I have wanted to write about the original Silent Hill (Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo “Team Silent,” 1999) for a very long time. But it has been difficult to find a “way in.” Unlike its pseudo-remake, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (Climax, 2009), which I have successfully gotten around to writing about, Silent Hill doesn’t have much in the way of interesting flaws to pick apart. It has flaws, to be sure. But its flaws are banal. It falls prey to the “let’s belatedly explain our incoherent story via some back-loaded cutscenes” problem so typical of games of the original PlayStation era, especially those produced in Japan that I have only ever experienced in English translation. Its successes, meanwhile, are numerous. But I’ve never found a way to approach them with intellectual rigor. My reaction to the game is a primal one, and I have struggled to conjure critical thoughts beyond, “my, it really is surprising how effectively scary this game still is, despite the limitations of its visual style.”
But, what the hell: I’m going to give it a shot, in the form of one of my “hodology of videogames” series of posts. Since it’s been awhile, here’s a quick refresher on the ground rules: “Hodological space” refers to the space that humans inhabit: not a space made up of strict coordinates, but a thicket of preferred paths, affected by factors such as interest, distraction, fatigue, and urgency. It’s a term that originated in the writings of psychologist Kurt Lewin, and which traveled by way of Sartre into the realm of phenomenology. Today, I’ll be thinking about the paths players take through the town of Silent Hill.
Welcome to the second of a series of posts I’ll be doing on hodological space in games. “Hodological space” refers to the space that humans inhabit: not a space made up of strict coordinates, but a thicket of preferred paths, affected by factors such as interest, distraction, fatigue, and urgency. It’s a term that originated in the writings of psychologist Kurt Lewin, and which traveled by way of Sartre into the realm of phenomenology.
Up today: the survival simulation game Misasmata (IonFX, 2012). Accepted onto the Steam storefront in October 2012 as part of Valve’s second batch of games approved through the now-defunct Greenlight submission process, one of Miasmata‘s most notable traits was being on the leading edge of the “goodness, there are too many indie games than one could ever keep up with” moment we are currently in. Miasmata, though, is worth remembering for more than that. It also possesses a genuinely innovative movement system, one that, in its own weird way, serves as a nice counterpoint to the subject of my previous entry in this series, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo EDP, 2017).
The level “Twin Suns” in Metal Gear Solid IV (Kojima Productions, 2008) ranks as one of my favorite videogame levels of all time. Smack dab in the middle of a game with more than its share of problems—the usual problems of unconscionably long cut-scenes and unconscionably short periods of genuine interactivity, plus new problems such as an inexplicably drab grey-green color scheme—comes something so conceptually audacious that I’m simply floored.
“Twin Suns” takes two of Metal Gear Solid IV‘s central themes, aging and the fear of obsolescence, and distills them into their most undiluted form. In Metal Gear Solid IV, series protagonist Solid Snake is old. (In fact, he’s so old that he’s given a new moniker, Old Snake.) This is used to greater or lesser effect throughout the entire game, but it really comes to the fore in “Liquid Sun,” which sees Snake returning to Shadow Moses, the location he infiltrated in Metal Gear Solid, a game released a decade prior. Given that series creator Hideo Kojima is well-known for using each sequel as a means of interogating the game industry’s lust for sequels, it should come as no surprise that this re-visit is in part a mediation on the way the franchise has aged. What is surprising is that this predictably modernist streak is shot through with something that approaches genuine pathos, and a fairly sincere investigation of what it means for an action hero to age.
(The title of my post pays homage to Simone de Beauvoir’s La Vieillesse, from which I’ll be quoting from sporadically. Although the Patrick O’Brian English translation I’ll be quoting from is actually titled Old Age, I much prefer the English language rendition The Coming of Age.)
“Hodology” is, according to its Greek roots, the study of paths. These days, its primary associations seem to be with neuroscience. But I want to resurrect an older, more literal use of it: the study of how people move throughout a landscape, the ways in which they chart routes that are particular to the human body, human perception, and human culture.
