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Continuity of Space and Time in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

March 2, 2016

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is as committed to the continuity of a linear experience of space and time as Half-Life or Portal, even though you can see the future at save points, are shown elaborate cinematic fly-throughs of environments when you enter them, and can rewind time. That’s not only because all of these events occur predictably and repetitively (at save points, entryways, mistakes) but also because they ultimately revolve around the moment-to-moment flow of the platforming: you are rewarded for having paid attention to them when you return to platforming, since they give you hints as to how it is supposed to happen (or in the case of rewinding time, how it is not supposed to happen). In the context of the narrative, as the prince’s narration often reminds you, everything you are doing has already happened, which situates history and storytelling as deterministic. But because the feeling is of being constantly pulled back to the present rather than the past, play is experienced as consciousness that is continuous and lived.

Freedom/Determinism and the Plot Twist Trope

February 20, 2016

Most modern mainstream videogames are about escapism. You feel as if you have enormous freedom, the challenges are easily completed and the rewards great, and the world revolves around you, the player. Alternatively, the game is very difficult, and it is a struggle but still you attain mastery, which is equally or even more satisfying to your ego. This is superficial freedom, both lacking an analogue in the real world and not even true in the context of these games, which are after all hard-coded, designed objects.

The illusion of agency that is created for open-world games is obvious (and these have, among AAA games, unsurprisingly displaced linear narrative games in the last decade or so), but linear narrative games have also always focused on generating this illusion. Even Portal, among the most coherent of linear narrative games—a game whose story seems to have been designed around the inherent limitations of its form (a linear puzzle game)—turns out to be a (literal) escapist fantasy. It’s more believable than many others because it’s justified by the narrative, but the escape of the second half is just as linear and constructed as the first half in spite of what the narrative may pretend and thus fantasy. It mirrors the usual structure of linear narrative games where the player is weak at the start but grows in power by obtaining upgrades and getting better at the game over time.

Some linear games invert this structure and justify the combination of linearity and the illusion of free choice using a common trope of a “clever” plot twist that is placed at the very end (Bioshock, Half-Life 2, the Metal Gear Solid series, even Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, among many others). The player is asked to suspend their disbelief about the game’s fundamental linearity throughout in order to experience a power fantasy (usually with some foreshadowing that it’s all false) before the rug is pulled out from underneath them—showing, on a plot level, that they’ve been manipulated into doing everything they thought they were doing, but also, on a meta level, de-suspending their disbelief by saying that this game was an artificial construction (in which case Andrew Ryan, the G-Man, the Patriots, etc. are stand-ins for the game designer).

What makes the twist seem fatuous is that the power fantasy remains dominant until the very end, which makes you wonder why you needed to play all of that first just to get the “real” point. But this is also a somewhat uncharitable characterization in some cases: Metal Gear Solid, for example, has constant points of tension between choice and determinism throughout. What is the purpose of all those cutscenes other than to constantly interrupt the player’s fantasy of playing out the role of an action hero and show that they are not the one who is really in control here?

In Emily Short’s response to a common theme of the talks at PRACTICE 2015, she asked how the player could be made to experience something closer to the real experience of a participant in democracy—not determinism (because people usually don’t have no agency) or power fantasy but minimal agency:

So I’ve realized from this discussion that there’s another kind of player agency experience that I also want to explore. […] Specifically: the situation where you have limited but not zero power.

This is, I think, the reality of democracy. I am morally responsible for the actions of my government and for the oppressive social systems I belong to. I did not design them, but I have not dismantled them. It is, of course, impossible that I could dismantle them singlehandedly. In fact, it’s unlikely that I will ever make any visible difference. To the extent that that there are obviously effective ways for one person to change a large system, most involve extremely violent or disruptive actions that would be a net negative. Nonetheless, the difficulty of making a difference does not remove the responsibility to try to improve both the immediate situation of the marginalized and the system itself.

Corrypt, in my mind, conveys an experience truer to this reality than many others: it grants you freedom only to show its limits in a world that is ultimately determined by its game designer and the code underlying it. The experience is of a more sustained, more complicated, more honest mediation of freedom and determinism than that provided by the plot twist trope. VESPER.5, another game by Michael Brough, could be described as being about coping with what you don’t have control over by bringing a meditative ritual to it.

In her essay on The Witness (only the most recent game to use the plot twist trope), Liz Ryerson writes about Corrypt and Starseed Pilgrim, “The tragedy is that these two games, and others like them, feel more self-contained and well-realized than many of the more widely celebrated games in the culture. They hint at the computer as a strange, distinct new organism — not something that should or really can be tamed.” Computer programs are by nature determinate universes: their possibilities have already been spelled out by the code that is there. But it’s only when you are confronted with this fact, not handed the illusion of escape, that you start to see, in the pressure points in the space between you and the game—while writing poems in Kentucky Route Zero maybe, choosing among only a few choices but feeling each reverberate in your head in infinite ways—any of the real possibilities that exist outside these universes.

The Beginner’s Guide controversy and the nature of Truth in narratives

February 20, 2016

I refuse to believe that the only solution to “death of the author” is birth of *all* interpretations – at least, it seems wild to admit interpretations that extend outside one’s mind to invent things about material reality itself. Isn’t this one of the reasons conspiracy theories are ridiculous? “More valid” interpretations draw from culture, history, *context* – it’s just that we don’t admit the “master” interpretations of the past (frequently based on a reading of the author’s biography, and coming only from a privileged class) anymore

Is this a consequence of expecting the Truth from our fictional works? It is occurring during the act of interpretation, right? So it’s readers bringing to bear a way of understanding from the culture they’re in – a lack of comprehension of abstract narrative devices, an expectation of the real thing, straight-up – which comes from being immersed in fictions that suggest they *are* the real thing: tv (especially “reality”), movies, photography, – and also from living in a reality that itself contains so many fictions (simulacra) – there’s so little anymore to grasp that is definitively real, so people invent their reality, naturally. It’s a dearth of truth producing tons of false ideological truths.

From the perspective of The Beginner’s Guide: yes, of course this and similar pieces of media that present themselves as ambiguously truthful are playing with the culture’s current confusion about truth. But this is *clever*, this is where people should bring their understanding of irony to bear. And IF it is based on real events, it is still so much mediated as a work of art that reading any real-world events into it that are of ethical relevance (like that the content is really stolen) is foolish. And understanding this doesn’t even take an understanding of this particular author’s intent – it’s just how all creation happens! This, in fact, is where death of the author *should* come in – the context of the author possibly basing this story on reality lends itself to misinterpretations. Forget this – i.e. kill the author – and you can minimally understand it as a work of fiction, *as it truly is*. Interpretations from there may be multiple and varied and you’ll have the issues that you get with opening things up by killing the author, but at least we have a common perception of the reality of the work that is not patently wrong. Keep an understanding of it as fiction and then interpret based on the real context of the culture it’s produced in (one where truth is muddled), *not* the invented context of the author’s life, and we can all come to a better critical community – diverse as well as productive of valuable meaning.

(some of these thoughts inspired by