Triple-A Aesthetics and the Politics of Appropriation
By Joel Jordon
The history of games is now the history of videogames, as in these inelegant, strange, and often even monstrous things that took shape over the past fifty years. The aesthetics of triple-A games were molded by corporations and material circumstances—limitations of technology, capital, and profitability. It doesn’t matter whether we now find the forms of triple-A games that arose acceptable or unacceptable, moral or immoral, appropriate and befitting to the ideal of what we imagine “games” to essentially be or not. The only thing that matters is that triple-A aesthetics now make up the history of the medium.
As Brendan Keogh wrote recently, “Much scholarly literature around videogames works to—either explicitly or implicitly—distill some pure essence of ‘play’ at the heart of videogames, as though we must shed the superfluous excesses lingering from previous media.” A “formalist” account of games that dismisses the forms of triple-A videogames as lacking this “pure essence,” by accusing them of not being based exclusively enough on systems or of incorporating too much from other media, such as film, ignores this history that has made games into something other than what they once were.
I want to suggest that prevailing cultures can be challenged by harnessing the recent history of triple-A games in order to salvage their forms. The aesthetics of triple-A games typically reproduce particular ideologies and represent the interests of a particular group of people (the class of producers who make the games), papering over representations of more marginalized groups. Because this funnels downward to the audiences who play these games, it can account in part for why the culture surrounding games can be so toxic. This underlines the importance of appropriating these aesthetics and applying them toward other ends, which may enable a radically subversive politics that can directly interface with dominant cultures and contexts.
Cutscenes and Culture
Triple-A aesthetics are rarely elegant. Compared with the aesthetics of “pure” games, triple-A aesthetics frequently make for inelegant assemblages, comprising disparate parts that don’t form a coherent whole. Keogh writes that “what is unique about videogames is not best understood as a purity of form but a bastardisation of forms.” But what is understood as “play” is almost always positioned as being opposed to narrative in order to privilege the former as constituting the actual “game.” The fundamental unit of narrative in the triple-A game is the cutscene, that little-respected, “noninteractive”1 piece of cinema that many argue has no place in games because games are not movies.
Metal Gear Solid, released in 1998, is a videogame in which hours of cutscenes and dialogue are interspersed among all the moments understood as “play.” The cutscenes already included over-the-top content and were of extreme length even then, which undoubtedly influenced a wide range of narrative-driven triple-A games, but only Metal Gear could eventually—in 2013, with Metal Gear Rising—come to parody the excesses it helped launch. In the fifteen years between these two games, Metal Gear has consistently engaged its audience directly, provoking reactions and responding to those reactions, most especially by establishing and then dashing expectations.
Metal Gear Solid 2 challenged the idea of what a sequel should be, even reaching outside the main text with trailers and demos that made it seem clear Solid Snake would be the sole protagonist again. You do play as him in the brief first act of the game, after which you are given control exclusively over Raiden, who, having trained by playing a “virtual reality” simulation of the events of the first game, represents the player. This offended the audience of Metal Gear fans, even though they were being told not to follow in the footsteps of a videogame character but to learn how to leave their own legacy.
Raiden’s lasting legacy is clear at least: his future developments as a character in the Metal Gear franchise show a product in conversation with its audience. In Metal Gear Solid 4, he was transformed completely into a cyborg ninja—what more archetypal videogame action hero could there be? This game aimed to please its fans by giving them everything they wanted, but begrudgingly: we can’t actually control Raiden while he’s cool, and this is rubbed in our faces during several split-screen scenes in which play and cutscene take place simultaneously. Near the end of the game, the player taps a button repeatedly to make Old Snake crawl through an oven while on the other side of the screen Raiden and others engage in the exciting action advancing the plot. The fans are only given what they want with hostility, in order to forward the pathetic dying out of Solid Snake and the Metal Gear series.
