Games Are Not Art

An examination of the link between Video Games and Art

Month: June, 2015

The Secret World and Representation

After an E3 where a number of the actually interesting games featured female protagonists – from Horizon: Zero Dawn, to ReCore, to Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst, to Dishonored 2 – it is worthwhile to think back a year and remember when Assassin’s Creed Unity was first announced. Unity, for those who missed it, flaunted a co-operative mode that would allow the four players to group together to complete the game’s missions. In a co-op mission, only one player would assume the role of the game’s protagonist, Arno; the others would appear as some customized variant in order to maintain the narrative’s suspension of disbelief. When the question of why none of these doppelgangers were women was posed, Ubisoft flailed and claimed that the work that would have gone into such a feature prohibited its execution: “It’s double the animations, double the voices, all that stuff and double the visual assets,” said Creative Director Alex Amancio. Ultimately, the game’s low frame-rate and unpolished release changed the conversation subject without altering its critical tone, and discussions of gender representation in the game were ultimately left behind.

But despite these newer developments, not too much has changed. As an interview with Shuhei Yoshida, Head of Sony Computer Entertainment’s worldwide studio, on Polygon made clear, Sony was incredibly nervous about having the protagonist of Horizon: Zero Dawn be a woman. Though he sets this decision amidst other elements that the design team were worried about – specifically: “open world RPG, the set up of machine versus primitive weapons and the female protagonist” – the fact that the marketability of a game is judged not solely by its gameplay (the open world, the juxtaposition of arrows and armour) but also by its inclusion of a woman is profoundly troubling. Though he speaks of both the need for and the benefits of diversity, it is cowardice to argue that we should foster diversity only when it’s safe to do so.

At this point in time, it’s fair to say that the inclusion of female characters in any medium should not be considered a risky move – in many ways, the discussion has moved on from mere inclusion towards the inclusion of women and minorities that use more than tired stereotypes or toxic clichés. Yet discussions surrounding the fact of inclusion are nevertheless frustratingly present despite the bare simplicity of what has been asked. Even a mostly forgettable game (and personally cherished) like Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine had its own neat little moment of progressive representation with Lieutenant Mira. When the protagonist expresses incredulity towards her, it is not at her gender but at the fact that a mere lieutenant is the highest ranked military authority on the battlefield; when he is told that everyone up the chain of command has been killed, Captain Titus nods and begins to plan the next attack with her – apparently the grim darkness of the fortieth millennium does not include militant gender bias. This is not to say that the ideal approach to representation should be blanket blindness towards the particulars of a character – say, only presenting women as a reskinned man – even if this remains a lazy option.

At the same time, there is the need to judge the work by the standards it sets itself, or the genre by its conventions. This is not to excuse stereotyping, or to say that a work’s intended presentation of women, people of colour, or sexual minorities is to be taken at face value: a purportedly feminist work can fail miserably by merely regurgitating the same tired tropes and stereotypes while still giving the female lead a gun. But each genre is defined by its own conventions, and representation often intersects with genre by invoking or lampshading these tropes. As an object lesson in this line of thinking, Anita Sarkeesian tweeted the following about the feminist tones of Mad Max: Fury Road:


The problem with her critique is that its terms are foreign to an action film. The genre is defined by the purposeful use of violence and motion to tell a story; critiquing that same genre for its conventions is to make a pointless criticism. It is fairer to point out interesting moments – as when Furiosa takes the sniper rifle from Max, uses him as a stand for the weapon, and tells him to hold his breath – where convention is used in ways that upset older models of masculine chivalry and competence and gives those traits to a female lead. To a certain extent, Mad Max is what it is: as subtle as Immortan Joe’s horse-toothed mask. Its camera “caresses the brides’ bodies,” but then those brides save themselves in the final battle by tearing out a man’s face. But “it is what it is” is not a blanket excuse for the general use of sexist or racist tropes as there is always room to navigate the structures imposed by the individual piece or the genre. Constraints can breed moments of fascinating, transgressive creativity.

In this regard, it is interesting to examine one particular genre of games, and note the way one work in particular manages to rise to the progressive occasion. After all, Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMOs from here on out) are conservative creatures. They are, in many ways, the video game industry writ small: a text that offers many different kinds of players a space to find what interests them the most (narrative, gameplay, co-operative experiences, player verses player strategizing, a vicarious hero fantasy, and so on). In a similarly microcosmic vein, successful MMOs offer a variety of play-styles both in kind and type (see, for example, World of Warcraft: Cataclym’s renovation of the basic quests that guide the player, where players can pilot machines or play a knockoff Plants vs. Zombies minigame). In short, diversity in design, landscape, architecture and so on is already the name of the game in MMOs; The Secret World takes this keyword to its logical conclusion by incorporating representation in interesting and meaningful ways.

