Tag Archives: gaming

“Basically, we are gods. We can create worlds. And all we are doing is recreating the harsh world that we live in. And the truth is our time is limited. Like, this is our one opportunity to make whatever we want and we are really, really comfortable just remaking our childhoods. That’s scary to me.”
-Walt Williams, in an interview with Brendan Keogh

Smashing Plastic Guitars (And The Patriarchy): My Confusing Journey Into Guitar Hero and Emergent Narratives

Last month, I finally bought Guitar Hero III.  With a used guitar from Amazon and an old PC copy, I was able to load up and play a game that I had never actually owned, but nonetheless had held enormous sway over two years of my gaming life.  Rhythm gaming disappeared almost as quickly as it rose to prominence, so Guitar Hero III, for me, remains the untarnished pinnacle of that genre.

At first, I played it as a way of revisiting childhood experiences. I completed the career mode on medium without much difficulty in a few hours, enjoying the songs, style, and 300px-Judyhealthy nostalgia trip.  After completion, I almost immediately packed up the guitar and left it to lounge in my closet.  But two weeks ago, I picked it up again, this time playing on hard mode as Judy Nails, a punk rock girl who emanated goth culture and 90s grunge.  This didn’t change the gameplay in any way, only what avatar was displayed rocking out on screen.  Overall, it wasn’t that different from my first playthrough.

That was until the second stage of the game.  My band had just completed their first real gig, playing a set of songs in a run-down bar to a small but energetic crowd.  As we closed the last song, a 3D-rendering of Tom Morello, a guitarist from the angsty, rap-metal band, Rage Against The Machine, emerged to face off against my character in one of the game’s iconic guitar battles.  I knew and guiltily enjoyed the song, so I prepared myself to play.  However, before the battle began, something caught my eye.  The camera panned left to focus on a leather-clad woman, clearly a stripper, as she walked onto the stage in the beginnings of a T-rated, but clearly suggestive dance.  The crowd went wild, and the game took a slice of time out of my performance to focus on hers, which continued throughout the song.  I had played this game dozens of times at friends’ houses in the past, and once again a week before, but somehow I hadn’t given this section much thought.  Yet, for some reason, even though it had no direct impact on the game whatsoever, my position of playing as Judy Nails made this stand out to me.

I unconsciously began to wonder how she would have felt about this.  Seeing another woman that blatantly objectified must have been alienating, unsettling and disorienting.  This stripper, and the way the crowd and camera treated her, established women as an object.  Judy Nails’ role as the protagonist made her a subject.  The two were clearly in conflict.

But that wasn’t how I framed those thoughts.  This wasn’t a removed defense of Judy Nail’s emotions.  No, this bothered meI felt alienated.  I felt objectified.  And I was pissed off.  I was about to battle against an incredibly skilled guitarist, in a head-to-head that would launch my character’s career into greatness.  Yet the game chose to focus on a 322px-Judy_Nailsstripper, something that, yes, likely would have made the fictional Judy Nails uncomfortable, but, more confusingly, made me feel uncomfortable, in a way it hadn’t every other time I had played the game.  How could I fight my way to the top of rock ‘n’ roll, if this stripper was standing right in front of me, with others dancing in cages behind her, symbolizing a level of unapologetic objectification that held women back in the medium and in the world?  These weren’t the empathized feelings of Judy Nails, they were my feelings.

I didn’t have time to process this, nor the myriads of other problematic presentations of women I would soon notice in the game, because seconds later, a torrent of notes came flying down the game’s virtual fretboard.  Both the computer-controlled-Morello and I played wickedly difficult progressions, producing a chaotic ballad of record-scratches and distorted guitar riffs.  The song was difficult enough that it consumed all of my attention, leaving none to consider The Stripper and the implications of her presence.

But I was angry, not in a way that was clear and focused, but cloudy and saturating.  This let me reach a level of flow in play that balanced detachment and engagement, shaping my actions to a reflexive perfection I rarely experienced.  As the song barred forward, with us neck and neck in points, I slowly began to accumulate more of the game’s power-ups, special abilities that would mess up the opposing player, and I used them sparingly.

3616-active07guitarhero3-wii-00This wasn’t conscious strategy, but an automatic response.  Before, I had seen guitar battles more as a special stage to perform on, instead of a battle with a clear opponent.  But this time, I had an enemy.  It wasn’t Tom Morello, I’m sure he’s a perfectly nice guy, it wasn’t Neversoft, the game’s developer, and it certainly wasn’t that stripper.  It was something I couldn’t clearly define, certainly not while playing a song on a difficulty level I had absolutely no reason to be playing on.  But I was angry at something.  I couldn’t define it, but I knew it when I saw it, and I knew that I needed to defeat it, not for someone else, but for me.

And I did.  As the digitized Morello began his ending solo, signaling the beginning of the “death drain”, which would lose me the battle, I thrust my guitar into the air, activating my carefully curated power-ups.  Digital Morello’s difficulty level was increased to expert, each note he had to play was doubled, all of which flashed on and off of the screen sporadically.  He failed the song in a matter of seconds.

I shouted an adrenaline-filled cry of victory.  I had defeated an honest-to-god bad guy.  I didn’t know what that was, or what it meant, but I knew I had done something.

The virtual crowd roared in approval at our performance, demanding an encore.  Rage Against The Machine’s iconic Bulls On Parade was loaded up, and, before I could reflect on the experience, I was thrust right in.  Despite feeling the thrill of an undefined victory, I still felt a simmering anger that permeates many of Rage’s songs.  Bulls on Parade is very much a song about fighting the system, and now, I had a system to fight.

For the rest of that playthrough, I wasn’t just embodying someone who loved music with a passion, I embodying someone locked in a battle against a culture.  I started to notice characters with the same character model as The Stripper in nearly every other stage, many of them in cages.  I started to notice how there were maybe three songs in the game guitarhero3slash1124with a female singer.  I started to notice how my character didn’t appear in the pre-rendered cutscenes.  I started to notice how, aside from the rarely-used female singer, and a briefly-shown TV reporter, there was not another woman in the game. But I still loved the music, and I loved the feel of playing the game.  I couldn’t just quit, I had an undefined enemy to defeat!  I had to prove, to something equally undefined, that I could love rock but not be the kind of rock that made a camera linger on a T-rated rendition of a stripper.  I had a system not just to defeat, but to change.

And I did!  Sort of!  I played through the rest of the game on hard.  I earned money and glory.  I bought the coolest guitars and the most expensive punk-rock outfits.  I unlocked The God of Rock, Slash, and the Grim Reaper from the character selector.  I beat every song with four or more stars.  In a conclusion that would have made Jack Black proud, I won a guitar battle with the devil for my soul to a rock rendition of The Devil Went Down to Georgia.  I became a “rock legend”, as the ending victory screen proclaimed me.  I played Dragonforce’s infamously difficult Through The Fire and the Flames atop an enormous hell-tower to hordes of cheering demons and devils.  I had done it.

But I had already done that a week ago.  Sure, it was on medium difficulty, but hard mode didn’t fundamentally change the experience.  Yet, somehow, it felt so much more invigorating the second time through.  I hadn’t just defeated the devil, the odds, and the hordes of other rock artists on my way to the top, I had defeated…something.  Sexism?  The patriarchy?  Strippers?  I wasn’t quite sure.  But I had done it.  I was a champion of rock, a legend, and I was a woman.  I got to play that solo on the top of that tower.  But I did not change the world.  I did not change the game.  I did not do anything combat the industry’s persistent, disturbing, and childish approach to representing half of the goddamn planet.  I didn’t do anything but change a few variables on my PC.  But that experience had enormous meaning to me nonetheless.  I may not have defeated even a sliver of the real patriarchy, but my defeat of an imagined one helped me learn from an otherwise mundane experience.

This story was not written into Guitar Hero III.  In fact, my narrative is mostly at odds with the game’s constructed one.  But this only made the experience all the more powerful.  I felt a beautiful parallel between my journey and Judy Nails’, with me in conflict with, yet in love with the game I was playing, and her in conflict with yet in love with rock music and its culture.  I embodied that contradiction, acted on its inconsistencies, and could feel the medium respond to my created story. I could assign meaning to the actions I performed and emotion to the songs that I played.  I could treat the game’s sexism as a problem with an imagined world that I needed to fix, instead of a prejudiced choice in a piece of static media, because Guitar Hero is not a piece of static media, it is a game.  I can take that game, which I adored unquestioningly when I was younger, and find meaning in 9it, because it isn’t the same game I played when I was 13; the game has changed because I have changed. Through this, I experienced a story I never could have in reality, because, yes, the game depicts a world created by developers that portrays women in a way that is simply wrong, but I am a part of that world.  I can change it.

