The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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Laughing at the game

After having completed developer Quantic Dream’s most recent game Beyond: Two Souls, I felt myself compelled to tweet that the ending had made me laugh out loud.

No, really.

Now, like other Quantic Dream games — Heavy Rain, Indigo Prophecy/FahrenheitBeyond: Two Souls can pretty fairly be described as a game that is not trying to engender laughter. It’s a serious game about 15 years of its main character’s life in which serious things happen. Like being abandoned by her parents to be raised in a secret lab, and fighting Very Bad People in the Third World, and then discovering that maybe the Very Bad People weren’t who she was told they were. Also, there’s a ghost who follows the main character everywhere. Did I mention the ghost?

There are also big problems with the game. The nonlinear structure of the game’s chapters doesn’t appear to be very well thought out. For a character-driven story, none of the characters are particularly realized. I’ve heard more than one person comment that it appears at times that the writers have never actually had a conversation with another human being. I haven’t even mentioned the “Navajo” chapter, in which the white main character saves a Native American family by recovering the rituals of their people, and, um, yeah.

But for all this, I found myself laughing at the end of the game. Not screaming, not throwing my controller at the TV, laughing. Somewhere, at least for a minute, Beyond: Two Souls had crossed the line separating the ridiculous from the sublime, and that, for me at least, was a striking event.

While videogames are built on over-the-top, excessive worlds, where if one of anything is good, fifty is better, I’ve almost never seen a discussion of a game in terms of camp — extreme, self-conscious, ironic, pleasurable excess. Don’t the Grand Theft Auto games cry out for a discussion of camp? What about the hyper-stylized, heavy-on-the-hairspray-and-leather characters of Final Fantasy? What is it about games — a medium ostensibly, uniquely centered on being “fun,” in one form or another — that seems to mire the form in bog of dull, dreary seriousness? Is it the sheer amount of money involved in building and marketing triple-A games? Is it the way in which contemporary games seem to be built almost exclusively as non-communal experiences? (As either single-player narratives or competitive multiplayer challenges.)

Is it the fact that a great deal of camp gives voice to marginalized identities, and the vast, vast majority of games are created, to the exclusion of almost any other concern, to be marketed to heterosexual white men?

In any case, although perhaps most especially the latter, it might be useful to recall Susan Sontag’s distinction between “naive camp” and “deliberate camp.” That is, something doesn’t have to be trying to be camp in order to be camp. Maybe it’s time to start talking about what a camp playthrough might look like. Maybe it’s time to start throwing toast at the screen.


I’m struck by this especially from Susan Sontag’s musings:

Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a “lamp”…To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.

It’s so appropriate for games, where you’re asked to slip into a role, a mask, for a proverbial mile-in-someone’s-shoes. I think game-as-theater is a much better metaphor, and is more empathetic, than games’ oft-cited cousin, film.

And, for your consideration:

Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation – not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism. (Or, if it is cynicism, it’s not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.) Camp taste doesn’t propose that it is in bad taste to be serious; it doesn’t sneer at someone who succeeds in being seriously dramatic. What it does is to find the success in certain passionate failures.

Certain passionate failures. What a phrase!

Is video game cosplay deliberate camp? Sincere question. I think it… is? But maybe not?

I really, really need to read more Sontag, Allen. 🙂

As to cosplay, my first inclination is to say that what we’re doing when we talk about something as camp is just as important as whether it “is” or “isn’t” camp. Authenticity is severely contested ground on the convention floor, and there are a lot of hurtful discourse around who does and doesn’t belong there.

And maybe even more than that, while there are some fairly clear — and fascinating! — examples of playfulness and camp, think, say, of a pink stormtrooper costume, or this Boba Fett/Wolverine mashup, some fandoms are so deep and so (wonderfully!) weird that a costume that looks like a mashup may, in fact, be nothing of the sort.

In a nutshell, consider this memed cosplay photo (of Dayna Scodras), and the snippet of the accompanying Tumblr conversation:

Is it camp? Is it, as the meme seems to be suggesting, too campy, an ironic intrusion into a space of otherwise ostensibly sincere fandom? Is it a sincere homage to a campy character design?

Personally, I think there’s always an element of camp to fandom. But I’m not sure that every cosplayer feels the same way, some for reasons I would support and some for reasons I would resist.

I think one of the problems of defining “camp” in video games is the problem of cross-cultural understanding. What’s considered completely or relatively normal in Japan, where a sizable percentage of popular games originate (although less these days than the 90s/00s), often comes across as campy/twee/quirky to U.S. audiences. Think about the J-Pop theme songs to games like Kingdom Hearts (to state the obvious, in Japan, “J-Pop” is just “Pop”), or games that have detailed mini-games revolving around relationships, or the overall fantasy aesthetic that took Western tropes from Tolkien/D&D and filtered them through Japanese sensibilities around how to depict human characters, represent emotions, and incorporate humor, often resulting in something that feels less “serious” or “realistic” than European or American approaches. Then you have games like Katamari Damacy that clearly are meant to be zany in any culture, yet from a US perspective part of the hook is “wow, check out all this crazy Japanese stuff happening in here.”

I’m going to end with one of my favorite examples of the “isn’t Japan wacky” media genre, from SNL.

Point taken on cross-cultural understanding (and/or appropriation), Will.

Although, in fairness, I think one could make a pretty good argument that Japan might be the absolute cutting edge of world camp culture, and as deliberate rather than naive camp. The key, in some sense, is to recognize the camp in Western fantasy, sci-fi, etc. (Conan the Barbarian? Red Sonia? World of Warcraft, even before “The Mists of Pandaria”?), and not to treat Tolkien as “normal” or “serious” while failing to give similar consideration to tropes from other cultures.

Because, I mean, come on, Gandalf is played by Ian McKellan. Who is totally amazing and totally camp. His Magneto in X2? I adore that performance, and it is exactly what I’m talking about.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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