This sense of the term “hodology” owes much to the psychologist Kurt Lewin. In his 1934 essay “Der Richtungsbegriff in der Psychologie. Der spezielle und allgemeine Hodologische Raum” (a mouthful, I know), Lewin coined the term hodological space to refer to the unique characteristics that landscapes take on when perceived by, and navigated by, human beings.[i] Lewin’s original essay remains untranslated into English after all these decades, but its influence was widespread. Jean-Paul Sartre took up Lewin’s term “hodological space” in Being and Nothingness, and from there it spread to a number of humanistic geographers interested in phenomenology, including Christian Norberg-Schulz and O.F. Bollnow. Norberg-Schulz offers a pithy English-language explanation of Lewin’s contribution:
Rather than straight lines, hodological space contains ‘preferred paths’ which represent a compromise between several domains such as ‘short distance,’ ‘security’, ‘minimal work’, ‘maximum experience’ etc. The demands are determined in relation to the topographical conditions.[ii]
I’ve often thought that preferred paths are an interesting lens through which to look at videogame space, and so I’m inaugurating a series of posts that deal with them. What better to do the honors than one of the most talked-about games of the moment, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo EDP, 2017)? Continue reading →
What follows is an invited talk I gave last month at a university that will remain unnamed. Here, things get a little awkward: the talk in question was actually a job talk, and I am technically still waiting to hear back on the school’s final decision. Hence, the location of the talk remaining unnamed.
Originally, I was going to wait to post this talk until I had heard official word back on the status of the position (whether that news was good, or bad). I’ve decided to post it now, though, mostly because I attended an excellent panel at SCMS 2017, “Video Games and Queer Affect,” chaired by Bonnie Ruberg (an old compatriot of mine from Bard College) with papers by Whitney Pow (with whom I co-organized this conference) and Diana Pozo. Bonnie and Diana’s papers, especially, shared considerable overlap with the trends outlined here, down to including some of same case studies. It seems, then, that this material is very “of the moment,” and I didn’t want to let the opportunity to make is publicly available pass. I’m planning on moving this material forward into an article in the coming months. It’s exciting to be part of a community of peers who finds it as interesting as I do, and I’m definitely going to alter the direction and focus of aspects of this piece in response to the work I saw happening on the panel.
This post is part of a series that borrows the term process genre from Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky’s work in cinema studies, and explores its utility for videogame analysis. A quick definition: “process genre” films are films about labor, films that focus on processes of doing and making, that are fascinated with seeing tasks through to their completion. They are deliberately paced, meditative, and often political, in that they cast a penetrating eye on labor conditions. Are there games that the same chords? Posts in the series so far can be seen here.
On the docket for today: Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please (3909, 2013), a simulation of being a border guard in the fictional Soviet-bloc-style nation of Arstotzka in 1982. As you scrutinize people’s documents, weeding out the undesirables, stamping the passports of some travelers and detaining others, there is plenty of opportunity for political drama—in particular, do you do your best as a servant of your obviously oppressive government, or do you quietly aid rebel factions? But there’s also just the matter of making enough money to keep your house heated, your son fed, and getting medication for your elderly uncle. Since you’re paid by the number of entrants you correctly service, this means being good at your job: memorizing the bureaucratic rules, getting good at both quickly and carefully examining documents, and keeping your desk clean and orderly. It is, all things considered, as much a game about a desk as it is about a family, or a nation.
So, a disclaimer: This is not a lesson plan, not precisely. I did in fact teach Harun Farocki’s Parallels series for the final class session for my SAIC writing seminar “Moving Images and Arguments.” But since it was the final class, and since we were in a phase of the course in which my top priority was guiding students during revisions of their final essays, our discussion of the videos wasn’t nearly as detailed and rich as what you see reflected here.
Really, these are notes toward a future lesson, delivered under ideal circumstances. Although it was outside of the scope of my “Moving Images and Arguments” course, what I am most interested in about the Parallels videos are the connections Farocki draws between the videogames’ imperfect simulations of reality and the problem of philosophical skepticism. Although present to some extent in Parallel I (2012), the specter of skepticism is most pronounced in Parallel II (2014) and Parallel III (2014). I was deep in the midst of writing my dissertation in 2014, and didn’t end up seeing II, III, and IV until 2016. This was a shame, because problems of skepticism actually play a large role in the first chapter of my dissertation, and it turns out that I missed the chance to incorporate an analysis of these videos into that discussion. Parallel II and Parallel III form the main inspiration for this post, as a way of making up for that lost opportunity.