On videogames and moral complicity.

NintendoMariostatue-1Given that there are critical theory courses discussing Super Mario Brothers, I assume there’s no need to get into the whole “Can videogames be great art?” argument.  Presumably almost everyone agrees that the medium can be used to make art.

Honestly, I fall into the camp that believes that almost any medium could be used to make art: Twitter?  Why not?  They’re still words.  Drip castles made out of sand?  You’re still making choices, you can still convey meaning.  A beautiful starting arrangement in Conway’s “Game of Life?”  (And, sure, that comes close to being a videogame, but aside from setting the initial conditions you don’t actually get to play, so I think it’s fair to put it in a different category.)  Why wouldn’t that be art?  You can convey deep meaning, someone versed in the form can get a sense of aesthetic appreciation; what else do you want?

But I thought it might still be fun to discuss some types of meaning that videogames are particularly good at conveying.  Specifically, moral complicity.

And, sure, you can do that in literature.  There’s the use of second person: in “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” Junot Diaz implicates the reader in the whole culture of ignoring the plights of others with lines like “For those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history…”, where, yeah, he’s not saying it’s your fault, but you too, dear reader, have allowed bad behavior to go unpunished.  Or there’s Jay McInery’s “Bright Lights Big City,” which to me seems to be attempting something even riskier.  I think it’s pretty well exemplified by this passage from the end of the book; yes, the reader becomes complicit, but in that work the pervasive second person risks alienating the reader, pushing them away if they feel too strongly that isn’t me.

Capture“You get down on your knees and tear open the bag.  The smell of warm dough envelops you.  The first bite sticks in your throat and you almost gag.  You will have to go slowly.  You will have to learn everything all over again.”

I think McInery pulled off his use of second person well enough that not too many people would reject his book for that reason.  Back when I was teaching organic chemistry I used to send passages from literature as “inspiration” to my students, one of which was a long piece from this novel, and none of them complained.  Of course, I’m not sure how many of them actually read the emails I sent them.  Organic chemistry courses at Stanford tend to have a lot of people who want good grades in order to get into medical school, and maybe not so many people who want to read snippets of literature curated by their TA.

Or there’s first person plural, which could potentially implicate the reader.  Not always, of course.  Like there’s Jeffrey Eugenides’s “The Virgin Suicides,” where the first person plural clearly seems to be a group of now-grown boys sharing their findings with the reader: at the end of a passage describing a photograph of the heroines there are the lines “Please don’t touch.  We’re going to put the picture back into its envelope now.” (Someday I’ll have to find a good way to sneak in a snazzier quote or two from that book into one of my essays — something that Eugenides does extremely well, that I don’t think he’s often given enough credit for, is the way he blends science into his stories).

I this quote from Steven Millhauser, in an interview with failbetter wherein he discussed the use of first person plural in some of his own stories, gives a great description of what I find alluring about Eugenides’s narration… especially the final line: “One interesting fact about ‘we’ is that it’s rarely used.  The mere idea that it isn’t ‘I’ or ‘he’ is wonderfully liberating.  The fictional possibilities are enticing.  ‘We’ is an adventure.” 

But “we” might, instead of being adventurous, signify complicity.  You could argue that the first person plural of Joshua Ferris’s “Then We Came to the End” comes close to bundling the reader into the same group as the narrators.  You, dear reader, might have been there.  Perhaps you’d temporarily forgotten.

That said, I think this is something videogames can do better.  Because as close as you can be drawn in by judicious conjugation and pronoun use, it’s not the same as holding controls and being empowered with direct responsibility over whether the protagonist, or any other character onscreen, for that matter, will live or die.  And there are some games out there that do very interesting things with this moral complicity.

CaptureIn the first draft of my novel, I alluded to “Shadow of the Colossus.”   Sadly, I removed that passage — the book is long, and I hate the idea of it being longer than it needs to be.  Referencing that game did add something, but I don’t think it added quite enough relative to how much space it took to describe (three sentences) and how many likely readers would understand the allusion (somewhere between zero and one percent, right?).

But, look, now I’m typing for a website!  Space is infinite!  I’m going to describe the game, by golly.

First off, it’s beautiful, and apparently a lot of fun (I’m not terribly good at videogames, but I do like them.  I didn’t play this game, but I watched my brother play it.  Sometimes that can be even more fun — you get all the excitement of playing a game, none of the stress).