Raiden would still live on in Metal Gear Rising, which even seemed to concede finally by giving us control again over this character, now in the precise form of the action hero we wanted him to be. But cutscenes still persist, and they continue the work of disrupting the simple flow of play with a different kind of playfulness. Cutscenes occur at the expected intervals and proceed in familiar patterns, if you’ve played triple-A games before and especially if you’ve played a Metal Gear game before, but they are again pieces of dialogue in the prolonged conversation between these games and their audience.
A dialogue between player and game is ongoing in every moment of a game’s play, encapsulated in the loops of inputs and outputs, actions and feedback. The cutscene is a rhetorical move on the part of the game—speech that belongs mainly to it that is saying something to the player. “Noninteractivity” more generally always implies interactivity, contrasting with and heightening it. The relationship between less interactive and more interactive moments forms a protracted rhythm that can shape a game’s meaning in the long term.
There is also the quicktime event, which, mediating between cutscenes and play, receives possibly even more criticism than the cutscene. It appears to fulfill our every desire through unification, giving us, in Rising, for example, some control over Raiden as he wrestles with giant robots and jumps from one missile to another to take on helicopters, except control over extravagant actions like these, once confined to cutscenes, is of necessity limited and unsatisfying. In Metal Gear Solid 3, the player is implicated in the death of the protagonist’s mentor by being left in charge of pressing a button to finish her off, but there is no dissonance here between play and quicktime event: the player presses the square button on the PlayStation controller to shoot a gun in the same way that he or she has been doing throughout the game. Rising, because it is appropriating and exaggerating the forms of other triple-A action games in all their excess, constantly seeks out dissonance. In an inversion of the formula, the first boss of Rising is a Metal Gear, which Raiden runs along acrobatically in a cutscene and ultimately carves in half with his sword, a background of stardust announcing his emergence on the other end.
Why should any of this matter, though, especially in a year with a game like Gone Home, which, subverting another set of conventions, presents a different model of choice in games in order to tell a queer story that is highly political at the edges? This is a reasonable reaction, and it’s absolutely true that Gone Home is vital work that has already had a huge impact. But the adversarial response to Gone Home and similar games—the persistent clamoring that they are not games—contrasts (not unexpectedly) with the gamer response to Metal Gear.
I only present Metal Gear as an example of a game series close to traditional game culture and also in a sustained dialogue with it. Metal Gear has maintained this dialogue more often to make jokes and build up a monolith of self-references than to challenge and change its audience by conveying radical politics to it, which is probably to be expected of a media franchise with millions of dollars behind it. But it is through their status as products invested with enormous capital and their positions in networks of marketing, distribution, and consumption that these games are able to enjoy the relationship that they do with the game culture. Most indie developers don’t have anywhere near the same resources behind them, which makes going through the same networks and establishing the same positions impossible. The methods, however, remain open to being appropriated for other networks that now exist that are different from those Metal Gear proceeds through but nonetheless share similar features—they are still connected to the game culture, even if a smaller portion of it. Disrupting cycles of hype by not meeting an audience’s expectations is relevant and always will be as long as games are released into the present information-saturated capitalist economy. There continues to be the potential for direct impact using these methods. The final boss of Rising is a football-playing senator whose libertarian politics of violence are parodied and critiqued, but Raiden ultimately offers no alternative, ending their conversation with another cheesy action line. It is possible to go further by taking the methods and forms of Metal Gear—the triple-A aesthetics—and applying them to other ends.
