“People say that the savage no longer exists in us, that we are at the fag-end of civilization, that everything has been said already, and that it is too late to be ambitious. But these philosophers have presumably forgotten the movies.”
—Virginia Woolf, The Movies and Reality
Spoiler Content: Large spoilers from Dear Esther, but due to the nature of that game, knowing some of the possible theories probably will not impact your experience.
At the height of modernism at the turn of the 19th century, the world witnessed the birth of a new medium: cinema. Lacking sound, film could not have the conversational emphasis, and the accompanying structure, that literature had depended on. The medium instead used its new aspect, the visual, to explore new narrative styles and perspectives. Film seemed the perfect companion for modernism emphasizing the novelty of the visual to sidestep the ever-present artifice of the written word. Modernist authors and thinkers flocked to the medium, praising it as freedom from the constraints of the novel that they had been working to change, in order to better “make manifest the astronomy of the heart and mind” (Deren 228). Film allowed for an exploration of ideas that were before impossible to explore through its creation of a “different reality from that which we perceive in daily life” (Woolf 1). However, over a century after the birth of film, one could make a strong argument that film did not become the modernist ideal that its early proponents wished. Film narratives today, certainly those out of Hollywood, are largely linear, and many are adaptations of books themselves. Its visual aspects are not used to explore new narrative styles, but instead to contribute to an existing, literary story. While modernists imagined a subjective, feeling-based medium, free of the quickly-solidifying narrative structure of the novel, present-day films are largely those same novels in visual form. Film has not failed, in a practical sense, but it has failed to become the medium that modernists imagined. However, another medium, now in its adolescence, is developing aspects that the modernists desired, a medium that explores subjectivity and audience involvement in a way the modernists never could have imagined. This medium can tell stories through action, instead of presentation, through simple presence, instead of created worlds, through personal agency, instead of projected empathy. This medium can be quiet, can let the audience experience the narrative at their own pace, can ignore the creator’s narrative and generate one for individual audience, or can let the audience simply stand and experience the beauty of the artist’s created world. T.S. Elliot loved film because it was not “absorbed passively and noncommittally” (Chinitz p239), but in the medium of videogames, this is taken even further, as the audience isn’t just an audience but an actor, a participant in the narrative to the same degree as any character. Modernist thinkers and writers would have loved the video game medium, because, while young, it has the potential to explore nonlinear and subjective stories through narratives that are both artist — and player — crafted, in a way that film did not.
Film: The First Attempt at New Modernist Medium
Film, as a commercial medium, is a success. It has more mainstream acceptance than any other medium in human history. Sadly, you can meet people today who do not like books or plays, very often you will meet people who have never and never intend to play a videogame, but you will almost never meet someone who has never liked a movie. Movies make millions, some even make billions, of dollars. They explore important cultural ideas and inspire national discussions. They offer mountains of material for academics to critique and they provide families, friends, and couples with something to do on a Friday night. They have big-budget, blockbuster successes like Avatar or The Avengers, but the same studios have independent wings that create unique, powerful films such as Juno or Slumdog Millionaire, something the games industry has yet to master. Largely, film has succeeded, in a way that game players and creators wish their medium could. However, films did not radically change the way we tell stories. They offered new avenues of exploration through their visual or aural elements, but took a radically different path from the wishes of early modernist filmmakers. This is odd, considering film had numerous advantages to help it take advantage of its potentially narrative-challenging visual focus. Technical limitations prevented the use of any sound, which, coupled with the awkward pacing of on-screen word dumps, meant that early films could not be dialogue-heavy. This limitation existed from the 1890s until The Jazz Singer in 1927, a length of time comparable to gaming’s entire existence. During this period, modernist filmmakers thrived, and used the visual requirement to experiment with new, subjective narrative styles, because they did not have the technical capability to use novel-like ones.
However, this did not preclude film from the influence of literature. Virginia Woolf in her essay, The Cinema, explained that, “while all the other arts were born naked, this, the youngest, has been born fully-clothed,” highlighting how film’s use of visuals meant the audience already had a language for understanding its narrative (Woolf 3). This is a powerful sentiment, but it is worth noting that Woolf was, first and foremost, a writer, as were T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, and other modernist lovers of cinema. While they each tried to change literary narrative structure through their own work, their view of cinema was primarily in contrast to that of literature, because they were all titans of that very medium. Woolf claimed that literature and film were separate, that “the alliance [was] unnatural…eye and brain [were] torn asunder ruthlessly as they [tried] vainly to work in couples,” but film largely developed as a companion medium to literature (Woolf 2). That heavy influence is clearly apparent simply in the number of book adaptations, including half of The American Film Institute’s ten best films of all time. Avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren once stated that “There is no literary story…cinema, being a visual medium should discover its own, visual integrity – in cinematic terms” (Deren), and while film brilliantly explores “what the fact is, and the character’s attitude towards it” (Eisenstein 151), it does so through modified literary methods of storytelling, not ones pioneered through its own visual style.