Despite gaming’s relative youth as a medium, this isn’t some wholly unique experience.  In fact, we have a term form it.  It’s called emergent narrative, and it shows up in games like The Sims, Dwarf Fortress and Far Cry 2, where the authored narrative is overshadowed by stories the player creates using the systems of the games.  My experience with Guitar Hero doesn’t fit cleanly into this definition, but my role as agent in the story does allow me access to a bit of its advantages.  I was able to create a story, one that emerged entirely through my interaction with the game’s systems, that was much more personally compelling than the one the developers told.  In the authored story of Guitar Hero, the game told me that I was a rock legend.  In 529710-235_5_lmy story, I felt like a goddamn rock goddess, armed with a plastic guitar in one hand and a confused desire to smash the patriarchy in the other.  My real-world gender didn’t make that experience disempowering or emasculating; I had an evil to defeat and an injustice to fight, who cared if I was only a woman in the game world?  I’m going to remember that story for far longer than I will remember a couple of animated cutscenes.  I have learned from it, and it has changed my outlook on the real world.  Because, despite my story’s completely imagined nature, it made me feel like a hero; guitar and otherwise.

You Are Needed – Gaming: The Successor To Film as a Modernist Medium

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 rsz_dab0e5e75f5c-xl_3943work 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

Novelist Screenshot

A screenshot from The Novelist

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.

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A personal screenshot from Dear Esther

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.”

Dear Esther-05



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/>.

Slow Down The Violence

The other day, I was on Wikipedia reading some details about Alien: Isolation, a survival horror game in development by Creative Assembly.  This game comes after the colossal failure of Aliens: Colonial Marines, which will no doubt lower people’s expectations.  However, as I was reading through the description, I noticed a line in the overview: “…an Alien has already infested the station.”  Something about this line got me incredibly excited for the game, and I want to dig into why the possibility of a single enemy is so interesting for me.

In most games, the player kill hundreds, even thousands of people.  I have sunk an embarrassing 53 hours into Respawn Entertainment’s Titanfall in the month since its launch, and in that time I have killed no less than 930 players.  Think about that.  How many people in human history have personally killed over 930 people?  How many have even come close?  I’m not going to say something stupid like
Titanfall_Gameplay_Thumbnail1virtual violence causes real violence, but the sheer amount of violence significantly damages the pacing of these games and devalues their narriatives.  Factoring in kills of computer-controlled enemies, and my atrocious 0.8 kill-death ratio, I found out that I have one encounter in Titanfall every thirty seconds.  These engagements are so simple and so quick that each individual duel is essentially meaningless, an instant test of twitch reflexes, positioning and impromptu strategies.  While I enjoy Titanfall, mostly because of the giant mechs and jetpacks, I think there is another way.

In the now-iconic Always Black essay, “Bow, Nigger”, the author describes a battle in Jedi Outcast which explores ideas of honor and good and evil in competitive games, but also touches on a style of combat we don’t often see.  Jedi Outcast‘s combat lends itself to the kind of epic duels we all see and love in the Star Wars movies, where two titans of skill and prowess go at it for a not-insignificant period of time.  You would never see a Titanfall-esque showdown between two opposing characters in a movie; it would be over in a matter of seconds.  Movies have a tense build, bursts of action, and a masterfully executed climax, but with games, it is over all too quickly.  Jedi Academy combat feels more movie-style than game-style, with highly developed low-level mechanics determining lightsaber swings, stance and position, and block timing.  In movie combat, the majority of attacks miss or are blocked, and it takes only two or three hits to kill a person.  Jedi Academy works in much the same way, with most attacks resulting in blocks, and only a few hits can bring an enemy down.  This, I believe, is a much more powerful approach to combat, emphasizing the skill of two opponents.  How many times have we fought giant bosses that are soak up ungodly amounts of damage?  How much more satisfying would it be to land a single, skillful hit or two to take down a ridiculously complicated boss?  What I’m saying is this: slow down the violence.  Emphasize the complexity and nuance of a single encounter and drastically reduce the number of encounters, so that each fight feels meaningful instead of routine and boring.  Games, because of their length, make the exhilaration of fighting multiple enemies disappear.  Killing ten enemies in a single encounter isn’t empowering, its expected.

I remember a mission in Mass Effect which began with a slow, well-paced murder investigation, but quickly transition into with me fighting weak, computer-controlled enemies for an hour and then finally fighting a boss.  Right before that boss fight, a cutscene played where my character chased the boss, tackled her out a window, then drew his pistol, dodged a magic attack, and took at least a dozen shots at his now-fleeing enemy.  Soon after, I took control and just kinda shot her for a while until she died.  This juxtaposition of the awesome and the mundane made me consider how the game could have been improved if the previous hour of fighting was removed, the investigation expanded, and the conclusion turned into a mechanically complex boss fight.  Instead of having a lot of passable combat, the game could benefit from a small amount of complex and engaging combat.  Violence can raise the stakes as high as they can go, can make the story literally a matter of life and death, but if overdone, it can have the opposite effect, making the artifice of the game world clearly apparent, and the meaning of the struggle evaporate.  What I am asking for is focus, for an emphasis on mechanics that are engaging in and of themselves, not because of their context.

One game that exemplifies this kind of strong mechanics set, despite its flaws, is From Software’s Dark Souls.  My most engaging battle in Dark Souls happened between me and a black knight, one of the toughest, non-boss monsters in the game.  I had just cleared out a courtyard full of skeletons and climbed to the top of a tower, when suddenly this knight appeared.  I ran for my life down the tower and back into the courtyard, with the knight close at my heels.  When I reached the center, I spun around, and he stopped in his tracks.  Hesitantly, I drew my shield, and the two of us began to circle one another, searching for an opening.  The knight lunged, I dodged to the side, I struck, he blocked the blow.  My character was slightly overburdened with all the loot I was carrying, so my movements were slower and more sluggish than they should have been, and I felt it.  I had fought two knights before, and I knew that, in all likelihood, I was going to die, and lose all the souls I had spent the past hour collecting.  The fear of death isn’t something I often experience in games, despite being in life-or-death situations so often, but Dark Souls had put it back into me.  The duel continued through the slow, tense trading of blows, blocks and parries.  Both of us were weak, but I was out of my healing Estus Flasks.  But then, the knight charged, and somehow, I managed to roll to the side not only in time to dodge the blow, but to position myself perfectly behind him.  Fueled by adrenaline, I slammed the right trigger on my controller with all my might, and plunged my katana into the knights back, achieving a rarely executed but brutally effective backstab.  The knight dropped to the ground, and as his souls poured into my character’s body, I jumped out of my chair and shouted in excitement.  I felt the weight of that victory, more than the dozens of trash mobs I had killed to reach the Mass Effect boss fight, or the thousands of faceless enemies I killed in Titanfall.  That was my victory.  That was true empowerment through combat.  This is what happened in a battle without any narrative context.  Imagine what that victory could have meant with a powerful story behind it.

[Edit 8/7/2016: I was an idiot, Dark Souls is now tied for my favorite game of all time, backstabs are easy as hell and pretty much break combat, and the game has an amazing story.  I was just dumb.]

This is why I am so excited for Alien: Isolation, because it focuses on a single, drawn out battle between the protagonist and one xenomorph alien.  Instead of padding the game out with hundreds of aliens until the carnage becomes meaningless, as Colonial Marines did, Isolation will focus on an extended encounter between the player and an enemy so terrifying and powerful that the player can barely fight back.  That is a kind of focus we do not see often Aliens Isolationenough, a kind of focus that makes games great.  When violence is extended and overused, it becomes filler, something to make the game long enough to justify the $60 price tag.  But violence doesn’t have to be that way.  Games like Dark Souls try to create combat systems that focus on deep, robust mechanics can successfully create longer-lasting, less frequent combat scenarios.  Alien: Isolation’s similar emphasis, especially in a horror setting, gives me great hope that not only will one of my favorite sci-fi movies will finally get the game it deserves, but that the medium can create games that use violence without losing themselves in the carnage.

No Man Is An Island – Overcoming Player-Centric Worldviews Through Telltale’s The Walking Dead

Spoiler Content: Major, game-ruining spoilers for Telltale’s The Walking Dead.  I don’t discuss it in as much detail as my Spec Ops or Bioshock papers, but I do spoil one pretty major thing.