However, one caveat must be noted: I recognize that I do somewhat equivocate the representation of minorities with feminism, which is not a fair thing to do. Hopefully intersectionality will excuse any problematic blurring of terms I use.

Our first example is emblematic, though its context needs unpacking. The game offers players three distinct factions (Templar, Illuminati, and Dragon) and, without going into too much detail, it is the first item in that list that interests us. The Templars are a secret society of honorable monster slayers, whose apparatus evoke knightly prowess and the privilege of that aristocratic order. Within the game, the Templars are undergoing a minor revolution away from the tiered apparatus of class and bloodlines and towards a more egalitarian order. And, importantly, the struggle between the old, aristocratic order and the meritocracy of monster-slayers is rendered in microcosm by the player’s point man, Richard Sonnac. In an institution that mirrors the privilege of generations of wealth and power, here is a young black man, the presumed descendant of immigrants and the embodiment of social progress. It is a fascinating design choice that renders the issues of a particular part of the game’s Secret World a mirror of the real one. Of course, the deeper implications of this dynamic are not explored as, like any MMO, The Secret World is a world built for the player to come riding in and save the day; a metaphorical demon like racism is not touched upon because there are actual demons to slay. But it remains an interesting moment of inclusion nevertheless.

Similarly, the game’s female cast is worthy of comment not through its collection of strong, independent women (though these are present) but by virtue of their variety and complexity. Kirsten Geary, the player’s handler for the Illuminati, is a hybrid of valley girl and corporate shark: “Make me look bad and I’ll mount your head on the wall as an object lesson for the next fuck up. God, it is so cute when you new guys think I’m kidding.” But, as the game progresses, any illusions of vapid adolescence are dispelled. In the same vein, Helen Bannerman is the local sheriff for the town of Kingsmouth, keeps the survivors of the local devastation safe, and uses rustic colloquialisms in a Bostonian accent. Rada Nastasa has a small, tragic story of addiction, rehab, and recruitment by a Scientology-esque cult that offers help with one hand and takes with all its others. Shani, as the head of a secret order dedicated towards protecting Egypt from evil, is more of a straightforward action character. The list goes on, and on, and on.

Then there are the instances of queer representation: Sandy Jansen is a former investment banker turned biker with a crush on Kingsmouth’s Deputy Andy. In Egypt, Montgomery de la Roche and his assistant Arun Singh are archeologists from Oxford, and carry on a private relationship that is more inferential than explicit. In the idea that MMOs are microcosmic of the industry at large, we see in The Secret World’s use of representation an example of what feminist critics have been calling for: a greater variety of characters in lieu of the white, brunet, stubbled male mannequins we encounter too often. Though no game can – or should be expected to – cover the infinite scope of human experience, MMOs have the opportunity to take a stab at it in their expansive rosters.

At the same time, there are problematic moments. When characters are being seductive, the seduction is framed as either appealing to straight men or homosexual women – a dynamic that cannot but come off as male-centric, even as it tries to make these segments work for player characters of either gender. In this vein, Cassandra King, a Southern belle in short shorts and a massively exposed midriff, is particularly emblematic. She seductively purrs out an entendre that can only be considered ‘double’ by rounding up: “I might be flexible. Very, very flexible.” Yet she also supersedes the villain of Act One, revealing that her sexuality is merely a tool in her pursuit of power. How is one to read this character: as a sexist stereotype, or a sexy trope?

Here genre and structure can point out the narrow border between these two divides: The Secret World juggles a number of different tropes. While central to the game is a Lovecraftian sense of Cosmic Horror, you find Stephen King-esque moments set in New England, James Bond pastiches, Indiana Jones-esque romps, and the traditional tropes of Hollywood horror. These categories have certain conventions, for, as Joss Wheedon’s Cabin in the Woods illustrated, horror relies on shorthand: Jules dies first because that’s how the cliché goes. Perhaps having the Cassandra, the belle dam sans merci, supplant the villain – rather than dying first – is an innovative gesture meant to overturn a tired, sexist convention. But the difficulty with these discussions lies in the fine difference between subtle subversion and straightforward use. To use a parallel example, the film Gone Girl adopted a posture that rendered its villain understandable, even as she invoked stereotypes of a conniving femininity set against an oppressed everyman (emphasis on that last syllable). Like Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, Amy is a subtly subversive character rooted in stereotypes, and the film plays with – but never succumbs to – the tropes it turns inside out.

But perhaps we can extend a charitable interpretation on credit. The Secret World manages to seamlessly incorporate a variety of otherwise-marginalized figures in both interesting and refreshingly bland ways. At the end, if intent is unclear and genre is merely an ambiguous guide, then perhaps we can just be charitable and assume the best of a game that has tried.