Games: The Unlikely Second Attempt
Video Games would certainly not be the first candidate for a new modernist medium. The gaming culture has numerous, systemic issues: rampant sexism, racism, ageism, transphobia and a general resistance to criticism. In addition, it had none of the early developmental advantages of cinema. The state of criticism in the medium is so abhorrent that game developer John Carmack famously said, “Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important,” a crude statement that has not only been often quoted, but also proven partially right. Thus, any presentation of gaming as the perfect, modernist ideal that cinema was not, would appear utterly ridiculous. Early gaming history would certainly contribute to this view. Just as film’s technical limitations forced it to emphasize it new visual characteristics, the technical limitations of games left it predisposed to exploring gameplay. However, while early filmmakers could experiment with narrative structure, graphical limitations largely prevented game developers from using that interactivity to say anything meaningful. Early games were entirely about system mastery; Pong,Spacewar!, and Pac-Man did not explore the depth of human corruption, the nuances of romance, or the empowering influence of community, they explored how to move the pixel from one side of the screen to another, or how to increase a score variable. Interactivity wasn’t just emphasized, it was everything. These were masterfully crafted games, but no one knew, much less cared, how to use them to convey meaning. Early video games were not made and critiqued by great authors, like early films before them, but by computer programmers. In short, film was created by artists, whereas gaming was created by engineers, engineers who were more concerned with system mastery than insightful artistry. Because these games were commercially successful, they fed the demand for similar games, leading programmers to continue the trend unquestioningly for years. Gaming thus began and evolved as a medium about technical mastery, not interactive storytelling or exploration of meaning.
Yet games are still not without influence of other mediums. While its primary influence was computer programming itself, games slowly began to draw from cinema. Game developers, like many modernists, strongly emphasized realist aesthetics, to the point where “realistic graphics” has incorrectly become synonymous with “a well-crafted visual aesthetic.” Each year, games try to push the limits of their graphical fidelity, with drastic improvements over time as computing power has increased. There is a strong sentiment among game critics that this trend has lead game developers to make games more cinematic, that is, more like movies, at the cost of the unique advantages of the medium. Film contributed a great deal of visual polish and nuance to gaming, as well as powerful methods for visually expressing character interactions. However, in much the same way that literature lent powerful narrative aspects to film at the cost of visual strengths, film’s lending of visual aspects to games often comes at the cost of gaming’s new characteristic: interactivity. Games are inherently opposed to the cinematic style, because, as film critic Roger Ebert famously claimed, “Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control” (Ebert). Ebert used this as a reason why video games could never be art, and while I strongly disagree with him on that point, he does capture why film cannot work as a companion medium to gaming: players actions, free of developer control, clash with cinematic polish. The developer cannot make the player look at what they are supposed to, or do what they are supposed to as expertly or smoothly as a controller character would. Woolf observed that, in early cinema, “All the famous novels of the world, with their well-known characters and their famous scenes, only asked to be put on the films” (Woolf 2), and games have followed a similar path, not adapting individual movies but the entire cinematic style. Many present-day releases have safe and uninventive gameplay and mechanics, but multi-hour Hollywood-style movies as cutscenes between action sequences, entirely disconnected from the mechanics. Some developers are experimenting with created interactive movies, most notably David Cage, creative director of blockbuster games such as Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, the latter of which won awards at the Tribeca Film Festival. As this cinematic style of game continues, it is worth asking the question: why a game? What does the game add to the experience that could not be done better as a film? Just as games have begun to come into their own, telling stories and exploring their new capabilities, they are locked down in an attempt to become a medium they are not. Maya Deren believes films should have their own stories in cinematic terms, and many games critics believe that games need to have their own stories in ludic, or gameplay, terms. “But what, then, are its devices” (Woolf 2)?