Survival is a theme that many modern games have loved to explore. The player is given a clear losestate: don’t die. The player is given clear primary objectives: get food, water, and medical dayz-ont-he-horizon-wallpapersupplies. The player is given clear secondary objectives: getting warmer clothes, and, more specifically, a gun, will help you get the food and water you need. The player is also given clear means of accomplishing these goals: scavenge for what you can, and kill anyone who stands in your way. Survival plays into the systemizing of games perfectly, as though the genre was made for the medium, and survival games line the halls of gaming’s greatest achievements. Day Z and The Last of Us, two very successful games from last year, both explored these mechanics in depth. Fallout, an isometric, post-nuclear roleplaying game from 1997, became a such a cult classic that it was later rebooted by Elder Scrolls developer Bethesda to resounding critical success. Survival is a genre that games do well, and have explored many of the important themes of. However, one game stands out as providing a subversive taken on the survival genre, and while The Last of Us may be a close second, it is Telltale’s critically lauded Walking Dead franchise, based on the enormously popular comic books and TV show, that, that most effectively explores the negative impact of survival-centric thinking. The Walking Dead tries to highlight how dehumanizing the systemization in survival games really is. They not only encourage but explicitly reward degradation of humanity, giving the player absolutely no ludic reason not to, and, in fact, many reasons to, kill anyone who so much as looks at them funny. Survival games create a world that is a puzzle for the player to solve, emphasizing player-centrality above all else, and treating other people as disposable obstacles. The suffering of other characters does not affect the player, in fact, the suffering of others benefits the player. In these games, the player is usually alone, combat-experienced, and healthy, with no attachments or obligations that a normal person might have, and can move freely throughout the world with complete control. The world is theirs for the taking.

The Walking Dead attempts to subvert the nihilism that accompanies the systemization of humanity by placing the player in the shoes of Lee Everett, a history professor under arrest for murdering his cheating wife, just as the zombie apocalypse breaks out. Throughout the game, he escorts an eight-year-old girl, Clementine, across the American South. Clementine is not his daughter, she just ran into him as the apocalypse began, but the player is encouraged to view TWDher as a daughter figure. Through the injection of the player into a paternal role, The Walking Dead changes worldview that accompanies many survival games, shifting the focus from raw survival to the safety and personal development of a young girl. While the game explores many themes, this them, I believe, is most central to its presentation of a post-civilization humanity. The game focuses on this point the greatest in a passing comment by one character, a reference to the famous John Donne poem, No Man is an Island. While the character only quotes a brief segment of it, the well-known one from Hemingway, I believe the poem is worth repeating in its entirety.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

In the context of an apocalypse, this poem rips apart every shred of the survival mentality created and conditioned by many games in the genre. It presents the seemingly noble desire to survive as destructive not just to the world but to the self, as a loss for one is a loss for all. If survival means harming others, than the survivor does not survive, they are just as scarred as those they have killed. Through emphasizing the interconnectedness of humanity by using this quote, The Walking Dead paints a world not of a single, great tragedy, but of a million individual tragedies, each one chilling away at the fabric of humanity, and, in turn, every human being who is a part of it. Yet, through the placement of Clementine, Telltale proposes an alternative view of the apocalypse, one that doesn’t come with the pitfalls of the self-centric one. Clementine’s presence in The Walking Dead challenges the systemization and devaluation of humanity by providing the player with a meaningless choice to treat every human being as a part of a greater whole, and through their role as a parent, redeem themselves for the actions they must take to survive.

The Walking Dead, while a game about choice, does not have a great deal of player choice. The player’s decisions, for the most part, will not alter the narrative significantly, and are usually only reflected in a single line or two. Lee will start in the apocalypse and he will die in the apocalypse. Nothing the player does can change that. This is primarily due to budget constraints, and is a common practice within the industry. Interactive storytelling veteran David Cage, famous for games such as Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, once referred to this process as “bending stories,” or working in light of budget constraints to create choices that seem to have an impact, but do not significantly shift the game narrative. In the industry, this is called the illusion of choice, and The Walking Dead embraces this philosophy wholeheartedly, tailoring the themes of their world to this technical constraint. The inevitability of death in an apocalyptic world is a core theme, and the player is provided with the choice not of if to die, but how to die. While the expanded universe of The Walking Dead isn’t clear on the exact outcome, it is fairly clear that humans will die off, and that their civilization will not rise again. With this inevitability, and the real impact of player decisions denied, what good can the actions of one man do? Any choice the player makes will be meaningless. Standard survival The-Walking-Dead-1games would ludically tell the player to survive as long as possible, to view people as a means to an end, however, The Walking Dead gives the player a choice, however meaningless, to do otherwise. Lee’s decision to protect Clementine, to save a child, is a redemptive one, one that has no impact on his own survival, but does help him redeem, however little, for the murder of his wife. He bears the guilt for ending one life, and so he tries his hardest to save another. As games author Adrian Froschauer puts it, “The decisions you make in The Walking Dead don’t change what happens, they change how it happens” (Froschauer). Every sequence will begin and end the same way, but how they progress is what Lee, and by extension, the player, can change. The game carries its larger themes into its minute-to-minute gameplay. In this, the player is given a genuine choice of their worldview. For example, PopMatters contributor Nick Dinicola, in his article “I Am Clementine” describes his take on Clementine as a guarded, distant and practical girl who has seen every one of her friends die. Clementine does not seek companionship or trifle with niceties because she has seen how futile those attitudes are. In short, Dinicola’s Clementine had given up on people. Yet, my Clementine, as distinct from Dinicola, had a different approach. She saw Lee’s actions towards others, actions that I decided as the player, and realize that the only thing she had left in that world was other people, was the friends she was close too. Clementine had experience great loss, but she understood that that loss is the nature of the beast. “The world is a dark and scary place,” says Froschauer, “but we have to rely on each other, and even though we don’t have much influence on what happens around us, we can still make the best of it.” These are the words that my Lee and my Clementine lived by, and how they chose to experience the world.

When Clementine enters the world, and Lee chooses to accept her, the winstate of the game changes. Before, it seemed clear: stay alive, however now, pinning down the exact goal is difficult. Like real world people, Lee isn’t driven by a single desire, in this case to survive, but instead by a complex amalgamation of survival and his paternal duties to Clementine. Yes, he has to keep her alive, but he also wants to raise her to be a good person, to help her have some good experiences of human connection. Finding that balance between survival and humanity is difficult, but it is what Lee must do as a complex character with conflicting obligations. Late in the game, a character, Chuck, tells Clementine that she is going to die very soon, and that people can’t live in this world, and I flew into a fit of rage, directing Lee to yell at him for daring to try to make Clementine think that way. In all likelihood, Chuck was right, and Clementine would die sometime soon, but the idea of clementinetarnishing the one innocent thing in a world where everything has gone to hell enraged me to no end. From an objective, survivalist standpoint, yes, it was probably important for Clementine to accept that she might die. However the game was no longer about pure survival for me, it was about keeping Clementine alive. Through her simple existence, Clementine had change my and Lee’s worldview. Her role as a child further adds to this, and is unique in video games for being surprisingly realistic. Children in games are usually a burden or annoyance, invoking feelings of ire instead of the paternal feelings that so many experience. If Clementine was this kind of child, she couldn’t have had the emotional impact on both Lee and the player that she did. The game subverts all of this, starting with the player’s introduction to Clementine: she helps Lee first instead of him helping her. In a genre which, like many gaming genres, places player empowerment at the core, Clementine’s role as an agent slightly disempowers Lee, and continues to do so as Lee sacrifices for her. In the game’s conclusion, Lee chooses to die so that Clementine can live, in an ultimate rejection of empowerment and survival, denying everything that the genre has built up. The scene is heart-wrenchingly emotionally resonant, bring many players, myself included, to tears because of the paternal feelings it evoked. This is because Clementine is not a burden, she is not an escort quest, I don’t need to be distracted from what I care about to help keep her alive, she is what I care about, she is an adult with way less experience than me, not a bumbling child. The game carries this theme into other children in the world, including Duck, a seemingly annoying kid who, after a few plot-centric quests with Lee, becomes more a sort of side kick, and rewarding the player with a message “Duck things you’re incredibly awesome” if the player chooses to give him a high five at the quest completion. Children are not worthless in this world, they are precious, and not just as one-dimensional symbols of innocence in a fallen world, but as real people who haven’t had the optimism beat out of them. Clementine embodies this, and Lee, and the player, are driven to protect it.