Here we reach the limits of the MMO genre. The Secret World is not like the The Babadook, which takes Horror as a lens to examine grief and the origins of parental abuse; save for fascinating instances like Richard Sonnac, it merely runs a dark narrative through its fingers. The question of whether MMOs can appropriate the focused meaningfulness of works like The Babadook or Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs has, for the moment, been answered: they are cousin to comic strips that have been running since the mid-twentieth century, their narratives and significance discounted by the annual need to add more and more to the structure.

But despite this bloat, The Secret World has regular, meaningful moments of representation that exist not merely for variety’s sake, but, sometimes, in order to reflect on different issues in our world. The very and varied depiction of women and queer characters does not merely add flavor to the player’s experience, but also to more accurately capture the world we are familiar with. At the same time, the way in which these moments of representation are discussed similarly mirrors the difficulty of examining and re-examining cultural conceits. Part of the challenge of these readings is the fact that they develop into ongoing conversations with different arguments, different vantage points, and different voices. And so life imitates art imitates life ad infinitum.

Life is Strange and Identity

ἦθος ἀνθρώπῳ δαίμων / “Character is destiny”

– Heraclitus

The ending of the latest episode of Life is Strange is remarkable for a number of reasons – to name a few: the sheer daring of its twist, the way in which it continues to develop its time-travel mechanic, and the way the new timeline uses a minimum of details to infer volumes – but foremost among these elements is the way the twist serves the game’s focus on the uneasy contingency of identity. That this unease is explored at the moment of late adolescence – just when, after the wasteland of our teenage years, our identity is beginning to coalesce – is further evidence of just such an emphasis. In the same vein, the player’s sudden thrust into a brave new timeline becomes the next step in the game’s exploration of questions of identity.

Though the game’s central mechanic is time travel, the point of the chronological play is not primarily to reorder plot – latest episode aside, for now – but merely to pose questions to the player: how do you respond to quotidian situations like a conversation with a principal, whether to answer a simple phone call, or whether to accept an invitation to a movie Friday night? Max’s time-travelling abilities allow the player the ability to explore divergent consequences, but the immediate results of these decisions are the labels that accompany each: answering Kate’s call makes Max a ‘good friend,’ just as dodging the principal’s enquiries has Max labeled a ‘troublemaker.’ Whether or not you save Kate in episode two brings about its own labels (savior, for example). As an aside, Max’s repeated saving of lives (Chloe, possibly Kate, and Chloe’s father William) makes for the game’s strongest connection to Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye: like Holden Caulfield, Max Caulfield is a figurative catcher in the rye, saving kids from falling off, falling away. Ultimately, the consequence of each decision not only has an outward effect (on the plot, on other characters, and so on), but an inward, definitional effect. Put another way, in Life is Strange choice creates identity.

The game then adds new, anxious layers to the simple question of “Am I making the right choice?” as the question becomes “Am I doing the right thing, for others and for myself?” Again, by situating the game at the point where the protean confusion of adolescence begins to crystallize into a fixed identity (there are problems with this portrayal, but they are tangential to my point) the game explores what this crystallization entails. Episode three’s kissing scene is exemplary in this regard. The opportunity to kiss Chloe is not merely a moment of fun, but is rather an opportunity to raise questions of identity: was it an experiment? An expression of her actual sexuality? Or is it just a moment of impetuous silliness? At the same time, it mirrors the subplot of Warren’s movie night – though its implications have yet to be fully explored, the acceptance or rejection of his invitation evoke the same kinds of questions of identity raised by Chloe’s kiss. But the point here is not to try and pin down her sexual identity. Rather, it is simply to note the way in which the player’s decisions serve as much to define just who Max is as much as they further the ends of the plot.

The breakdown between Max and Chloe near the end of episode three represents the dark side of this performative identity – a term familiar to those of you who have read, say, Judith Butler – neatly illustrating the reality that we all make bad decisions. When the pair retreat to Chloe’s car after learning about Rachel (whose status as Frank’s lover is another one of those interactions where choice implies identity – her decision to be involved romantically with Frank tells more about Rachel than Chloe’s enthusiasm has), Max says, “Chloe, you can’t keep blaming me and everybody for everything wrong in your life.” In response, Chloe divests herself of agency because to accept her own responsibility is unpalatable: “I gotta blame somebody. Otherwise it’s all my fault. Fuck that.” But she is not free from the decision-as-identity pattern. This is, after all, the same girl who started a fight with her mother to provide Max cover to search her step-father’s garage, and while it gave the space for a surreptitious search it also represents her willingness to add further strain to an already strained relationship. That her life is a mess is obvious – she was expelled from school, she is in debt to a drug dealer, she constantly fights with her mother and step-father, and so on – but the idea that this mess is, in part, her fault is anathema.