Aesthetics through Time
To be absolutely clear, by triple-A aesthetics I don’t necessarily mean the photorealistic aesthetic of triple-A games. This can make up part of what is appropriated, but it’s often out of reach for individuals and small teams with limited resources and time. Other visual aesthetics can be employed: Sluggish Morrs uses a collage aesthetic, pulling from a variety of sources and directly engaging the visual history of games without getting mired in unfeasible attempts at photorealism.2
But triple-A aesthetics constitute all the forms and structures of triple-A games. These include, in addition to audiovisual representation, all the other building blocks of narrative—cutscenes, voice-overs, text, player choices—and how they are fitted together into larger patterns and experienced by the player in time. Some of the scenes in Sluggish Morrs allow or require the player to move a character, and others function as cutscenes. One scene passes into the next as in a tightly edited film, rhythms forming between each and a larger circular scheme of repetition emerging. Voice-overs, music, visuals, and (less frequently) text act as the units that form these structuring patterns that segment the game into time and determine how play is experienced on a moment-to-moment basis. Time distends from languorous repetition until it collapses in a scene that takes place after the protagonist dies, when voice-overs, music, and visuals are overlaid in a collage that overwhelms the senses and suggests the experience of all of time in every moment.
Time in triple-A games, following the traditional structure of narrative, usually emphasizes linear progression from beginning to end. Corrypt, although its visual aesthetic couldn’t be further from that of triple-A games, appropriates and then fully subverts the structure of linearity in triple-A games. Puzzles at the start have a limited number of solutions and are solved room by room; after obtaining magic, there is a huge gain in freedom, and the possible solutions branch out complexly over the entire space of the game.3 The narrative elements of the game early on are limited to low-resolution visual representations and small amounts of text that foreshadow the consequences of magic, but these combined with the experience of linear puzzle-solving work to produce a perfect simulacrum of the linear triple-A game before the fracturing occurs. Corrypt and Sluggish Morrs both capture some of the fundamental qualities of triple-A aesthetics before upending the genre completely.
These only describe particular approaches to appropriation, and others can be imagined. What, for example, might a new kind of procedural cutscenes look like? I don’t mean allowing the player to transform events of the plot through choice necessarily but even just allowing manipulation of “cinematic” forms: camera angles, how scenes are spliced together, audiovisual representation generally. If we stop seeing narrative as standing opposite play in an immovable binary, the variety of its forms disentangle and become visible; it becomes possible to see how these are just more elements that make up videogames, equal to play and everything else. This can make it easier to more closely integrate all the various aesthetics we end up with, although coherence doesn’t have to be the goal. New fractures and discontinuities in the assemblage may even be more interesting and more subversive.
If art is concerned with the context in which it is produced and consumed—and it must be if it is to be political—then it is worthwhile to appropriate and subvert the history of the medium. Ian Bogost writes that arguing against new developments from the perspective that they are aberrant relative to what came before is not only fallacious but also outright harmful to creativity and society as a whole. He invokes this argument in order to challenge the formalist view—grounded in an appeal to the long history of “pure,” pre-electronic games—that games should be multiplayer and founded on systems. Instead he positions some examples of what I’ve called triple-A aesthetics as simply new developments, not as forms that fail to convey the true essence of games. But taken generally, this is also an argument for being open to whatever new forms (or new combinations of old forms) appear in the future. Triple-A aesthetics make up part of the recent and present history of games, and their appropriation would be a highly contingent, practical, political move. These aesthetics can be assumed to be understood by a particular audience, and by creating work that is at once familiar and provocative to this audience (and securing positions from which to present this work to them), it may be possible to have a direct impact on the culture. As this became less useful in the future, new aesthetics would be needed. Games and culture are constantly in flux, changing according to each other, and I suggest this only as one possible direction for the moment.
1 It isn’t actually accurate to contrast cutscenes—or the whole of film and literature—with games by calling the former “noninteractive.” As Keogh writes, “every medium demands an active bodily engagement from the audience,” and the player is always reacting, even if primarily in his or her mind.
2 This game’s counterpart, Sluggish Morrs: A Delicate Time in History, inserts an uncanny photorealism by using photographs for characters’ portraits.
Disclaimer: I’m worried the above manifesto-like will come off somewhat as a collection of disparate ideas masquerading as a single coherent one. I wrote it partly to help organize my thoughts for an approach I want to try taking for a new game I make, and I’m unsure about its usefulness to others.