Protecting Clementine goes far beyond just physical protection, and even explicit interactions. The player must make all of their choices about not just in the context of their own survival, but of what Clementine will learn from those choices. In the second episode, I was given the option to kill a man who had killed and eaten one of my friends, a man who certainly deserved to die, and were I alone, I probably would have done it. However, Clementine was there. She was watching. Knowing that, I couldn’t kill this man, even if he deserved it, even if it was the better choice for my survival, because that would teach Clementine that this is a world where humanity is not valuable. Despite the myriads of reasons to do it, my desire to raise Clementine right prevented me from doing it. Despite everything in the world encouraging me to abandon my humanity, to embrace what Lee had started even before the apocalypse with the murder of his wife, Clementine made me want to seek the good in humanity for her. And, in the end, Lee dies for this. In the ultimate unification of all of the game’s themes, the game lets Lee choose how to die. His last words, he can inform Clementine’s worldview, telling her either to survive or to be human. The game flashes its iconic, “Clementine Will Remember That” text on screen after the player makes their final choice, but, from a gameplay perspective, she won’t. That choice, made in the last few minutes of gameplay, will have literally no impact on the last stages of the game, but, to me, that is the most important moment of the game. What I chose to say to Clementine in Lee’s final moments were overwhelmingly powerful to me, I would even go so far to say they are a part of my identity. That choice had nothing to do with anyone’s objective survival, but it meant more to me than anything else in the game. That is the power of the way The Walking Dead treats the world.

In Cormac McCarthy’s iconic post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, the unnamed boy keeps repeating the phrase, “Carry the Fire.” When he meets a new group of people after his fathers death in what becomes the book’s final scene, he doesn’t ask them their names, if they have food or if they will take him it, he asks them, “Do you carry the fire?” The Walking Dead, in all its nuanced explorations of the apocalypse, is asking this question. When the player meets Clementine, it asks if she carries the fire. When the player meets Kenny, Carley, Ben or Chuck, it asks the same question, “Do they carry the fire?” And finally, through every single theroadchoice the player makes, even and especially the seemingly insignificant ones, it asks them, “Do you carry the fire?” The authenticity of The Walking Dead’s characters and the impact of its questions hinge on its ability to get the player to ask these questions. In The Road, carrying the fire was directly related to how the boy and his father treated others, in if they viewed survival as more important that the lives of others. Behind carrying the fire, there is the philosophy of for whom the bell tolls. The Boy carries the fire because he understands that other people are not just human beings deserving of dignity, but connected to him. He cannot hurt one for his own gain, because the suffering of another is his suffering. In short, the bell would toll for him. Through Clementine’s existence, Lee begins to understand this as well, and her presence forces him to change everything he thought he knew about violence and survival. The game brilliantly connects the player’s arc with Lee’s arc, forming their narrative so that both ask the question, “Do you carry the fire” at the same time. By linking these two arcs together, Telltale allows the player to explore these ideas with even greater depth, something that could not be done in a non-interactive medium. The questions it raises, the questions it answers and the ones it doesn’t answer, all pull from every aspect of its nature as a game, and through doing so, creates a masterpiece that will be discussed and debated for years to come.

Since The Walking Dead’s release and subsequent critical and financial success, many in the self-proclaimed “hardcore gamer” audience have laid a criticism against it that it is not, in fact, a game. Challenge is not a core engagement of The Walking Dead, the story progresses regardless of which decision the player makes, with only a few losestates scattered here and there. However, despite the apparent lack of “gamey-ness”, I believe The Walking Dead represents an enormous possibly future for the games industry as a whole. Games originally focused on pure mechanical engagement, make the ball bounce back, collect all the white dots, shoot down all the space ships. Today, however, some games are shifting that emphasis, away from pure mechanical engagement and towards another strength of games: agency. The player is actually present in the game narrative, making decisions that determine the way the game plays out. The Walking Dead emphasizes agency as a central theme of its structure, and while it has mechanical engagements, that is not what keeps the players coming back. I played The Walking Dead so I could be a part of a narrative I cared about, so I could explore the themes of humanity and degradation, of dehumanization and systemization, through a medium that lends itself towards doing so. This, I believe, is the core of what future games can do, and through games like The Walking Dead, I believe we can catch a glimpse of the future, and hopefully, start to discuss what we want that future to be.

Works Cited

Froschauer, Adrian. “Clementine Will Remember All of That.” The Ontological Geek. N.p., 10 Jan. 2014. Web. 6 Apr. 2014. <http://ontologicalgeek.com/clementine-will-remember-all-of-that/>.

Dinicola, Nick. “I Am Clementine.” PopMatters. N.p., 17 Jan. 2014. Web. 6 Apr. 2014. <http://www.popmatters.com/post/178309-i-am-clementine/>.

Portnow, James. “Extra Credits: “For Whom the Bell Tolls”.” YouTube. N.p., 25 Apr. 2013. Web. 6 Apr. 2014. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=emeCepFW9v0>.

Portnow, James. “Extra Credits: Raising the Dead.” YouTube. N.p., 19 Apr. 2013. Web. 6 Apr. 2014. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qizgjT4UXa4>.

Portnow, James. “Extra Credits: Minority.” YouTube. N.p., 2 May 2013. Web. 6 Apr. 2014. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=suf0Jdt2Hpo>.

The Changing Game – A Feminist Exploration of the Transformative Potential of Gaming

Spoiler Content: Spoiler Free!
Warning: I wrote this for a class I’m taking, and it assumes the reader knows literally nothing about gaming, so some of the stuff might seem a bit…obvious…at times.

Video games have an issue with women. As an ardent defender of the medium, I have to acknowledge and face this fact every day. From the pixelated rape sequences in the Atari 2600′s Custer’s Revenge, to the ridiculously disproportionate character models in Tomb Raider, to the Grand Theft Auto “Hot Coffee” interactive sex mod, gaming has had a tenuous to outright juvenile relationship with gender and sexuality. Until the last console generation, beginning in 2004, there were hardly any good female characters in gaming. Well-written female protagonists in games are even rarer. If there is a medium that most represents the Standpoint Feminist critique of “the neglect of women’s perspective and experience,” this is it (Lorber 173). The gaming industry appears to be created by and for men. Why, then, do I think that video games could be one of the greatest tools for the feminist movement since the birth of the modern novel? What can the movement possibly gain from a medium where the “woman is the other” (Simone de Beauvoir, qtd. Tong 191)? The answer, I believe, lies in the very nature of games themselves, and the gaming industry is beginning to realize this. Unlike other mediums, games directly craft experiences, ones where the player inhabits the world the developer is creating for them. In his iconic essay on New Games Journalism, British author Kieron Gillen famously stated that, “The worth of gaming lies in the gamer, not the game,” emphasizing the centrality of player experience over authorial intent. Through the use of games as an experience instead of a piece of consumable media, I believe that feminist game developers and writers can foster a view of gaming as a way to explore alternate sexual and gender identities, encouraging a larger acceptance of diversity through a consistent and focused experience of the other.


At the beginning of almost every role-playing game, a player is presented with a Character Creation Screen. In this screen, the player can change an exorbitant amount of variables about a character. The basics are sex, skin color, weight, personal back story, profession, etc., but the player can – and indeed, many do – spend hours tweaking variables from exact hair shade to hand size to nose width. During this time, the player creates a character that they feel personally attached to, one that they identify with, and one that they have constructed from the ground up. In short, “for every fan, there is a different [character]” (Munkittrick). For example, many entered the sci-fi role-playing-game Mass Effect as a straight, white, male Commander Shepard, while I entered as a straight white woman, and still others entered as a lesbian black woman. From there, the player begins a process similar to the kind of “self-naturalization” that feminist writer Judith Butler describes (Butler 33). They slowly accumulate experience that reinforces their role as their character, instead of themselves. As they have conversations, fight battles, and form relationships as their character, they generate a form of “repeated stylization of the body” that Butler defines gender as (Butler 33). This process of relearning one’s identity creates a fluidity of roles that is uncommon in the rest of our lives, similar to certain kinds of method acting. Role playing, unlike books and movies, does not encourage the player just to empathize with the character, but to actually be the character and make real-time decisions as the character would. An experienced role player is able to easily dive into a role, and transform themselves into an amalgamation of themselves and their character to interact with the game world as such. My Commander Shepard is a different person from my roommate’s Commander Shepard, as she makes decisions based on the part of her personality that I created and define, continually blurring the line between self and other.

The way the player sees the world, through this newly constructed role, results in a similar “mutual transformation” to that which Shannon Sullivan describes in her book on Standpoint Feminism (Sullivan 228). If a male player is playing as a woman, they are forced to work within their role and “ask questions from women’s point of view, ” subtly changing the experience (Lorber 173). In addition, because of the player’s role as the primary agent of the story, their taking action reinforces the idea of women as subjects, as actors, instead of objects to be acted upon. One great example of this trend is in the recent game Assassin’s Creed Liberation, where the player plays as a creole woman, named Aveline in 18th century Louisiana. Aveline’s default clothing is the armor of an assassin, which is relatively gender neutral, and allows her to go unnoticed by the general public but not by guards. However, the player can switch to the expensive dress of a lady, which will result in guards leaving her alone, giving her the ability to 20924ACL_SC_SP_18_SD_Persona_Aristocrat-610x345sneak into otherwise inaccessible places, but will cause men in the street to harass her, and even shove her around. The player is injected directly into this world, not as a swashbuckling action hero but as a hero who is also expected to be a woman following traditional gender roles. Through changing the seemingly mundane game mechanic of level traversal, the game “reframes questions and priorities to include some band other marginalized people” (Lorber 173). Aveline is under constant social pressure to conform, and, because of her gender, her outward appearance almost completely defines what other people think of her, instead of her identity as a human being. The game allows the player to explore this through its mechanics, through having to be Aveline and experience a similar kind of restriction and pressure that someone in her position would have felt.

