Tuesday 21 February 2012

It's the ludonarrative, stupid

I read Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter and Pippin Barr’s How to Play a Video Game in one long binge over Waitangi weekend. I realised at the end of the weekend that I had read the books in what would seem to be the wrong order - Bissell’s longer memoir first, Barr’s slim primer second - but I think this accident brought more depth to both.

Let’s start with autobiography. Barr uses autobiography as a framing device, taking us through his near life-long history of gaming, from playing Aztec as a four-year-old on the family’s new Apple IIe to his job now in Copenhagen, 28 years later, teaching video game design in a university. The journey wends past games arcades, rented Sega Mega Drives, teaching his uncle to play Red Dead Redemption, and Barr’s moment of internet splendour last year, when his own game The Artist is Present broke out of the niche of indie game forums and hit the online pages of publications as diverse as HuffPo and The Arts Newspaper.

Barr tells us the personal narrative of his history with his subject matter; this is a hallmark of Awa Press’s Ginger Series, of which How to Play a Video Game is the 12th release. Ginger Series authors give us an entry into a world they enjoy, even adore, through sharing the story of their own romantic relationship with it. Bissell takes this autobiographical approach much further. His book criss-crosses between reportage, travelogue, love letter, and excoriating self confession, especially when it comes to his several years spent not writing (he was the author of several books of fiction and a regular columnist for a number of magazines), playing games in marathon-like sessions, and throwing cocaine up his nose:
Soon I was sleeping in my clothes. Soon my hair was stiff and fragrantly unclean. Soon I was doing lines before my Estonian class, staying up for days, curating prodigious nose bleeds and spontaneously vomiting from exhaustion. Soon my pillowcases bore rusty coins of nasal drippage. Soon the only thing I could smell was something like the inside of an empty bottle of prescription medicine. Soon my biweekly phone call to my cocaine dealer was a weekly phone call. Soon I was walking into the night, handing hundreds of dollars in cash to a Russian man whose name I did not even know, waiting in alleys for him to come back – which he always did, though I never fully expected him to – and retreating home, to my Xbox, to GTA IV, to the electrifying solitude of my mind at play in an anarchic digital world.
Video games and cocaine feed on my impulsiveness, reinforce my love of solitude and make me feel good and bad in equal measure. The crucial difference is that I believe in what video games want to give me, while the bequest of cocaine is one I loathe. I do know that video games have enriched my life. Of that I have no doubt. They have also done damage to my life. Of that I have no doubt. I let this happen, of course; I even helped the process along. As for cocaine, it has been a long time since I last did it, but not as long as I would like.
So Barr’s story is a beginner’s guide that shares his own beginnings; Bissell’s a classic bildungsroman. Both writers verge into being obsessive players, regularly logging 80+ hours on a game (‘I can think of only one other personal activity I would be less eager to see audited in this way’, writes Bissell, ‘and it, too, is a single-player experience’). Bissell seems more performance and personality focused (his interviews with figures in the game design world are a strength of the book that prevent it from becoming me-me-me-ish), Barr somewhat more philosophical and reflective.

There are many points where I could do a compare and contrast, or just write a list of 200 Things I Learned Reading These Books (I need to declare at this point that I am a hopeless non-gamer, and that everything here was new to me, from William Higinbotham, to the use of ‘training sessions’ at the start of a game to teach you the controls, to the beauty of Flower). But the thing that really interested me, and the thing that I really want to explore here, was each writers’ underlying concern in their book.

For Bissell, the writer, this concern is storytelling, and how video games are still weighted towards game play rather than narrative:
This is one of the most suspect things about the game form. … A game with an involving story and poor gameplay cannot be considered a successful game, whereas a game with superb gameplay and a laughable story can see its spine bend from the weight of many accolades—and those who praise the latter game will not be wrong.
Early in the book, Bissell reflects on a piece of juvenilia, an essay for an anthology of “young writing”, where he wrote about ‘video games and whether they were a distraction from the calling of literature’. Then he questioned where video games land on ‘art’s fairly forgiving sliding scale’; today, he says, with video games the youngest and increasingly dominant form of popular art, such questions are redundant.

However, he continues, in that essay he was trying to talk about the intelligence that distinguishes art works from everything else. Intelligence, he says, can be expressed in all sorts of way; morally, formally, technically, stylistically, thematically, emotionally. Masterpieces - the things we identify as wiping the table with their intelligence - are comprehensively intelligent; intelligent in all sorts of ways. And they are generally the result of one unified vision, one single game. Video games, he notes, are usually the products of many minds: many games ‘have more formal and stylistic intelligence than they know what to do with and not even trace amounts of thematic, emotional or moral intelligence.’

Can game play and narrative ever be happily melded? Bissell is unsure:
A noisy group of video-game critics and theoreticians laments the rise of story in games. Games, in one version of this view, are best exemplified as total play, wherein the player is an immaterial demiurge and the only ‘narrative’ is what anecdotally generated during play. (Tetris would be the best example of this sort of game.) My suspicion is that this lament comes less from frustration with story qua story than it does from the narrative butterfingers on outstanding display in the vast majority of contemporary video games. I share that frustration. I also love being the agent of chaos in the video game world. What I want from games - a control as certain and seamless as the means by which I am being controlled - may be impossible, and I am back to where I began.
Bissell also observes that video games are different from other art forms in one very exact way: the player is just that - not a viewer or reader, but an active, decision-making participant. Bissell casts around extensively on the potential conflict between narrative and gameplay and, by extension, between the player’s agency and surrender. ‘You get controlled and are controlled’, he notes: the balance is more equal than most forms of art, but the fact that you get to shape the story to any extent reminds you that ‘a presiding intelligence exists within the game along with you, and it is this sensation that invites the otherwise unworkable comparisons between games and other forms of art.’

