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Table of Contents 2018 vol.3 no.1

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2018, vol.3, no. 1

Table of Contents  2018 vol.3 no.1

Film and Media: Through and Beyond the Senses

edited by Małgorzata Radkiewicz, Marta Stańczyk (Jagiellonian University)

 

Fotografują się w atelier. Reżimy ciała w radzieckiej fotografii studyjnej [Polish]

Oksana Gawriszyna

Oko artysty. Fenomenologia zmysłów w filmie Młyn i krzyż Lecha Majewskiego [Polish]

Iwona Grodź

The body of the viewer and immersive audio-visual art. The somatic character of new Japanese experimental film

Agnieszka Kiejziewicz

Historical insight into The Danube Exodus cinematic installation by Péter Forgács

Kamil Lipiński

Boundaries are (but) a blur: Computer-generated imagery and the formation of seamless filmic space

Maciej Stasiowski

Prosthetic Memory and the New Civil Rights Cinema of the 21st Century

Patrycja Włodek

Tactile epistemology: sensoria and the postcolonial

Marta Stańczyk

 

Varia

Prayer Wheels for the Other: Haunted by the Images: the film works of Tian Zhuangzhuang book review

Maciej Stasiowski

Film and Media: Through and Beyond the Senses – Editorial

Małgorzata Radkiewicz, Marta Stańczyk

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2018, vol.3, no. 1, pp. 1.

 

Małgorzata Radkiewicz

Jagiellonian University

 

Marta Stańczyk

Jagiellonian University

 

 

 

Film and Media: Through and Beyond the Senses

 

The annual NECS conference that took place in June 2017 addressed the topic: Sensibility and the Senses. Media, Bodies, Practices. The program included diverse perspectives and subjects of research, showing different attitudes and exploring various fields of studies. Many of them still need to be explored and examined in detail, which poses a huge challenge for researchers dealing with film and various media.

Both theory and practice of film and media deal with such issues as perception, interaction, and involvement through human body and senses. Contemporary theory has turned toward embodiment as a major “figure of thought” and as the main mode of cognition. However, approaching visual culture and its various devices (analogue, electronic, digital ones) only through senses may not be sufficient in the era of post-humanity and dynamic technological development. Moreover, hybridization and specialization of media bring up questions and challenges that make us go beyond human senses and their limitations.

Preparing the following issue of “TransMissions”, we combined paper that examine various theoretical approaches to sensual perception and sensory experience of film, photography and media. All authors tried to explore either new possibilities of creation and usage of film and media or of analysis and interpretations, in terms of phenomenology, affects, prosthetic memory etc. Each paper, in different ways, shows that the new phenomena of media communication must be followed by both analytical and critical theoretical reflections that will address complex issues of relations between media and (non)human sensual organs.

 

 

Fotografują się w atelier. Reżimy ciała w radzieckiej fotografii studyjnej [Polish]

Oksana Gawriszyna

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        TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2018, vol.3, no. 1, pp.2-12.

Oksana Gawriszyna

Rosyjski Państwowy Uniwersytet Humanistyczny w Moskwie

 

 

Fotografują się w atelier. Reżimy ciała w radzieckiej fotografii studyjnej[1]

Streszczenie

Na przykładzie fotografii studyjnej artykuł przedstawia transformację praktyk kulturowych w Rosji w pierwszej połowie XX wieku. Jakkolwiek scenografia i ustawienie postaci na zdjęciach studyjnych są zainspirowane doświadczeniami „kultywowanych” ciał przedstawicieli klas uprzywilejowanych, to na początku XX wieku ten rodzaj fotografii staje się powszechnie dostępny. W rezultacie zdjęcia z tego okresu odzwierciedlają obrazy ciał „hybrydowych”, w których doświadczenie cielesne modeli łączy się z normami fotografii studyjnej. W przypadku sowieckiej fotografii studyjnej ten typ obrazów wpisuje sie w dynamikę procesów modernizacyjnych. Jednocześnie analiza zdjęć z lat pięćdziesiątych wskazuje na ugruntowanie się porządku „hybrydowego”, który jednak ujawnia rozdźwięk między symbolicznym porządkiem kultury sowieckiej a codziennym doświadczeniem cielesnym.