This kind of exploration inevitably leads to a breaking down of concrete, binary approaches to gender and sexuality. By allowing a white, male player to experience the hardships of a biracial black woman, it “demonstrates the fluidity of gender and sexual boundaries,” and encourages a more diverse worldview (Lorber 267). If a player can become someone completely different and share in their experience with increasingly miniscule levels of difficulty, then, it would follow, people in the real world could do this as well. It “…adds needed fuel to the feminist fires of plurality, multiplicity, and difference, replacing binary thinking with a deeper, more complex understanding of race, gender, and sexuality” (Tong 191). Through this, players can begin to see parts of their world as gendered that they might not have otherwise seen. Perhaps the Chell-Between-a-portal-chell-27945457-830-623greatest example of this is the puzzle game Portal, released in 2007 by Valve Corporation to adoring critics and fans, featuring a now iconic female protagonist, Chell. The game is a First Person Shooter, by technicality. As a genre usually filled with military-fetishizing, jingoistic, rah-rah-masculine gunfests, FPSs are rarely marked by the subtle quietude that permeates many of Portal’s levels. While Portal technically falls into this category, since it is in the first person perspective and the player does shoot a gun, it also undermines it completely as “the gun’s masculine symbolism is subverted by the fact that it shoots portals rather than bullets” (McNeilly). The portal, and the game itself, is about solving problems, not killing enemies and exerting power. The game, through subtly, often overlooked cues, tries to tear down the very genre it is technically a part of, and it does so brilliantly. When the perspective of what is now the gaming other is introduced, such deconstructions become inevitable.

Despite the bleakness of the current gaming market, developers have begun to inject bits of feminist thought into their games, and thus allow their players to explore and accept these alternate sexual and gender identities simply by being them. While it is very easy to be pessimistic about the future of the medium, huge strides have been made. Anita Sarkeesian, a powerful advocate for feminism in the gaming sphere, won this year’s Game Developer Convention’s Ambassador Award, chosen from a list filled with Screen Shot 2014-04-12 at 8.58.07 PMinfluential women. Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider, long hailed as the pinnacle of sexism in the medium, recently rebooted the character as a reasonably proportioned, well-written character, selling over six million copies. Gone Home, a game from a rookie developer which told a both chilling and heartwarming coming of age story about a teenage, lesbian girl, received universal critical acclaim, earning many game of the year awards. The industry is changing, and feminist voices are no longer absent from the medium. I believe this medium has an enormous potential, one that could change the perspectives of the millions who participate in it. The medium is in its adolescence, and there are certainly a great deal of growing pains, but through the constant injection of feminist voices, I believe it can continue to change, and, hopefully, join the ranks of feminism as a force for good.

Works Cited

Rosemarie Putnam Tong, Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction, Fourth Edition (Boulder: Westview Press, 2008), ISBN 9780813348414.

Judith Lorber, Gender Inequality: Feminist Theory and Politics, Fifth Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). ISBN 9780199859085

McNeilly, Joe. “Portal is the most subversive game ever.” Games Radar. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2014. <http://www.gamesradar.com/portal-is-the-most-subversive-game-ever/>.

Sullivan, Shannon, “The Need for Truth: Toward a Pragmatist-Feminist Standpoint Theory.” Feminist interpretations of John Dewey. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002. Print.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1999. Print.

Gillen, Kieron. “Kieron Gillen’s Workblog » The New Games Journalism.” Kieron Gillen’s Workblog » The New Games Journalism. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2014. <http://gillen.cream.org/wordpress_html/assorted-essays/the-new-games-journalism/>.

Munkittrick, Kyle. “Why Mass Effect is the Most Important Science Fiction Universe of Our Generation.” io9. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2014. <http://io9.com/5886178/why-mass-effect-is-the-most-important-science-fiction-universe-of-our-generation>.

Janiuk, Jessica. “Gaming is my safe space: Gender options are important for the transgender community | Polygon.”Polygon. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2014. <http://www.polygon.com/2014/3/5/5462578/gaming-is-my-safe-space-gender-options-are-important-for-the>.

Franklin, Chris. “Assassin’s Creed and Emotionally Resonant Mechanics.” YouTube. YouTube, 30 Mar. 2014. Web. 12 Apr. 2014. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2bsxQZ5JDec>.

How Should I Play?

Spoiler Content

-Telletale’s The Walking Dead Season 1, Episode 4, one major spoiler
Spec Ops – The Line, one major spoilers

Everyone who has been through high school or college has had a teacher tell them how to read.  “Look for this symbol!”  “Underline anything important!”  “Take notes!”  “Reread it multiple times!”  As someone who’s ADD (and, okay, occasional lack of effort) made passing detail-oriented reading quizzes difficult, I was instructed to try every one of these methods, none of which worked.  All of these instructions instilled in me a strong belief that reading wasn’t a passive experience, but a skill, an art in and of itself.  The book didn’t react to my actions, but content and the way I consumed it did. How I approached the medium very directly affected my experience, helping me get the most of out of my reading.

It was with this mindset that I recently started approaching a new question, “How Should I Play?”  I don’t approach playing a game the same way I read great books; the way I play games is an aspect of my experience that largely goes uncriticized.  If I sit down and think about revising my play style, it is usually from a purely mechanical standpoint; how can I increase my damage output, how can I avoid dying so much, how can I make this jump; these were the questions I was asking.  You know what kind of questions I have almost never asked?  How would Booker DeWitt fight in this shootout?  What kinds of weapons and vigors would he use?  Would he take cover?  Would he use the brutal melee takedowns that bothered me so much?  How would Joel react to Ellie in survival situations? Would he go off on his own and leave Ellie to fend for herself while he took down dozens of enemies, or stay by her side to protect her?  Would this change as the game progressed?

Two events recently got me to really think about this question.  MrBtongue, a YouTube creator who’s content I have increasingly grown to like, once talked about how, when he played Half-Life 2, he would close all the doors behind him in the game’s iconic opening sequence, Point Insertion, because he didn’t want the Combine to know that he was there.  It didn’t make any difference mechanically, but it did affect his experience.  The second happened the other night, I was playing through Telletale’s The Wolf Among Us, and a friend commented that I never picked the silence option, despite it being 25% of the game’s choices.  I simply hadn’t considered it.

Both of these events made me think that there was an entirely different way of playing through some of my favorite games.  They also showed me that there was a method of thinking that would allow me to get more out of these games, and that came from considering my actions in the context of the world and the characters, not just my personal morality.

In games, there is a brilliant conflict between player and player character.  I both am and am not Martin Walker.  I both did and did not drop white phosphorous on unarmed refugees.  I both am and am not Joel.  I both did and did not kill all three doctors in the game’s final level.

But I also am and am not Commander Shepard.  I both did and did not become great friends with Garrus Vakarian.  And I also am and am not Lee Everett.  I both did and did not save Ben’s life even when he wanted me to let him die.

Games have an enormous potential to help us better explore the depths of human experience, both the good and the bad, but they can’t do that if I’m not playing critically.  There is no way I could have understood the brilliant ideas in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 if my teacher hadn’t helped me build a respect for the depth and nuance of the book’s metaphors, or if I hadn’t created my own techniques and to discover how every single facet of the book was connected and meaningful.  Books have that nuance.  You can be a great reader.  Films have that nuance, as anyone who has explored Citizen Kane or even Blade Runner will tell you.  You can be a great film viewer.  But when people say that someone is good at a game, they mean they have mastered the game’s systems, not that they can really dig into the meaning.  We don’t have a term or way of talking about someone who approaches a game as a world of art that was carefully crafted by brilliant developers with the same degree of depth and nuance as a film or book.  Yet I have seen gamers, be they on YouTube or in my own life, who make me say, “I want to play more like that.”  They seem to get more out of their experience, to have a greater understanding and mastery, yes, of the game’s mechanics, but also the game’s ideas.

