Because the player could control the Aeon's, they were no longer the distant, indiscernable and uncontrollable characters they were before. They had a life, character, and purpose both inside and outside of gameplay. All said, their implementation in this way created a much closer link to the summons, and by extension, a much closer connection to the story, of which the Aeon's play a central part. <br /> <br />The most functionally beautiful aspect of the story as combined with the gameplay is the way that the summons form an essential crux of the story and prove crucial in gameplay, especially boss battles. Eventually, it is made known that the summons are intrinsically linked with the suffering of Spira and Sin. And the ultimate tragedy of the story is that in order to undo Sin and the suffering of Spira, the majestic and honorable summons, the life-force of Tidus, and the love of Yuna, must disappear. <br /> <br />As this was the first FF I had played, I did not know other player's woe at the loss of the world-map, but even after I played FFVII, FFVIII, and FFIX, I didn't miss the world-map and actually preferred not having it, as it seemed to only take away from the focus of the environments and the path of the story. <br /> <br />Aesthetically, FFX is truly awesome having left both my mouth agape and my soul awed. Of course the graphics were amazing for the time and, despite coming out soon after the release of the PS2, still has some of the best graphics on the system. Also, the environments were extremely varied and ingenuous. I still think the music is the best that Nobuo Uematsu has composed, probably because he had the input of two other fellow composers Masashi Hamazu and Junya Nakano. The music is so emblematic of the situations and environments and story, and some of the music is just heartbreakingly beautful. Even now, I still hum it from time to time when I'm in a melancholy mood. And it has metal, <i>metal</i>! *puts up horns* <br /> <br />Although the in-game engine cut-scene animations are a little rough, I still to this day enjoy them immensely. It doesn't purport to be realistic or of an impeccable quality, but this is what's so great about it. It has the meta quality of slyly overdone indicative acting theorized most notably by Bertolt Brecht. Of course the FMVs are far more realistic, but the in-game cutscenes still carry the campy artistry of <a href="http://www.machinima.org/" target="_blank">Machinima</a>. The same can be said of the voice acting which was so criticized in the game. The actors are acting in a way that is emblematic of the characters, story and the ideas and emotions they are aiming to express. It is not washed down in order to sound more realisitic. If you really wanted realism, why are you playing a fantasy game with the name <i>fantasy</i> in it? Of course it's going to be a little weird, it should be. Actually Tidus' inital whininess <i>is</i> realistic if you consider his nature as a character and his growth throughout the story. So, the character design, modeling and acting in FFX was bold and unrestrained by common notions of quality or dull realism, which is the true path to creating something unique and interesting.Final Fantasy X succeeded in making me feel like I was both inside the game and story participating and outside of it watching and thinking about it. This is the most extraordinary quality of video games, that they allow you to actually watch your, and by extension the protagonist's, actions as you carry them out. This is truly thought-provoking and I felt that FFX succeeded in the involvement of the player in this liminal space in a wonderful way. This is really what turned me on to video games, that they could involve me in such a complex way, I was no longer simply the reader of a story full of characters. But, in a sense, I became a character participating in the story, or at least, that's how it felt.
Final Fantasy X was my virginal experience with RPGs, but what a first experience. I'm glad I started with a benchmark series in the genre, but nothing has affected me as deeply or as lastingly as the art, music, story, characters, and integrated gameplay in FFX. This was the game that truly opened me up to the possibilities of RPG's as an almost completely inclusive art-form, integrating all of the things I have just mentioned. It opened up my eyes to genre formed of entire distinct universes that I could lose myself in. I learned it as a genre that was like experiencing a giant tapestry of paintings, film, symphony, and game with the potential depth and length of a novel. Amazing.
God she makes me sick, but she makes me want her oh, oh so badly.
Will we see a late 2008 release of Final Fantasy XIII? Yes? Maybe? Please, pretty please?
The Final Fantasy XIII Fabula Nova Crystallis project has been in development for over at least two years as it was announced early in 2006 E3. One would assume that it was in development at least a year even before that. Since then, they have given us four trailers for the two games, both expanded from the first, and the occasional tease in the form of enigmatic and vague discussion of the game worlds and changing of the name of the engine to 'Crystal Tools' (woohoo *twirls finger around in the air*).
Square used to be able to routinely put out a solid final fantasy game every year or two, along with other projects (yes, I'm talking about the glorious PSONE days, Vagrant Story, Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross, etc.). In the case of Final Fantasy X, from first unveiling the trailer in 2000, it took them only about a year to release the game. Since then, development time and the amount of quality titles being released has dropped off significantly. Are the games really that much better since FFX to justify such long development times? I mean, christ, it took them five years to develop FFXII.
It seems that their trend toward recycling old games in the form of spinoffs (FFVII and DS titles) and their lack of interesting individual projects started abruptly when Square merged with Enix due to the disastrous flunk of Sakaguchi's "Final Fantasy: Spirits Within" (which I actually enjoyed). Is this the case? If so, why? One would think that merging with a larger company such as Enix would increase their capital and means of production, thereby increasing productivity, but the opposite seems true. So who's to blame? Higher production costs? Lack of Ingenuity? Corporate greed? Or are we all just expecting too much from a series that has run for over two decades?
Since they stopped regularly airing Jackass, I never thought I would see a show I enjoyed so much. On MTV no less! Well the day has arrived.
Human Giant is the best sketch show I've seen since Dave Chapelle packed up and flew off to South Africa three years ago, maybe even better because they do much more than just racial humor. It has what sketch comedy fans love: unexpected, yet hilarious ironies and satiric humor delivered with utmost sincerity. The often dark comedy has deeper and sometimes very intelligent social commentary as well. It's a cathartic experience.
From the home-grown goodness and righteous singin' of Bozard and the BBQ Boys, to the hijinx of the blood-happy Lunartics, Human Giant has what you need for a better life. Check it out: