April 5, 2009
Making Reality Operational
Friend of Snarkmarket Nav at Scrawled In Wax has a thoughtful meditation on the relationship of video games to other art forms (and to reality), spurred on by playing LittleBigPlanet:
Video games can also tell stories, but many people argue that narrative — particularly telling stories, or “diegesis” - isn’t their primary function. Instead of relying on the representation of a world to tell tales, video games rely on simulation, not to recreate the world but in order to create a world as an arena for simulated action. And by collapsing both play and creation into one experience, blurring the distinction between the two, LittleBigPlanet becomes a metaphor for gaming itself in which the uniqueness of games as a cultural form becomes clear.
If literary texts work primarily through representation, and secondly by reader interaction, the inverse is true of video games: even in the most “realistic” games, it is the creative, interactive element that is paramount, and it is through this that players produce their own narratives as they move through a world that references “life” but is neither constrained by it nor bound to its rules…
And while I myself will always be partial to the intensely interior nature of literature, LittleBigPlanet suggests that, as gaming develops, its potential and power will be found in its capacity to empower players to create worlds never before imagined - and then, as was never possible before, step into them.
Let me tweak Nav’s terms a little, because I think actually that “diegesis” DOESN’T just mean narrative, and is flexible enough to cover the “reader interaction” that he’s talking about. Broadly speaking, diegesis is the interaction, rather than the story — we associate it with narrative because it’s a way to describe all the tools a narrator uses to tell a story rather than simply recount what happened. When a good storyteller hooks you in, THAT’s diegesis. (Narrative in this sense would be one kind of diegesis.)
I particularly like the idea that video games and literature/film are at opposite ends of the teeter-totter that is mimesis/representation and diegesis/reader interaction — they’re important aspects both, but actually diegesis (I guess we’d call this “gameplay”) is way more privileged in video games, precisely because of the high emphasis on interactivity.
I’ll add another wrinkle. In fancy-pants film theory we often talk about the way that a viewer is “sutured” or stitched into the mind-space of the film. Basically, when you’re watching a movie, you’ve got to take some kind of subject position — usually it’s that of the third-person who watches, taking turns identifying with one or another of the characters’ point-of-view. And traditional movie techniques are all about making that subject-position super comfortable. You’re sitting back, watching Bogart and Bergman and Dooley Wilson talk in Casablanca, one of them kind of at the center-left of the screen and one kind of at center-right, cutting back and forth, and you never stop to think, “hey! what’s going on! where the hell am I?” The movie’s doing its job, making all of this stuff transparent. While crazy art movies, like Pier Paolo Pasolini’s, flip the axis and do disjunctive montages, so you can’t get comfortable or find an easy space to identify with. And that’s the point.
Scott McCloud talks about something similar in comic books — we can identify with a character as an avatar if there’s just enough detail that he/she seems real-ish, but not so much that he/she seems like somebody else, which is weirdly uncanny. So the more precisely iconic a character is — whether Homer Simpson or Batman — the easier it is for us to say, “that could be me.”
Video games definitely work on both levels. The characters themselves have to be iconic - enough detail to distinguish them from being merely generic, not so much that we reject the ID altogether. But what really hooks us in is the gameplay, and in order for the gameplay to feel right, it, too, has to feel iconic — simple enough in its execution to be manipulable and masterable, complex enough in its representation to “feel” real. This is the difference between trying to make the character on the screen — what my mom would call “the guy” — do different things, and feeling as if you yourself were doing them. Where you can call the character “I,” or intermediately, “my guy.”
I feel like I’m venturing too far afield. Suffice it to say, this reality/representation/narrative/interaction stuff is surprisingly profound once you start to get into it. And the fact that most of it is, for us, unconscious, helps to show both how good games tap into our brain’s capacity for this kind of agent-mediated thinking and how thoroughly acculturated most of us are to the representational/interactive grammar of video games. Just like with films, when it’s working really well, we don’t even notice it any more.