The internet is filled with articles telling you how to master the systems of a game, but you will rarely see an article that tells you how to play to get the most out of a game.  We have the beginnings of this approach to playing, bits and pieces of it, in the way people say, “Don’t rush through Skyrim” or even “Don’t spoil Bioshock Infinite.”  Neither of these impact your interaction with the game mechanically, I would still be able to beat Skyrim or Infinite just fine if I didn’t explore or knew major spoilers, but the fact that we can have that conversation shows that we do understand that there is a better way of playing a game outside of min-maxing stats or switching armor sets.  Skyrim just isn’t the same game if you just charge right through the main quest, and Bioshock Infinite just isn’t as fun if you already know the ending.  We aren’t talking about how to beat the game, we’re talking about how the game is meant to be played, or how it could be played better.  People clearly understand that there are certain approaches to gaming that can better their experience, we just don’t have a language or foundation with which to discuss it.

So, let’s start asking this question: how should I play?

The Walking Dead and Disempowerment – Short Piece

Spoiler Content: Some mild situational spoilers, from Season 2, Episode 2 of Telletale’s The Walking Dead.  Not enough to ruin the game, but you might want to avoid this if you’re picky about spoilders.

Video games, for the most part, tend to be about empowerment. The player takes on the role of a grizzled space marine, a powerful warrior, or a skilled football player. Almost from the get-go, gaming has been about creating a world where a powerful, usually male, usually white, usually straight character goes not from weakness to strength, but from strength to even greater strength. Telletale Games’ The Walking Dead, based on the popular comics and TV show, challenges that. The game is divided into “seasons”, collections five “episodes”, or two-hour game segments that are released bi-monthly. In the first season, the player rook on the role of a black man in the American south just after the zombie apocalypse, and explores themes of race without explicitly addressing them. The plot followed this man, Lee, as he escorts his adopted daughter-figure, Clementine, throughly the quickly-crumbling world and various groups of people. In stark contrast to the usual themes of zombie fiction, which tend to emphasize raw, brutal empowerment, The Walking Dead created a sense of desperation, of a need for survival, not hours of zombie killing.

However, in the second game, the player takes on the role of Clementine, and I entered this brutal world of death, betrayal, starvation and suffering, as an 11-year-old black girl. What surprised me was how long it took me to get used to this role reversal. When fierce arguments would emerge between members of my group, or a few rogue zombies would attack my friends, my default response was to take command and solve the problem. But, as a little girl, I couldn’t do that. Often times I could only stand by and watch as friends died or bitter tensions emerged. I had to unlearn everything I knew not about combat mechanics or how to shoot a gun, but of my place in the world, and my control over it. Like the first season’s approach to race, this season’s approach to power is also heavily understated but very present. There was a sequence in the second episode where my friends had been captured by another group of survivors, which highlighted this shift most powerfully. Had this taken place at the beginning of the game, my default inclination would have been to jump out and slaughter my enemies with machine gun fire, or tactically use stealth techniques to take them down one by one. But, I wasn’t some gun-toting badass, I was a little girl. I was so legitimately frightened, disempowered and shocked that the only thing I thought to do was run outside and to find the two, mid-30s white men in the group. Completely contrary to everything video games had taught me over the years, this game conditioned me not to indulge in empowerment fantasies, but ask for help from those who would traditionally be the heroes of this story.

Throughout the game, I still found myself injecting my perspective into the situation. “If you would just let me take control and handle the problem, everything would be fine!” was something I shouted at the screen numerous times. My perspective as a middle-class, straight, white, American man is to take control and fix the problem. But my perspective as Clementine taught me that that isn’t the way everyone approaches the world, it is, in fact, just a perspective, one rooted in privilege and circumstance, and not in the reality of the world. In The Walking Dead, I found that the characters who did the most damage to the group were the ones who DID try to take control and solve the problem, and those who helped the group were the ones who surrendered it. Through the game’s injection of the player into a small, disempowered, little girl, I learned a lot about what my position in life has done to my worldview, and how embracing these qualities can lead to dangerous consequences.

Out From Behind the Glass – The Evolution of the Bioshock Franchise and Interactive Storytelling

Disclaimer from the far-off future of 2017: BioShock Infinite has some more…troubling implications that I didn’t really get when I wrote this piece three years back.  The implication that violent, systemic racism and violent rebellion against systemic racism are equally evil is a frankly ridiculous one, and while I don’t think it’s one the game makes intentionally, it is pretty steeped in the text.  Ken Levine, the game’s creative director has commented on this, and I think I agree with most of what he says, but it requires much more criticism than I gave it in this piece.  I’ll probably go back one day and write a piece on Bioshock Infinite and it’s shaky attempts at an interesting take on systemic racism, but that would require beating the game again, and thus require replaying the Lady Comstock boss fight on 1999 mode, a task I plan to avoid for as long as I am able.

Anyways, here’s the piece.

My Booker DeWitt was a hero to the cause! A story to tell your children! You—you just complicate the narrative!”

-Daisy Fitzroy, Bioshock Infinite

Spoiler Content: Complete, comprehensive, game-ruining spoilers.  Please do not read this unless you have played the game or plan never to play the game.  Bioshock Infinite is a game that thrives on the player slowly figuring out the nuances of the plot, do not rob yourself of one of the greatest pleasures the medium has to offer.


Entrance_TowerIrrational Games’ Bioshock (2007) is tied for the top rated first person shooter of all time, tackling topics as diverse as Ryndian Objectivism and the nature of choice in games. It was a smash hit in both sales and reviews, and is widely regarded as one of the most successful games of all time that still tackles tough philosophical issues. After a lackluster sequel that was given to another developer, anticipation for a true sequel was at an all-time high. So, to say that Bioshock Infinite, Irrational Games’ return to the franchise, had high expectations, would be a drastic understatement. Bioshock had its strengths, to be sure. It told a story through a beautiful environment of the underwater city of Rapture, with very few human characters actually appearing before the player. The player fights endless hoards of deranged, mutated humans, but they serve more as gameplay objectives than actual people. The player only comes face-to-face with a single character in the entire game. The rest of the time, however, the player see human characters on the other side of a glass wall, just out of reach. This soon became a hallmark of the franchise, with even the abysmal sequel trying to continue the trend.  This is primarily because, in 2007, the team at Irrational Games didn’t have the resources they needed to create humans in as lifelike and believable a way as they wanted. The technology simply wasn’t there. However, by the time Infinite was created, they did. So, instead of telling a story purely through the environment, the team began to use human characters. The primary example of this is Elizabeth, who is painstakingly animated with amazing detail. She is widely regarded as the most realistic rendering of a human being in a video game, not in terms of art style, but animations, actions, and interactions with the environment. Through characters like Elizabeth, the game could truly tell a human story, and explore human ideas. The two ideas it chose to focus on were self-mythologizing and choice, not a binary, good-evil moral choice, but the choices we make as a people and as a person, that define us on a daily basis. The regular, seemingly inconsequential choices. In this paper, I will trace these themes through four characters: Daisy Fitzroy, Zachary Comstock, Booker DeWitt and finally, the player themselves. This is the story that Bioshock couldn’t have told.

Plot Summary


Set in 1912, Infinite follows ex-Pinkerton Booker DeWitt in his journey to rescue Elizabeth, heir of the flying city of Columbia. They are constantly perused by the city’s prophet-leader, Zachary Comstock, and his giant, mechanical Songbird. Elizabeth has the ability to move between universes, which the two use for the Vox Populi, a minority-lead revolutionary group, in exchange for passage out of the city. However, they enter a world where Booker has died as a martyr for the revolution, and the revolution’s leader, Daisy Fitzroy, views him as a threat to the story she constructed. She is killed by Elizabeth in her attempts to kill the pair, but before they can escape, Elizabeth is captured by Songbird, and Booker is pulled into the future by an older Elizabeth. She gives Booker the information he needs to rescue Elizabeth: a song that will control Songbird. Armed with this knowledge, Booker returns to rescue Elizabeth, and the two kill Comstock and destroy the siphon, a device blocking Elizabeth’s powers from reaching their full potential. This gives Elizabeth unfathomable power, through which she learns that Booker and Comstock are actually the same person but from different universes. Comstock is a version of Booker that chose to be baptized and cleansed of his past sins, and took up a new name to signify this. He built Columbia, and kidnapped Booker’s daughter, Anna, because he could not have an heir of his own. He renamed Anna to Elizabeth. However, part of Elizabeth’s finger was cut off during the jump between universes, and because she existed in two universes, gave her her abilities. Elizabeth explains that Comstock exists in an infinite number of universes, and the only way to destroy him is to kill Booker before he could make the choice that created Comstock. Booker accepts his fate, and allows Elizabeth to drown him.

