LOL “It makes it more difficult to aim and close combat is awkward and feels like trying to catch a fish between your legs while looking through binoculars.” Marius, this is one of the funniest metaphors I have ever read. Great job man.
Metro is clearly an FPS, but a one that can deliver strong atmospheric virtual space. While this is the strongest aspect of the game in terms of how much it can drag the player inside the virtual, it is not so successful on delivering clean ways of interacting with the avatar.
N.B. In the course of this article, I will ruthlessly spoil Dear Esther, certainly for those who have not experienced it, and in all possibility for some who have.
The haunting landscape of Dear Esther
“There’s nothing better to do here than indulge in contradictions,” says the narrator. His British voice is deep and theatrical, tinged with mania. My avatar crosses the gloomy beach. Stubborn, I persist in seeking out better things to do than indulge in contradictions. A wrecked boat beached on the rocks looks intriguing. Perhaps some clue as to what I am doing here? My avatar intrepidly paddles out into the surf for a few moments before sinking into the empty blackness. I drown(?); I hear the narrator’s voice: “Come back…” and then I am staring at the rocky sand of moments before, yards away from the surf.
* * *
Dear Esther is unquestionably a beautiful experience. Jessica Curry's elegiac score provides cohesion and drive throughout the narrative. As the setting reveals more of its secrets, the more difficult it is to believe that the painstaking detail of the island's sparse signs of habitation and subterranean wonder were created by a single level designer, Robert Briscoe (Mirror’s Edge). Dan Pinchbeck, Ph.D, with a dissertation on the FPS, has crafted a structural narrative shaped by Lovecraftian elements: purple prose that teeters on the overwrought, an unreliable narrator whose sanity is slipping away, and a remote island cursed for generations. Nigel Carrington's voice acting saves the most melodramatic sections of writing from grating, and much of the game's affective power comes from the texture of his voice.
When the developers label the game a “walk’em up,” they aren’t being coy. There are no mechanics; your task is only to walk along the path, free to look around and investigate as you please. As the walker progresses across the island towards an aerial crowned by a blinking red light, the narrator delivers what is presumably the inner monologue of the character directed by the user. The order of the audio segments is semi-randomized and the walker will not trigger every variant in one journey, meaning that the game cannot be completed in the most straightforward sense; every iteration of the game is a fraction of the narrative, and there is no definitive version to analyze textually.
The disconnected segments, lacking cohesive pacing and ragged with loose ends, give Dear Esther the feeling of a fugue state. Unfortunately, while the monologue begins in media res, my experience of embodying the character did not. I came into the game confused, after the “Start” option on the menu brought me to a level selection screen rather than the beginning of the game. Beyond this initial confusion, the narrator doesn’t discuss the destination of his journey until perhaps a third of Dear Esther has passed. Until roughly that point, I had little idea of what was expected of me, or even what I was capable of. I did not know swimming was strictly limited, or that exploration often went unrewarded beyond the opportunity to slowly trudge back to the main path and the occasional run-in with an invisible wall. My own uncertainty clashed with the bold soliloquies that periodically issued forth from what I presumed to be my character. When I heard the narrator say, “There must be something new to find here – some nook or some cranny that offers a perspective worth clinging to,” it seemed our thoughts had for once converged.
* * *
"I have found myself to be as featureless as this ocean…" For once, I agree with the voice; when I peer into the water, I see no reflection. Lately, the voice has been talking more and more about a serious leg injury, unbearable pain, a life-threatening infection and a quantity of pain-killers that would make even Rush Limbaugh blush. But the walker plods on without complaint, my steady pace maintained in the face of the character’s laments. The walker’s footsteps are often silent, and when audible have the regularity of clockwork. I look down into a chasm, and as the voice fills me in on its significance, I edge a little too close to get a better look— and fall in. A black screen, and again the narrator’s voice: "Come back…" Vision returns, and I am standing once again before the chasm.
* * *
While Dear Esther does a superb job of conveying a sense of place on the island, it makes very little effort to create a sense of embodiment. The narrator reveals his leg has been badly injured, and as the journey progresses, the grave and potentially fatal nature of the wound is expanded upon. Complaints about pain become more frequent, and the narrator talks about eating painkillers in the present tense. Yet while I am told these things, I do not experience any of them. My pace never slows, even after a few precipitous drops and a steady slog up the hillside. Even though my inner monologue says I am taking pain killers, I never see them. Furthermore, I have no way to affect the environment around me. At times, it feels as though I have taken the form of an armless invisible man.