From this perspective, Max and Chloe are at opposite poles: the former is still forming her identity, and the player’s decisions go towards making concrete whatever this identity could be; the latter is trapped in an undesirable life that she has, in part, made for herself, and seeks to escape it all. For proof, we need look no further than Max’s diary entry for Chloe: “She’s all grown up now, but it doesn’t seem like she’s only one year older than me.” Visual cues reinforce this: she has dyed her natural blond into brilliant blue, and her arm is marked by a colorful series of tattoos. Chloe is, in essence, a thematic foil to Max’s tabula rasa.

But the twist deliciously inverts this dynamic, transitioning the game’s emphasis from that of choice to that of contingency and its power to shape our lives. By saving Chloe’s father, Max alters not only Chloe’s history, but her own as well: after altering the past, we find her hanging out with the detested Vortex Club and an implied familiarity with casual drug use. We play the Max we know, but in the place of some unknown and unsettling doppelganger akin to Chloe: a person who is the culmination of decisions utterly foreign to us, a fixed identity in contrast to the blank slate we were given in episode one. Similarly, we meet a Chloe fundamentally different from the colorful, impassioned, incandescent rebel we have known thus far: in contrast to her visual liveliness, we have only a barely mobile, blond analogue. But the horror of the moment lies not in a suddenly quadriplegic Chloe – hopefully the next episode will not descend into the ableist trope of defining a handicapped person solely by their handicap – but, immediately, in the vast gulf between our familiar Chloe and a dramatically different one, and, thematically, in the sudden reveal that our choices are not as grounded or substantial as the game has led us to believe.

The game’s exploration of how our choices define us then turns into unease at the entire apparatus of choice. Presumably, Chloe’s angry screed in the car has been proven right. Complete with her father, her life is no longer the same flavor of fucked up: presumably, she is not in debt to a drug dealer and the paranoid David is not married to her mother. But whether her life is unsatisfactory on some other level has yet to be made clear. The only obvious point is that, in a game concerned with human agency, the turn demonstrates how fragile that agency’s power truly is; life is as much what is done to us as it is what we do with it, possessing both passive and active voices.

Here we get to the epigraph: character is fate. Erich Auerbach, in his work Dante: Poet of the Secular World, uses this epigraph in order to introduce the idea that the characters of Homer and Dante are not merely re-presentations or echoes of characters we might find in real life, but singular figures defined by a cohesive identity – wrathful Achilles, cunning Ulysses. In Auerbach’s words,

In the poet’s inventive mind an act revealing a man’s nature . . . unfolded naturally and inevitably into the sum and sequence of that man’s kindred acts, into a life that would take a certain direction and be caught up in the skein of events which add up to a man’s character as well as his fate.

Put another way, the first conception of a character guides how that character operates in the work of art, so that everything that happens in the narrative fits that character: “the natural truth or mimesis of a Homeric scene such as the meeting of Odysseus and Nausicaa is not based on sharp observation of daily events, but on an a priori conception of the nature and essence of both figures and the fate appropriate to them.” Character is fate because the latter is the inevitable outpouring of the former, the way a flower’s is to bloom; when Patroclus dies in The Iliad, the end of Achilles is preordained because he is who he is.

But such a conception of character presupposes a unified, complete work, where the ending is already written. In a way, works of fiction have their own kind of ersatz eternity: the book, movie, or game is always in a sense complete, and it is only our experience of that work that succumbs to the flow of time. When we open The Iliad, Hector is already dead. But we experience Life is Strange from the perspective of a character in the middle of working out her fate, and the fact that the game is yet unfinished means that the conclusion is still unknown. And, given that we play as Maxwell Caulfield by making decisions for her (continually defining her as, perhaps, a good friend, or a figurative catcher in the rye, or heterosexual, a lesbian, a photographer, careful, careless, pragmatic, principled, and so on) we are brought closer to our own lived experience than any other game might presuppose. Like Max, we are perpetually working out our own identity and simultaneously creating our own fate.

By fundamentally altering the game’s timeline, episode three subverts the promise of fate: a game about the contingency of choice becomes that much more contingent. There never were any right choices to begin with, but by dipping players into an alternate world the very basis for these choices – a whole and cohesive identity expressed through decision – has been undone. We could have played a very different Max in the same way that we all could have been very different people given different situations and different answers to past decisions. Indeed, the whole point of the twist might have been just as well expressed had the game reversed your initial choices and diverted you down a different path than the one you chose over three episodes.

In its focus on the uneasy contingency of choice and identity, Life is Strange remains a fascinating and novel work – not because of its presentation (which is well-pioneered by Telltale Games at this point) but because of the seriousness with which it pursues its presentation of questions of identity. But its story remains, like ours, unfinished – and it is perhaps this personal connection between the work and our lives that gives the former such pathos. Character is fate, but it remains to be seen whether the hand that writes the story does so well.