For Barr, this is less a conundrum than a fruitful tension. His special interest - as a gamer, an academic, and increasingly the game creator - it is playing against the grain, exploring what the world offers, how far you can probe it. What happens if you walk away from your mission and instead decide to drive your car into a lake or watch a rabbit hop around your horse?

In one chapter, Barr describes going off the rails in Grand Theft Auto IV:
When the game demands you ‘drive to the second diamond pickup’, go rogue: veer the truck away from this destination and start calling the shots yourself. Drive for a while, and listen to a jazz station on the radio as you search for something new to do.

Eventually you find yourself in the game’s version of Central Park. You carefully drive the lage garbage truck down leafy pathways, swerving to avoid pedestrians. Looking for an amusing diversion, you drive into a lake and somehow manage to keep going with half the vehicle submerged. The music becomes muted by the water, lending a muffled soundtrack to the already strange scene. You drive like this for a while, tooting the horn at people walking next to the water. They stop and star at the incongruous sight of a garbage truck driving in a lake in Central Park.
I’m pretty underwater jazz wasn’t what the morality police were thinking of when they condemned Grand Theft Auto IV in one of those regular Think of the Children pieces about video games. And a following paragraph gives an interesting spin on Bissell’s worries about control:
So, there are two very different ways to approach a video game. You can perform - focusing on trying to do the right thing, succeeding, and ultimately winning on the game’s terms. Or you can play - doing what you want to do, not what you ‘should’ do. The idea that we can decide how we feel like relating to a video game is important, even revolutionary. It means we are playing the game, not the other way around.
Gaming the game doesn’t necessarily mean gaming the game’s maker, however. Instead, it’s more like picking up the ball they’ve just tossed you:
... it’s not just that you can do these things, the game’s creator wants you to. Playing a game can be seen as a kind of conversation with its designer. Each time you try something … it’s like asking the designer a question: ‘What if I do this?”. Their answer comes in the way the game responds to your actions.
This was the point that really fired my imagination in the two books - and brought me circling back to the frustration Bissell feels. No matter how many diversions you take or daft things you attempt, you’re still playing inside a circumscribed world, one where every pixel is controlled by rules someone else put in place.

The one exception might be the kinds of game that Barr clearly loves: simulations like The Sims, and the collaborative world-building game MInecraft. It is the potential for collaborative play that really seems to thrill him:
A big part of the excitement of playing a game with someone else is sharing a world with them. Even the simple act of handing an object to a friend in Minecraft invests the experience with a strong sense that you’re both really there. Some of the most magical experiences I have had in a video game happened when a friend and I walked together through the world of Minecraft, commenting on each spectacular rock formation we saw, and decorating entire landscapes with torch patterns just so that we could stand together at a vantage point and admire the beauty of what we’d made.
But it’s not just the happy happy joy joy game worlds where this feeling is evoked:
Video games creators have lately been catching on to the idea that we might not always want to engage in mortal combat against our friends and families, but play together instead. Often this means teaming up to engage in mortal combat against others. In Left 4 Dead, a zombie-based game, four players join forces to try and survive in various zombie-infested locations. While battling zombies is entertaining on its own, having a friend rush to your side to dislodge a zombie and then give you medical aid can really get the adrenaline pumping …

… There are few gaming experiences more immediately stunning than seeing another person run past you in the same virtual world. The realisation that various moving figures around you are, in reality, all people who are playing the same game, following the same rules, and sharing many of the same objectives as you is a paradigm shift. [These virtual worlds] take on a greater significance because you are literally in it together.
With more space and a different remit, but to the same conclusion, Bissell also discusses Left 4 Dead. He recounts one game in which he had to choose between personal ‘safety’, and going back out to rescue his three teammates, against seemingly impossible odds:
At great personal risk, and out of real shame, I had rescued two of my three friends and in the process outfaced against all odds one of the best Left 4 Dead teams I had and have ever played against. …

The people I saved that night still talk about my heroic action - and yes, it was, it did feel, heroic - whenever we play together … All the emotions I felt during those few moments - fear, doubt, resolve, and finally courage - were as intensely vivid as any I have felt while reading a novel or watching a film or listening to a piece of music. For what more can one ask? What more could one want?
I want to bring in a quote now from a recent post on Barr’s blog. It was through Barr’s blog that I began to develop a curiosity about video games - their making, their playing, their legends, their philosophies. Barr’s blog is more sophisticated, more revealing, more humourous than his book - perhaps because it is written for that marvellous thing, the half-imagined, half-obscured audience of people who are just like the author.

In this post, Barr comes back to this point he and Bissell have been circling, this magical opportunity. Reviewing an article by another writer on the four types of video game tragedy, he concludes:
we could suggest that much of the tragic isn’t about making choices but rather about the inability to make them. Perhaps one of the challenges for tragedy in video games is to jettison the notion that the player should always be the explicit author of their circumstances but instead as merely one part in a larger world which is not always impressed or even affected by their actions.

Beyond this, however, I think it’s simply true that we, as players, need to get our shit together a bit and attempt to engage with the drama of the games we play. If it’s really true that we’re incapable of choosing a tragic ending, then to my mind that suggests a degree of apathy and weakness of spirit on our part and we ought to train ourselves to be stronger participants. It would help, of course, if games themselves respected us more in this same way, but it’s clearly a shared problem, not the pure responsibility of game makers.
My overall impressions? Barr’s book is (by design, I believe) more simplistic than his wonderful and self-effacing blog; I think he has a deeper and stranger book hovering in his near future. Bissell’s book is a little baggy-seated, and occasionally repetitive, but also very entertaining. But both have opened my eyes, not just to the rich, deep, wide, silly, expensive, violent, harrowing and pluripotent world of video games, but also to the conversations that go on within it.

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