If Dear Esther lacks any kind of mechanical/haptic interaction with the environment (e.g. press A to pull lever), is it still interactive? As more of the tragic tale is revealed, themes of fatalism develop and intermingle with a crescendo of biblical imagery. The state of the narrator’s sanity erodes further. Among many overlapping and often contradictory subplots, there are spurts of frantic talk about a car accident, conflicting accounts of the whereabouts/uses of Esther’s ashes, and previous inhabitants of the island. Beyond inconsistency, the story is shrouded in dense metaphors and allusions to other snippets of information that haven’t been encountered yet, and may never be.
It requires mental work and imagination to parse these disparate elements into a coherent tale; that is, you have to bring parts of your own self and judgment into play with the narrative. Dear Esther interacts with your mind’s predilection for constructing story. This interactive process is not so different from what is required of a reader of fiction. This argument certainly has its proponents; take Jude Richard Posner, one of America’s most respected jurists, who wrote:
Maybe video games are different [from previous media such as film and books]. They are, after all, interactive. But this point is superficial, in fact erroneous. All literature (here broadly defined to include movies, television, and the other photographic media, and popular as well as highbrow literature) is interactive; the better it is, the more interactive. Literature when it is successful draws the reader into the story, makes him identify with the characters, invites him to judge them and quarrel with them, to experience their joys and sufferings as the reader’s own.
As Judge Posner emphasizes, it is too easy to mistake the reader for a passenger along for the author’s ride, but creating meaning through reading necessarily involves the experience and prejudice of the reader. In the dominant paradigm, where mechanics define interaction, Dear Esther falls short of interactivity, and thereby ceases to be a game. Instead, perhaps we might consider the procedural responses characteristic of the majority of video games to be predominantly reactive. We should extend our notion of interactivity to warmly embrace any experience requiring interpretation and construction between audience and creator rather than use it as a cudgel to exclude certain genres from Wittgenstein’s “family resemblance” of games.
* * *
“I will drag my leg behind me; I will drag it like a crumpled hatchback, tyres blown and sparking across the dimming lights of my vision. I am running out of painkillers and am following the flicker of the moon home.” I seem to be floating on at the same pace as before. The voice is wilder now. In a few moments, I come up to the aerial, and suddenly the avatar is out of my control. The field of vision moves forward, and then up the ladder—it reminds me a little of a rollercoaster. The body climbs to the top and leaps, rushing headlong down to the beach and surf below before evening out and gliding back over the landscape, recapping the third act and zooming out into the water before the screen slowly goes black. And then the same voice, in the same way, says “Come back…”
I don’t respawn. I think the game might be over.
“I didn’t even see any fucking ghosts,” I think. I faintly feel a certain poignancy, an undercurrent overwhelmed by unease. The screen is still black. I contemplate the story for a moment. I fret that I am missing some ultimate scene, some monumental denouement. I finally get up and start mashing buttons until the menu appears and I know that Dear Esther is over.
* * *
I entered the game confused and left the game confused, though I enjoyed much in between. Dear Esther would have benefited from more paratextual material to prepare the walker for what to expect. It could have alternately featured a more strongly motivated beginning, so the user could feel confident of his or her role. The ending was a disappointment. I can see thematic resonances enabled by repeating “Come back”. What the developers failed to realize: that audio file was the one verbal sequence which presaged a change in the game-state, an audio cue that signaled resurrection in the player’s limited mechanical vocabulary. I stared into a completely black screen, wondering if the game had crashed at a particularly unfortunate moment because the developers chose ambiguity, to force the player to interact with the system, to “have a moment to think”. But this ambiguity was tainted by worry completely unrelated to the story. What can we make of this refusal to clearly demarcate the end of Dear Esther?
I recognize this position; in elementary school, I had a teacher who insisted that we not cap off our juvenile stories with “the End.” It made sense to me; after all, you could see the story didn’t continue—only an idiot would need to be told there was nothing left to read. In the novel, a form where narrative ambitions similar to Dear Esther's are developed, the rightward stack of pages represents a finitude, a certain fatalism of textual length. But the electronic game has few extradiegetic clues as to its finality; the boundaries of one game have no limits readily interpreted from within the play experience. The player might just as well expect more, especially in a game roughly a third the length of the average single player adventure. Thus, instead of spending that quiet moment wrestling with the meaning of the narrative, I sat in uncertainty and doubt, fearing for the life of my laptop’s video card. It was a pity; Dear Esther certainly gives one a lot to think about.
Here’s a collection of photos I’ve taken recently of people playing around ITU, including some fierce sessions of J.S. Joust, Nordic Game Jam and some matches in the GameLab. You might as well use Flickr’s full screen slideshow. Press play on the sweet jam I provided to further your viewing pleasure.