But, specifically as regards the “moral complicity” thing?  You, the player, have to kill gigantic monsters.  As you play, though, you gradually notice that the monsters aren’t actually harmful — they’re hanging out peacefully until you charge up and attack them.  By the end of the game, you, the player, realize you’ve been tricked… you shouldn’t have done that.  It would’ve been better to let the monsters live.  Your protagonist accumulates “The Picture of Dorian Gray”-esque manifestations of sin on his physique.  Everyone is disappointed.  The world is worse.  But, you were playing a game!  Killing gigantic monsters is what people in games do!  How could you know you shouldn’t have done it?  Also, if you didn’t kill them… well, then there would be no game.  In effect, the only choice you have is to do bad or not play.

CaptureIn a way, that’s similar to the “choice” you have in Grand Theft Auto 5.  At one point, you, the player, have to torture a captive in order to proceed.  Again, do bad, or stop playing.  And you, the player, are given this information midway through progress through the storyline.  Presumably the idea is that by this point you, the player, are enjoying the game enough that you’ll want to continue, and there is only one way to continue.

And I think that this teaches a lesson about torture and empathy beyond what you can learn from literature (although, we’ll see.  I’m still waiting in my local library’s queue for Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s “Guantanamo Diary.”  I expect more bleak essays will appear here in the future!).

To wit, why would anyone do those awful things?  Well, you’re told to.  You’re led along, you spend a lot of time learning to follow directions, and each new command issued might be a little more immoral than the one before, but there aren’t huge jumps from one to the next.  By the time you’re told to punch the tied-up man in the face, it’s not that much worse than other things you’ve done before.  And you want to move on!  Keep your job, get promoted, serve your time and get back to your real life.

Honestly, just thinking about it, it sounds ridiculous that someone would justify torture to himself that way.  Which I think is part of the benefit of the game, even though it’s got a lot of awful stuff in it, and maybe was played by a bunch of people who weren’t prepared to think critically about its message — like, right, obviously children shouldn’t be playing things like that — but it does teach players that they are perhaps not as morally pure as they’d thought.

Limbo_Box_ArtBut, okay, my favorite example?  I saved this one for last, even though… well.  Let’s just state this first: Limbo was almost one of the best games of all time.  Potentially the best, in my opinion.  The game has two movements, effectively, and I think that in order for it to be the best game ever, the first movement could go unchanged.  The second let me down, but, who cares?  Coming that close to greatness is pretty impressive.  And, with luck, maybe the developers will rework it in the future and turn it into the best game of all time.

A brief description, in case you haven’t played it: it’s a Mario-like (i.e. sidescrolling, cartoony) puzzle game.  The puzzles include many traps that can only be identified through trial and error.  Mistakes result in the sudden, gristly, controller-vibrating demise of the cute protagonist.

The game is terrifying.  You proceed through the woods, trying to escape.  As you play, you’ll be eaten by spiders.  Crushed by rocks.  Attacked by… wait, what?  Attacked by spider-like contraptions built by other children; those boys run away into the distance when you draw near.

Thing is, the game is so scary that it really sucks you in.  And makes you (if you’re anything like me, that is) feel pretty angry at those other cutely-drawn cartoon boys who’re beleaguering you.  And it’s great.  The whole first movement of the game where you’re proceeding through the woods.

The second half of the game is set in a mechanized wasteland.  It’s mildly interesting, but gameplay is simply more of the same.  And it became less and less scary.  My brother and I had been playing for a while at that point, after each ghastly demise we’d hand over the controller, so that was part of why it was less scary, but also, many previous games feature industrial scariness.  The woodland segment felt special.

CaptureBut, okay, the thing that I think would’ve made Limbo great?  If the second half were replaced by more woodland puzzles that put the player into the role of tormenting other boys who were trying to escape.  As is, in the first half of the game you are tormented but your tormenters simply disappear (or, sometimes, accidentally commit suicide in their zealous efforts to expunge you).  It would’ve been nice if the second half of the game built on the psychological effects it was engendering by forcing you to attack other children in order to solve puzzles.

The controls for the game were quite simple, but I think the developers could’ve done it; as a basic example, you can push blocks around, and it might be horrifying to need a block slightly higher than ground level in order to jump to a platform, and be forced to push it on top of another child in order to escape.  And I think that could’ve added to the game’s message: yes, you can persevere, you can escape, but to do so you might have to become a monster.

Oy, nutters.  Apparently nap time is over now — still, I feel like I typed out most of what I wanted.  Pretty good for just an hour-long nap-written essay, right?  And I can always write another videogame essay later, if N ever falls asleep again.