Daisy Fitzroy

Infinite’s ending is perhaps its most powerful aspect, dumping a great deal of plot twists on the player in the span of a few minutes, but the daring nature of the ending often leads players to ignore one of the more controversial characters in the game, Daisy Fitzroy. Fitzroy is a black freedom fighter by the time Booker and Elizabeth meet her, but she was originally Lady Comstock’s housemaid. Recordings scattered throughout the game world reveal that Fitzroy was, at first, content with her situation, and felt at home in “their world.” However, in a situation completely outside of her control, she was framed by Comstock for Lady Comstock’s murder. So Fitzroy was forced out of a world that she felt at home in despite having no control over, and into one where she had a choice, however limited. Infinite seems to espouse the idea that everyone only has two choices: the choice to begin and 


the choice to end, and Daisy makes her choice to begin rather than die, and starts her revolution, the Vox Populi. However, she soon falls into the same path of self-mythologizing that Comstock is so brilliant in executing. Momentum is a key theme in Fitzroy’s story, and soon the Vox turn from a desperate revolutionary group into a bloodthirsty rebellion. When Fitzroy’s revolution is in its infancy, Elizabeth optimistically exclaims, “There’s going to be a revolution, just like Les Miserables!” But the Vox are not the good-hearted freedom fighters of that story, they choose red as the color for their revolution, invoking the iconography of the blood that quickly becomes symbolic for the results of their actions. Fitzroy does not try to stop the momentum of the violence, and instead embraces it. In the end, it becomes about power for Fitzroy, not justice. A question arises as to if she ever was genuine, or if she was always out for revenge against Comstock and used her revolution to acquire the power to do so. As her revolution continues, she stops making it about equality and instead about dominance. As she does this, she starts crafting a narrative of past events to justify this new direction. When the new Booker appears in her world, contradicting her story of the Martyr Dewitt, she explicitly tells him, “Booker Dewitt was a hero, a story to tell your kids. You just complicate the narrative.” Booker never did anything to wrong Fitzroy, much like Fitzroy never did anything to harm Comstock, but Booker’s presence threatens the narrative Fitzroy wants to tell about her revolution, and as soon as that challenge she reacts as viciously as Comstock did towards her. “Damned impostors.” She says to her soldiers. “Burn their bodies when you’re done.” Fitzroy wants nothing to exist to challenge her myth, the one she built up about Booker and his heroism. It doesn’t matter to her if that is how it really was, and recovered audio logs form alternate-universe Booker suggest that he wasn’t even the hero she thought he was then. But Fitzroy’s myth is ended as suddenly as it began, as Elizabeth drives a large pair of scissors through her chest to stop her from killing a white child. She made the choice to begin her revolution, but that became her only true choice, after that, according to Elizabeth, the Vox always turn from nobel revolution into bloody rebellion in every parallel universe. Their bloodlust is a constant, the only variable is how they get there. There are many variables in Fitzroy’s revolution, ones that change across universes, and Fitzroy needs to construct her myth in order to create the clean, bedtime story she wants. However her story fails, and all that it results in is her death.

Zachary Comstock

Comstock made his choice to begin at his baptism after Wounded Knee, and from that point on he began crafting a story about himself of which no one could get in the way of. When he was baptized, he believes that Booker Dewitt died, and Zachary Comstock is a new man without any of Booker’s sins and with a new story, written by Comstock, not reality. He adopts patriotism and American Exceptionalism as the foundation of his myth, as America already has a great history of concocting myth for power and comfort. Columbia itself is modeled after The White City amusement park in early-1900s Chicago. The architecture is, in the words of game journalist Adam Sessler, “A fetishization of an American that never existed.” And this theme permeates every aspect of Columbia. When Booker first regains consciousness in Columbia, he is greeted by godlike statues of three of the founding fathers, Jefferson, Washington and Franklin. All three have been deified, and are worshiped not as men but as gods. As Booker wanders through a Columbian garden, he hears whispers of prayers to each of the founders, with Comstock_Statuetheir own deep religious iconography. Founder Worship is a theme that Comstock adopts wholeheartedly, and like America removed the flaws from its founders, so to did Comstock remove his own. He no longer was a simple soldier at Wounded Knee, instead he was commander of the 7th Cavalry. No longer was he the ruler of Columbia who ordered his men to quell the Boxer Rebellion, now he was leading the charge. No longer was he a sterile old man without an heir, now he was given a Miracle Child with unimaginable powers, destine to take the throne and rain fire on the “mountains of man.” When Lady Comstock would not support his myth, he killed her. When Elizabeth would not support his myth, he tortured and brainwashed her for decades. Every time something contradicted his myth, Comstock would torture, kill and lie his way to creating his true version of the story. He was not ex-Pinkerton, Booker DeWitt, he was The Prophet, Zachary Comstock. Comstock believed that he could completely abandon the sins of his past through baptism, and spent the rest of his life trying to bring this about. In an early audio log the player finds, the true meaning of which is not fully recognized until a second playthrough, Comstock says the following

One man goes into the waters of baptism. A different man comes out, born again. But who is that man who lies submerged? Perhaps the swimmer is both sinner and saint, until he is revealed unto the eyes of man” -Zachary Comstock

This log deliberately invokes the uncertainty of quantum mechanics, specifically the Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment (which wouldn’t be the first time), but also highlights how Comstock never could completely abandon his past.  Booker’s appearance in Infinite is Comstock’s past coming back to haunt him. Comstock knew Booker would return, despite his best efforts to stop him, and created the myth of the False Shepherd, making his old self a demonic figure of pure evil. The irony of the situation is that Booker did lead Elizabeth away from Comstock’s plan, and did overthrow him, and even killed him. Comstock made the choice to begin, but Booker, another version of himself, made the choice to end him.

Booker DeWitt


Booker is perhaps the only character in the game who has done things he isn’t proud of, but doesn’t try to pretend he hasn’t. Booker is a broken man, who has brutally murdered hundreds. Booker’s existence basically revolves around him hurting people, and the majority of the gameplay focuses on this as well. However, Booker does not try to deny this. This Booker did not accept the baptism after Wounded Knee, believing that a ritual could not redeem the things he has done. In fact, his distrust of redemption is one of the first things the player learns about Booker. When the player first enters the lighthouse at the beginning of the game, Booker scoffs at a bowl of water with the words “Of Thy Sins I Shall Wash Thee” printed above. Booker acknowledges and accepts the bad he has done, and doesn’t try to remove it. However, he did try once before, when he gave up Anna in exchange for the removal of his gambling debts. Instead of redeeming him, the decision racked Booker with guilt, destroying his life. Had the Comstock not tried to take Anna from him, Booker never would have been forced into Columbia where he ultimately does redeem himself, but not through the false methods that Comstock took. When Booker realizes who he is, that he is Comstock and that he sold Elizabeth to pay for his debts, he does not try to deny it, he accepts the responsibility for his actions and sacrifices his life to right his wrong. He does this without question, acknowledging his own brokenness and sins, and surrenders himself in an act of disempowerment that is utterly uncharacteristic of the first person shooter genre. Instead of making a choice to end his own life, he surrender’s that choice to Elizabeth. He doesn’t make the choice to begin or end. Throughout Infinite, Booker continually tries to take responsibility and make up for what he has done, not through erasing it but through his own action. However, this is not enough. According to Elizabeth, Booker will always fail when he tries to save Elizabeth on his own. He is trapped in a cycle of trying by failing. This idea is emphasized over and over through the song, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” The song appears numerous times throughout the game, first in a choral rendition when Booker enters Columbia, again and again when Elizabeth hums it to herself in the game and in flashbacks, in a touching moment where Booker plays guitar while Elizabeth sings the song, and once more over the end credits. The game practically beats the player over the head with the song, showing how trapped Booker is by his own guilt but internal goodness that keeps compelling him to help the people he has hurt. Booker doesn’t make any substantive choices in the game, and every choice he makes is predetermined and ineffectual. The only way Booker breaks the circle is by surrendering his own agency to Elizabeth, by giving her his life, challenging genre conventions, and ending his cycle of trying to choose.