I think one of the biggest flaws of our first semester education was failing to integrate user design concepts and Aarseth’s notion of ergodicity. There seems to be some ambiguity about whether you’re discussing gameplay or design inefficiencies. Consider Suits’ definition of a game:
To play a game is to engage in activity directed towards bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by rules, where the rules prohibit more efficient in favor of less efficient means, and where such rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity…playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”
What seems to be a lack of user friendliness might better be thought of as a “less efficient means”— by not holding your hand or explaining crafting to you methodically, Notch & co. are giving you the opportunity to discover it for yourself and feel as if you’re a pioneer in a strange virgin territory.
Really liked that section of Merleau-Ponty in your last essay— I should read some of his stuff. Meanwhile, have you ever read Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Falsity in the Extramoral Sense?” I think you might like it. Full text in English available here.
Yesterday our lecturer Gordon Calleja touched upon the issue of using the metaphors of ‘immersion’ and ‘presence’ to describe the phenomenon of a person being involved or engaged in a (misleadingly coined) ‘other world’. During his talk he mentioned the continental philosopher Merleau-Ponty to…
While you can built on your own in the creative mode of the game in which you have all the materials the game has already in your possession from the start and start building what you want to build, for example a digital replica of the ITU. The multi-player mode is where the community of gamers…
"Festival only makes sense when its brilliance lights up the sad hinterland of everyday dullness, and when it uses up, in one single moment, all it has patiently and soberly accumulated.”
âHenri Lefebrve, Quotidienne 2
"It should not be forgotten that worse than the cheat is the one who disdains or refuses to play, ridiculing the rules or exposing their vanity. Huizinga tells of the Shah of Persia who, invited to England to attend the Derby, asked to be excused by saying he already knew that one horse runs faster than another. It is the same for the sacred. Nothing is more destructive of culture than these ‘wet blankets,’ who are skeptics and doubters. they like to smile at everything, naively believing that they thus affirm their superiority. Through vanity, they only cause injury to a precious treasure that was accumulated, at the cost of infinite pains. At least they might be iconoclastic and sacrilegious in the idea of establishing in their turn the rules of a new game that is more pleasant or more serious.”
âRoger Caillois, “Play and the Sacred.” Man and the Sacred. pg. 162.
âCarnival is a pageant without footlights and without a division into performers and spectactors. In carnival everyone is an active participant, everyone communes in the carnival act. Carnival is not contemplated, and, strictly speaking, not even performed; its participants live in it, they live by its laws as long as those laws are in effect; that is, they live a carnivalesque life.â
âMikhail Bahktin, Carnival and the Carnivalesque
"In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”
“The spectacle presents itself simultaneously as all of society, as part of society, and as instrument of unification.”
âGuy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, Ch. 1, sct. 1/ 3
Yesterday, for Digital Game Theory, we had an excellent guest lecture by Espen Aarseth, the very fellow that fired the starting pistol that began the academic race[1. A race to establish an ego-centric academic citation path dependency; to have one’s terminology widely adopted as the foundations for a new field. Until the dust settles, why not throw one’s hat into the ring?] commonly referred to as Game Studies. The topic was “emergence,” and with a reading list consisting of Jesper Juul’s 2002 framework of opposition between progress and emergence in games, “The Open and the Closed: Games of Emergence and Games of Progression,” [2. A small nit-pick: Juul lists “working together in a group” in EverQuest as an “emergent strategy” not immediately deductible from the game rules. However, class interdependence is an explicitly designed feature of the game (Taylor, 2006) which is fairly obvious to the player & almost required by its design. Applying that definition by analogous standards, we could argue that running and jumping simultaneously in Mario could also be classified as an emergent strategy, though plausible interactions might also be made for rule interaction and combination, the other proposed levels of emergence. There is an obvious strain on the severability of these categories implied in this analysis. As an aside, it seems class interdependence mimics specialization in everyday lifeâDurkheim might consider Norrath an organic society. Coyly, we might claim EverQuest creates an organic society mechanically.] & a fairly technical overview, Jochen Fromm’s “Types and Elements of Emergence.” I came in partial to the concept: I remember reading interviews in PC Gamer as a teenager with Warren Spector & Harvey Smith describing Deus Ex as having “emergent gameplay" and it sounded like a cool idea that I was pretty sold on at the time.