The Advantage of Subjectivity
From a modernist perspective, the most apparent advantage of games is their subjectivity. Modernists loved subjective experiences, from the stream-of-conscious novels that explored everything a character thought to their idea of using film to control what the “audience sees, and therefore, control what the audience feels” (Deren 228). While these novels and filmmaking techniques approached subjectivity, games truly embrace it, as they are, by their nature, subjective. In his article on New Games Journalism, games critic Kieron Gillen wrote that “The worth of gaming lies in the gamer not the game,” and went on to emphasize the importance of the player in all interactive experiences. The audience-centric approach that Gillien emphasizes is heavily present in modernist thinkers, most notably T.S. Elliot’s complaint that mass media is absorbed “absorbed passively and noncommunally,” as opposed to film’s liberating subjectivity (Chinitz 239). Games can carry this active experience farther, because while films can “use the capacity of the camera to make [the scene] look like what the audience should feel about it,” (Deren 228) game developers can make the experience further their themes. The player is not shown what a character feels, they are the character, those are their feelings. Games’ closeness to reality, creating presence and agency for the player, allows the player to experience the media as experience, “[making] manifest the astronomy of the heart and mind” (Deren 228). Game developers embrace this under the banner of Immersion, employing themes from the modernist-created minimalist school of thought. These developers remove user interface elements that display data to the player, trying to let their game world speak for itself so as to emphasize the immersion of the player. By emphasizing the purity of the game-player interaction, developers can create an experience that “can say everything before it has anything to say” (Woolf 3). Developers want to strip away all else and let the player exist in another world, a world where change in perspective demands change in narrative structure.
New Worlds, New Narratives
One popular theory of modernism was that the previous world was outdated, and that it did not allow creators to fully express the human condition. Modernists believed a new world needed to be created in order to explore these ideas fully, and many praised film for its ability “make even the most imaginative concept seem real” (Deren 228). With a camera, actors, and a set, filmmakers “could create new realities” (Deren 228) to explore, entirely separate from our own. Games fulfill this wish brilliantly, in a way that modernists couldn’t have imagined. One of the earliest-created terms in gaming criticism was The Magic Circle, a set of concessions a player must make to look past the artifice of the game universe. This allows to create a “different reality from that which we perceive in daily life” that Woolf described, but in a way she never could have imagined (Woolf 1). To compliment these alternate worlds and the magic circles that accompanied them, developers created alternative narrative structures. One of the strongest of these new devices is a concept called the possibility space. Most linear stories, with a few notable exceptions, explore a possibility, a specific set of actions that show one possible outcome. Games, however, not being limited to a single possibility, can explore a possibility space, or an entire range of possibilities, actions and outcomes. One example of this is Stephen King’s The Shining – less so for its subsequent film adaptation – and the 2013 game The Novelist. Both have fairly similar premises – an author takes his family on a vacation so he can focus on finishing his novel – but while The Shining looks at one possibility, namely the dangers of overwork and alcoholism, The Novelist explores the entire possibility space between spending too much time with work and too much with family. The player can ignore their family entirely, and write a great novel at the cost of their marriage and the love of their son. They can also ignore their work completely, having a happy family, but feeling largely unsatisfied with their unsuccessful attempts at creating something they are passionate about. However, most players traverse the middle ground, trying to find a balance between the two, seeing the dangers of both but being encouraged to reconcile them. It plays to the strengths of gaming to explore more than just a single outcome, but many.
These narrative shifts allows gaming to utilize its greatest value to Modernism: the complete overhaul of the linear structure. Games lend themselves to a kind of narrative that YouTube creator MrBtongue calls “Shandification.” Shandification is a reference to the 1759 Laurence Sterne novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, which featured a fragmented narrative that explored events that were clearly nonessential to its vague semblance of a plot. What made Sterne’s style so interesting is that it was realistic, not in an exciting style, but in an almost boring one. Real world events don’t play out in a traditional narrative structure, they play out in a way that is “Shandified.” This gives Shandified media the ability to explore aspects of the human experience that traditional narratives have not. As a result, Sterne’s realist narrative style was still referenced and praised by modernists long after his death. His work was highly influential on authors such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, with Woolf even writing the introduction to his novel, A Sentimental Journal (OUPblog). However while his work was relevant in its time and in the modernist era, it is also relevant to gaming today. Games work best when they possess “a narrative which is free enough to move in its own direction and at its own pace, in a setting well realised enough to allow for this freedom of movement” (MrBTongue), because games attempt to simulate a reality which is Shandified. The modernist view of reality doesn’t follow a cohesive narrative, and is instead chaotic and tangential as a person crafts their own experience. In both modernist reality and game worlds, the hand of the creator is not often felt, if it is felt at all. What would be considered terrible pacing in a linear narrative becomes engaging and insightful because of how similar it feels to our real-world experience.
