Here on My Side of the Screen

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(I’m officially retiring my usual “Ian here” greeting, as, in the absence of student posts, there will be no one but me posting on this blog for the foreseeable future.)

Early in his book Pilgrim in the Microworld, a phenomenological account of videogame expertise that stands as landmark work of first-person game criticism, David Sudnow attempts to describe, to a presumably completely ignorant reader, the experience of playing Breakout (Atari, 1972). “There’s that world space over there, this one over here,” he writes, “and we traverse the wired gap with motions that make us nonetheless feel in a balanced extending touch with things.”[i]

Today, the term “wired gap” is archaic—we sit comfortably in the age of wireless game controllers. But the general logic of this gap, and how it is traversed, nonetheless persists. On the one side, we have the electronic world represented on the screen. On the other side, we have ourselves, cordoned off from the world of the game by virtue of being flesh-and-blood. If we act upon that other world from our side of the screen, it must be by virtue of some sort of electronic input device: keyboard and mouse, DualShock 4, Wii Remote, Jungle Beat bongo drum, what have you. Wired or not, the relationship we have with that world on the other side of the screen is necessarily mediated by technology: sever that particular link, and our involvement with it ceases.

Not all games follow this logic, however. In this post, I’ll be looking at three games, all of which came out around 2012–2014, that ask you to do more, as a player, than simply manipulate an electronic interface. These games have a different sort of contract with their player. They ask you agree to more wide-ranging sets of behaviors over on your side of the screen, which, by their very nature, cannot be regulated in strict procedural terms. These are games that re-map the points of contact between our fleshy, spacious realm and the realm of bits and pixels.

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Double Blind

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Ian here—

I’ve written about synesthetic interfaces before: that is, interfaces that perform a sensory substitution, translating the information normally associated with one sense modality into the phenomenal forms normally associated with another. In my previous work, I’ve usually focused on forms of nonhuman perception and certain modes of perceptual expertise. The release of Perception (The Deep End Games, 2017) yesterday, however, gives me an opportunity to dip into a new topic: disability.

Perception is a horror game about a blind woman exploring a haunted house. Unlike a game such as Papa Sangre (Somethin’ Else, 2010), however—an experiment in audio-only digital game design that has sadly been taken off of the iOS App Store as of this writing—Perception doesn’t court blind and other low-vision players. Rather than featuring robust, binaural sound localization simulation, Perception re-imagines the auditory perception of its blind protagonist Cassie as a kind of sonar vision, thrown up on the player’s screen in spooky, warbly monochrome.

This isn’t the first time games nominally about blindness have been served up to sighted players. In this post, I take up a comparative investigation of Perception alongside Beyond Eyes (Tiger and Squid / Team17 Digital Ltd, 2015), which drops the horror angle in favor of child-friendly, colorful adventure.

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The Coming of Age in Metal Gear Solid IV

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Ian here—

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.)

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Cursory Knoweldge

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Ian here—

If I had to sum up a significant portion of the writing I do on videogames, I would offer the following formulation as a précis: The establishment of character in videogames isn’t achieved solely through writing. It is also established through user interface design.

Sometimes, something as simple as how a cursor behaves can tell us a lot about a character. Be forewarned—the breezy tour through the issue below contains significant spoilers for Firewatch (Campo Santo, 2016).

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Misty-eyed Modernism

Ian here—

In 1982, longtime Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman penned a famous essay entitled “Vulgar Modernism.” In it, he pointed out that medium-specific reflexivity—the use of “art to call attention to art” that Clement Greenberg proposed as the defining feature of modernist painting—was, in fact, everywhere in American mass culture in the 1940s and 1950s.[i] It was in Tex Avery and Chuck Jones’ Daffy Duck cartoons, chock to the brim with distanciation jokes and forthright acknowledgements of film form. It was in Bill Elder’s Mad Magazine cartoons, parodies that sometimes literally broke through their own frame. Hoberman coined the term vulgar modernism to name this “popular, ironic, somewhat dehumanized mode reflexively concerned with the specific properties of its medium or the conditions of its making.”[ii] Vulgar modernist works hold no pretensions toward being anything other than mass culture, but they demonstrate an astute awareness of the history of their own medium, and puckishly call attention to its conventions.

Hoberman’s essay is a helpful reminder that artistic devices don’t come pre-packaged with aesthetic aims. Greenberg observed painters embracing flatness, brushstrokes, and the properties of pigment, and considered such medium-consciousness as a crucial element of modernism in the fine arts. Hoberman observed similar devices employed by Warner Bros. and Mad, bent toward parody rather than Kantian self-criticism.

I offer this opening excursus because I’ve noticed a growing popularity of “modernist” devices in videogames. As in Hoberman’s case studies, these devices aren’t offered up in the spirit of intellectualized self-criticism. Rather, they constitute what I’ll call misty-eyed modernism: reflexive devices used to emphasize the vulnerability of a fictional character, a foregrounding of the specific properties of a medium for the purposes of empathy or tear-jerking.

About a month ago, I professed to not having played enough games from 2016 to name any as among my “favorites.” I have taken decadent advantage of the past 30 days, however, and I’m in a position where, yes, I can actually count the two discussed below as among my “favorite.” And, wouldn’t you know it, they both share misty-eyed modernist tendencies. Significant spoilers for both Oxenfree (Night School Studio, 2016) and OneShot (Team OneShot, 2016) below. If you’re spoiler-averse, then you should just take these above-the-fold recommendations and do with them as you see fit. If you don’t mind spoilers (of if you’ve already played the games in question), continue … but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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whoami: 2016 Edition

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Ian here—

So, I’ve been struck by a fit of mania. Although it’s an arbitrary gesture, I am determined to write up a few of my thoughts on some more interesting games of 2016 before midnight strikes and the calendar year ends.

Below the fold: three games from the past year that do interesting things with perspectiveembodiment, and intersubjectivity. Consider this a follow-up to yesterday’s post.

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whoami

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Ian here—

For those of you who aren’t in the know, “whoami” is a command that was first implemented in Unix-based systems, allowing the user to see what account, with which types of access, they are currently recognized by the machine as being logged in under.

This post offers two quick takes on two games. (They both happen to be from 2012, for whatever reason—something in the water?) While playing both of them, “who am I?” is a surprisingly rich one. Sometimes, they keep the player’s role vague, surprising them with the amount of agency they have, and the degree to which they seem to be inside or outside the game’s story. Other times, they are quite clear on who the player “is,” but leave plenty of room for interpretation as to what occupying this role means. Take care below: spoilers aplenty.

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