The Player

Booker’s dilemma fits perfectly with the player’s role in the game, especially their lack of choice in the game world. Bioshock was famous for deconstructing player choice in video games by telling the player that they have never made a real choice in a game where every possible outcome was created by a developer. Infinite falls into the category of post-Bioshock games, or a game that acknowledges this lack of choice that the player has and tells a story that utilizes this concept. The first Bioshock was filled with choice in the level design, with sprawling levels with their own distinctive tone. Infinite, however, is fairly linear by comparison, with level design that has been poorly received. However, displaying their brilliance yet again, the developers at Irrational used this to their advantage. A consistent motif in the level design is too have two paths leading to the same place. This will irritate some gamers, who, being compulsive people by nature, will check both paths and realize that there is not difference between the two, but this emphasizes the core of the game’s approach to choice. The gameplay is much more tight and “cinematic” than its predecessor, and uses this to its advantage by furthering its metaphors into the mechanics. It uses the classic game advantage of increasing a player’s connection to an event by literally making them a part of it, which is allowed because of the tightness and focus of design they were allowed by their new direction. This is further increased by their decision to have Booker as a voiced character, instead of a mostly silent protagonist like Jack from Bioshock. Booker is wonderfully voiced by one of the best-known voice actors in the industry, Troy Baker, and as the player gets to walking the line between being and not being Booker, the decisions Booker makes can both bring the player closer and distance them farther when the designers want to. But Infinite’s greatest moment in using its role as a game is in the title itself: Infinite. Late in the game, Elizabeth reveals that there are an infinite amount of Bookers trying to save her, each one doing things slightly differently but all with the same beginning and ending. “There’s always man. Always a lighthouse. Always a city.” she tells him, encompassing both Bioshock Infinite as well as the original Bioshock with her description. This makes sense within the context of the narrative, but it also says a great deal about games as a whole. In the metaphor, those different Bookers are other people playing the game, or other playthroughs that a player may do, each with slight differences but all being carted along the same path. “We swim in different oceans but land on the same shore” she tells Booker, in another double line intended for both protagonist and player alike. The different oceans are the different playthroughs, and the same shore is the narrative that every player experiences, despite their differences. My favorite weapons were the shotgun and the volley gun, and I used the Charge and Undertow vigors every chance I got, but my roommate prefered the sniper rifle and machine gun, and applied the Possession vigor with tactical precision. We both played the game completely differently, swimming in different oceans with many hours of the core experience playing fundamentally differently, but we ended up on the same shore, that same ending where Booker is drowned by Elizabeth. The player isn’t simply watching Booker’s journey, she is experiencing the same thing through the mechanics as a metaphor, and Infinite is brilliant for precisely this reason: it only can work as a game. Booker and Elizabeth can only exist on the screen in front of the player with controller, mouse or keyboard in hand.


Debate still rages across the internet if Infinite was a greater game than its predecessor, and it seems as thought there will never be a consensus on the issue. However there is a clear difference between the two that cannot be denied: Infinite tells a human story, while Bioshock does not. This does not make one greater than the other, but human stories often carry more weight than ones that are less human. As Irrational brought its franchise out from behind the glass and into the realm of humanity, it opened up a whole range of powerful issues for games to explore, and it only focused on some of them. Elizabeth is, almost undoubtedly the most realistically acting character in a video game, and all of this was because Irrational took the risk to create something that hadn’t really been created before, and I believe that the medium is better for it. Through the new technology the game implemented, it was able to explore themes far beyond the scope of the medium thus far. Now that Irrational Games has closed down, it is unlikely we will ever see another Bioshock title from the minds behind the original.  However the core team made the decision to leave the manpower and financial resources of the AAA giant that was Irrational and now is running a small, sixteen-man studio to focus even more on narrative and human elements.  Technology has evolved to the point where they believe this is possible.  In the years to come, and if their history is anything to go by, it will take years, we might see what they want to humanize next.



“Bioshock Infinite: Ken Levine Discusses Columbia, Elizabeth, and Religion – Part 1.”YouTube. YouTube, 13 Dec. 2012. Web. 9 Feb. 2014. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VNrBxNqaA4E>.

“BioShock Infinite REVIEW! Adam Sessler Reviews.” YouTube. YouTube, 25 Mar. 2013. Web. 9 Feb. 2014. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jchIi-vR_js>.

“From Shock to Awe: System Shock, Bioshock, and Infinite.” YouTube. YouTube, 11 May 2013. Web. 9 Feb. 2014. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s7DVOw1lIcM>.

Hamilton, Kirk. “BioShock Infinite Is Insanely, Ridiculously Violent. It’s A Real Shame..” Kotaku. N.p., 4 Apr. 2013. Web. 9 Feb. 2014. <http://kotaku.com/bioshock-infinite-is-insanely-ridiculously-violent-it-470524003>.

Living the Game World – The Oculus Rift, STEM System, and First Person Immersion

On a recent live show, Daniel Floyd and James Portnow, two of the people behind Extra Credits, said that they believed the Oculus Rift to be a cool new gadget in gaming, but nothing out of the ordinary that will revolutionize the industry, as many have claimed. Now, to say I respect these two would be vastly underselling it; Extra Credits taught me more about game design than pretty much anything else in the world. So, I was quite surprised to hear these two say this. I think the Oculus has the potential to change our approach to gaming entirely, to catapult the medium into a new style of interactive storytelling and experience that we’ve only begun to experience thus far. I completely understand where Portnow and Floyd are coming from, and the Oculus by itself wouldn’t be all that special. But I believe that what it represents and what it has inspired has such enormous implications for gaming that I become even more excited every time a new invention is unveiled.

In my last piece I talked about the first person perspective, and why I believed it is so much more effective at utilizing the strengths of gaming as a medium by placing the player inside the head of the player character. However, the Oculus takes this a step further, and lets the player look around in the game world as though it were their own. Some downplay this advantage, but I simply cannot overstate how valuable it is. I tried the Rift at New York Comic Con last year, and it took me a few solid minutes to really realize that what I was seeing was a game world. The low latency that the Kickstarter video detailed seemed like technical jargon at the time, but actually experiencing it firsthand made me realize that that reduction of response time crossed the line into feeling like reality. virtuix-omni-kickstarter1Looking around felt like, well, looking around, as simple as that. That single difference made the game I was watching, a stripped down racing simulator, the most engaging thing I had ever seen. No matter how precise or smooth mouse-and-keyboard or controller looking becomes, there will always be a disconnect because you simply aren’t looking around. The vision is choppy and inorganic, the experience broken up and the slightest bit awkward. Getting lost in new worlds becomes so much easier when that barrier is removed. When you don’t feel like you are looking at a screen, but instead, a world, immersion is automatic, not something that must be earned.

However, what makes me the most excited about the Rift isn’t the Rift itself, but what it has inspired. I fell in love with Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One, in which a future video game uses a VR visor, like the Rift, and haptic gloves. In my search for tech like this, I found many cool pieces of technology, such as Virtuix Omni, but Sixense’s STEM System is what stood out to me. slider_stem_5trackerThe STEM system would allow the player to have a sensor in both hands and both feet as well as their waist. In conjunction with the Rift, this would allow a player to organically move through a simulated world, moving their hands, legs and body as though it were real. Interaction with the world becomes much more detailed, with picking up objects being much more complex than a simple “Press x to do this.” The player can physically dig through items and move them around. The possibilities with systems like these are endless. How many genres of games that have thus far been stagnant could be made more invigorating with the rift and this technology? Racing games? Hidden object games? Art games like Proteus or Dear Esther? Games that just dump a player into a world without many mechanics could suddenly become brilliantly engaging because of these new technologies that simulate real interaction. The gaming community largely despises the Kinect, and rightfully so, but it did open up new genres and types of games.  But since the Kinect, and the Wii like it, the core gaming audience became incredibly skeptical of new hardware, viewing it as gimmicky and without any real substantive change.  Imagine if another system, one without the Kinect’s flaws, could open up new genres or reinvigorate old ones. This would have a serious impact on how we make games, and that is the kind of change that we would want from new hardware.

However, there is one game that I have in mind, one that already came out.  Gone Home was, in my opinion, a fantastic game with brilliant writing and interwoven gameplay. However, it got a lot of flack from some of the gaming community because of its lack of traditional mechanics. How much more eerie would the game have become with a Rift? The sense of immersion would be total. How much more engaging would the mechanics have become if, instead of pressing buttons to move through old family documents, the player had to physically shuffle around through old files and objects, searching for something to give them a clue as to what was going on? I loved Gone Home as is, but think about how much it could be enhanced through new technologies.

The Rift and STEM System are just two of the myriad of new inventions that are emerging in this new crowd funded Hardware Renaissance. In a generation where the new consoles had almost nothing new to offer in terms of hardware, it is so refreshing to see people trying to tweak the way we play games to make them better, not just gimmicky. This isn’t a movement that is brought about by the big players of Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, or Valve, it is made by nerds in their parent’s garages coming up with brilliant ideas on how to change the gaming landscape. And the big players aren’t sitting out, hell, Valve’s ported their Big Picture OS to run on the Rift as the first VR-capable operating system! heres-what-happened-when-we-strapped-a-bunch-of-people-into-the-oculus-rift-virtual-reality-headsetWhatever these new inventions end up doing, they’re getting people, both developers and players, to start to take a second look at some things we had assumed about games. To me, that is exactly what we should be asking for.