One game that exemplifies Shandification, the magic circle, subjectivity, and possibility spaces to great effect is Dear Esther, an indie game released in 2012. Dear Esther is the kind of game a modernist would create, as it is eerily reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s experimental novel The Waves, with its similar coastal setting, surrealist progression, and soliloquy-style exposition. The narrative and plot are unknown to the player, and they remain unknown. There are a multitude of theories for what the actual plot is, but each one contradicts the other. It appears to be about a dying man wandering an uninhabited island in the British Isles, reflecting on the death of his wife at the hands of a drunk driver. The player hears voiceovers from this man reading letters he wrote to his wife long after she had died. The game has levels, taking the form of sections of the island, and a set beginning and end, but the voiceovers change on subsequent playthroughs, sometimes creating a cohesive narrative only to contradict themselves minutes later. Whereas traditional linear stories are focused, Dear Esther is organic and explored, allowing the player to have a different experience each time as they learn more about the narrative and explore its possibility space. The narrative seems linear, and has some sense of order to it, but is so effectively Shandified that the majority of the voiceovers can be heard at the beginning, middle or end of the game and feel just as relevant. There is an arc to the story, but that arc changes every playthrough, and the player’s reading of the presented narrative can change it even further. For example, I did one playthrough interpreting everything the narrator said as literal, and the island as a physical place, but on a subsequent playthrough, I interpreted everything as metaphor, and viewed the island as a metaphorical landscape. The experiences were unique because both my perspective and the game itself had changed, which the developers used to lead me to different conclusions. Some players even insistent that the player plays as Esther herself, trapped in a coma while her husband sits at her side, reading letters to her. This reading is supported by player interaction in which the player can jump off cliffs on the island, only to have the screen go black, hear the narrators voice whisper, “Come back to me,” and be returned to the top of the cliff. The game utilizes all of the potential modernist strengths to create a narrative that could only have been told through an interactive medium.
“How all this is to be attempted, much less achieved, no one at the moment can tell us.” -Virginia Woolf
As mentioned earlier, gaming is a young medium with many, many flaws, and determining how to craft the medium into a modernist success is a daunting task. However, its potential is already beginning to be recognized. Games like The Novelist, Dear Esther and the critically acclaimed Papers, Please might give us some hint of where the medium is going, and I believe that if gaming is going to come into its own as a visual, aura, literary and, most importantly, ludic medium, examining games like these is vitally important. Cinema was created as a medium to explore new ideas of subjectivity and non-verbal storytelling, and gaming can be the next medium to do this, not in a way that is objectively better, but one that can explore more of the concepts that modernists hoped for. Maya Deren said, “We are moved by what we see, according to how we see it,” and I believe that, through games, we are moved by what we do, according to how we do it. Through the careful use of interactivity, gaming can take new approaches to narrative and open avenues of exploration that were previously unavailable. This is done not in a passive or noncommittal way, but through intricate interaction between the player and the game. Games ask the player to enter their world, contribute to it, explore it, and even create art through it. In the brilliant introduction to her piece on The Cinema, Woolf explained that the visual nature of cinema would demand a greater presence from the audience than other mediums have, that it would pull them in and make them feel what the story was about. I want to close with a quote from that introduction, which games have helped me see in a new light:
“What is its purpose, then, to be roused suddenly in the midst of [the eye’s] agreeable somnolence and asked for help? The eye is in difficulties. The eye wants help. The eye says to the brain, ‘Something is happening which I do not in the least understand. You are needed.’ Together they look at the king, the boat, the horse, and the brain sees at once that they have taken on a quality which does not belong to the simple photograph of real life.”
Chinitz, David. T.S. Eliot and the Cultural Divide. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. Print. P239
Deren, Maya, “Magic is New” p228
“Why did the chicken cross the genders? | Movie Answer Man | Roger Ebert.” All Content. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2014. <http://www.rogerebert.com/answer-man/why-did-the-chicken-cross-the-genders>.
Eisenstein, Sergei, “The Structure of the Film” p151
Gillen, Kieron. “The New Games Journalism.” Kieron Gillen’s Workblog. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2014. <http://gillen.cream.org/wordpress_html/assorted-essays/the-new-games-journalism/>.
“TUN: The Shandification of Fallout.” MrBtongue. YouTube, 24 Feb. 2013. Web. 20 Apr. 2014. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wvwlt4FqmS0>.
Woolf, Virginia. “The Movies and Reality.” Authors on Film. Harry M. Geduld. Indianapolis: Indiana University, 1972. 86-91. Print.
“Virginia Woolf on Laurence Sterne – OUPblog.” OUPblog. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 May 2014. <http://blog.oup.com/2013/03/virginia-woolf-on-laurence-sterne/>.