Color me surprised that Espen, largely by way of a thoughtful Socratic method, convinced me that almost all uses of the term “emergent” in contemporary gaming talk are at the very least incomplete & most are largely inaccurate. In fact, when Espen was making a list of fields in which emergence was misused, and a column of warrants beside it, I hazarded adding philosophy, and gave a short justification based on Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysicsthat I thought was fairly clever at the time. Given the fact that my shamelessly interdisciplinary adventure has left me somewhat of a dumb-dumb when it comes to philosophy, I can only plead that it was my sleep-addled state[3. Joon & I were up late putting the finishing touches on a poster submission about our alpha jam game development methodology. We may have also been putting the inaugural touches on said poster, between you and me.] that induced me to clamber out over thin philosophical ice. I have since reconsidered. But there were some damn nifty ideas in that emergence stuff that’s made me a lot more excited about the study of complexity than I have been in a long time. Let me tell you a storyâ
The problem with “emergence,” like many terms with ambiguous meaning, is one of difference and boundary-drawing. The term’s appearance in wider culture is rarely accompanied by a suitable definition, and it is applied to a wide variety of phenomena which a careful examination proves to be dissimilar. To critique the usage of emergence in the buzzword-happy games industry, we can begin by asking “What is structurally different about game X, dubbed emergent, and game Y, which is not considered emergent?”
Is it simply that the players have done something that the developers didn’t anticipate? Given a suitably flexible and complex system, we should dismiss the arrogance implied by the feigned surprise inherent in the well-worn “Gee golly, look at what those players have done! Inconceivable!” genre of developer commentary. We might more charitably expect that the actions of a community of thousands or millions of players would outstrip the set of hypothetical situations imagined by a small team of designers with some regularity.
Many popular uses of the word “emergent” could be more accurately replaced with words such as complex, surprising, or unpredictable. On closer analysis, it seems clear that it isn’t that games themselves have emergent properties, but that some games provide a rich medium for expression or communication for the most emergent beings in the known universe: humans.
That’s because we humans are the culmination of two incredibly complex processes which Fromm states are the best examples of “strong emergence”âlife and culture. In cases of strong emergence, the cumulative effect of the phenomenon cannot be derived by extrapolating from a robust but microscopic understanding of its constituent parts. That is, even if our understanding of the origin of DNA and genetic systems were perfect, it would be impossible for us to trace the causal train from nucleotide to frog, for example. Genes and memes are replicators which can be combined in a staggering number of possibilities. So many, in fact, that they quickly approach 10120. Fromm calls this mind-bogglingly large number the Landauer-Wheeler-Lloyd limit,[4. I wasn’t able to find it anywhere else, actually. Turns out the name for that number is novemtrigintillion, though.] which is more or less ”the number of bits of information that have been processed by all the matter in the universe.” That means we lack even the conceivable computing power to sort something that big out.
I had never thought about the limits of computational power before. It reminded me immediately of Kant’s argument in the Prolegomena, at least as much of my original, limited understanding as I retained. To doubtlessly grossly oversimplify and misstate, Kant’s slim little book was an incredibly intelligent rant saying to all of philosophy, “Look, until you figure out my god damn book and either accept it or figure out a better way to fix the problems, talking about metaphysics is stupid!” And the problem with metaphysics is that we lack an obvious faculty to directly experience the metaphysical, and no compelling evidence that we are capable of gaining knowledge outside of the realm of physical sensation.
At first glance, the incomprehensible nature of the Landauer-Wheeler-Lloyd limit seemed to fit the bill. But after giving it some thought, I realized that the two are very different: while the L-W-L limit might be quantitatively impossible to explicate, we can understand small segments of it, while to my understanding we lack the sensory apparatus to experience Kant’s metaphysicalâit is qualitatively inaccessible.
I had never read all of Marvin Minsky’s seminal essay “Telepresence,” nor had it really sunk in that its venue was venerable sci-fi mag Omni.[1. He thanks Asimov, Heinlein & Sagan in the footnotes!] I was surprised to say the least to read his radical conclusion, shortly after considering telepresence’s possibility for increasing alienation:
Finally, in a strange sense, the question of “technological unemployment” may become moot. Many young people today consider it demeaning to be bound to any single employer, occupation, or even culture. Perhaps many of us sense—at least on some level—that little of what we do really needs to be done. Our attitudes about work, about changing the quality of it, depend as much on our own dispositions and our alternatives as on the jobs themselves. In effect, most of us already feel technologically unemployed.
—Marvin Minsky, ”Telepresence” (1980)
Is there an uncanny telepresence whose dissonance occurs on an affective level? Can we include the workification of play & the gamification of exploitation within the concept? Nudging too close to simulation fever? I don’t know; I haven’t figured it out yet. Maybe after some Freud, so I have a better notion of the uncanny. I’m becoming more interested in the negative experiences of play inevitable after sinking thousands of hours into video games.