The article looks at the cultural transformation in Russia in the first half of the 20th century as manifested in studio photographs. Although the setting and posture in studio photography were taken from ‘cultivated’ bodies of privileged social groups, by the early 20th century it was readily available for everyone. As the result we see a variety of hybrid bodies, combining familiar bodily practices of models with prescriptive norms of the studio. These images can be read within the conceptual framework of modernization. Soviet studio photographs continue along this line. However, increasingly by the 1950s one registers hybridity of a different sort, which signals a rupture between a symbolic order of Soviet culture and everyday experience.

 

Słowa kluczowe: sowiecka fotografia studyjna, ciało, norma kulturowa, hybrydyzacja

 

Kiedy zostaje na ciebie nakierowany obiektyw, plecy same się prostują.

Z przypadkiem podsłuchanej rozmowy

Sztuki wizualne, w tym również fotografia, przedstawiają epokę sowiecką w sposób niepozostawiający wątpliwości. Rozpoznajemy ją w pewnych wzorach, zaczerpniętych z codzienności detalach, sposobach fotografowania. Materiał, na który chciałabym zwrócić uwagę, znajduje się na peryferiach sowieckiej kultury wizualnej. Jednak właśnie owa peryferyjna pozycja pozwala postawić pytania o reżimy ciała w kulturze radzieckiej, które na podstawie innych, popularniejszych źródeł nie dają się tak jednoznacznie sformułować.

Na tle już istniejących znaczeń i praktyk kulturowych pojawiają się te, które rozpoznajemy jako sowieckie, sądząc, iż za tym określeniem kryje się pewna treść ideologiczna lub odwołanie do doświadczenia kolektywnego, wychodzącego poza ramy ideologii. Fotografia to jedna z tych sfer, w których prowadzone są aktywne poszukiwania nowych języków wizualnych,[2] przy jednoczesnym istnieniu starszych konwencji. Styl fotografii studyjnej okazuje się konstrukcją wyjątkowo stabilną. Na zdjęciach z lat trzydziestych wciąż pojawiają się rekwizyty i tła z czasów przedrewolucyjnych (w latach dwudziestych takie ujęcia były jeszcze bardziej rozpowszechnione). Wpływ fotografii studyjnej widoczny jest również w metodach pracy profesjonalistów wykonujących zdjęcia indywidualne i grupowe w scenerii zakładów pracy i instytucji edukacyjnych. Czy jest to cecha specyficzna dla fotografii radzieckiej? Co kryje się za tymi praktykami?

Fotografię studyjną wyróżnia ścisła konwencja, na którą składają się: określony zestaw póz, sztuczne oświetlenie, namalowane tło, rekwizyty. Nie nalezy jednak mówić o tym typie fotografii jako bardziej inscenizowanym lub archaicznym w porównaniu z innymi jej rodzajami, lecz przeciwnie – podkreślać, iż umowność, szczególnie widoczna w fotografii studyjnej, jest właściwa dla natury całego medium. „Realność”, „prawdziwość” fotografii to cechy charakteryzujące nie obraz, a mechanizmy percepcji. Czynniki, które sprawiają, że odbieramy zdjęcie w określony sposób i nadajemy mu znaczenie, są liczne, płynne i należą do różnych porządków, na przykład technicznego, estetycznego czy władzy. Badaczowi fotografii zależy natomiast na pokazaniu specyficznego charakteru umowności wizerunku na konkretnych przypadkach.

Cechy obrazu, wspólne dla wszystkich rodzajów omawianej sztuki, związane są z pojmowaniem jej jako praktyki wizualnej społeczeństwa nowoczesnego – nowego antropologicznego porządku miejskiej „współczesności”.[3] W swojej pracy na temat dziewiętnastowiecznych sposobów postrzegania Jonathan Crary dowodzi, że wynalezienie fotografii było jednym z elementów zasadniczej zmiany praktyk wizualnych, jaka miała miejsce w latach 1820–1830. Mimo iż w teoriach optycznych tego czasu widzenie indywidualne staje się przedmiotem bacznej uwagi, opisywane ono jest jednak w kategoriach, które obejmują pomiar i porównanie, dlatego też podmioty spojrzenia stają się wzajemnie zastępowalne, a widzenie podlega uniwersalizacji.[4] Masowe powielanie obrazów fotograficznych sprawiło, że większość populacji świata zachodniego stało się nosicielami tego nowego, zuniwersalizowanego spojrzenia. To właśnie do rejestrowanych na kliszy obrazów odnoszą się pojęcia „świadectwa” oraz „dokumentu”. Nieprzypadkowo nowe medium szybko staje się narzędziem różnorodnej państwowej kontroli nad ciałami – policyjnej, psychiatrycznej czy medycznej – gdyż związek fotografii z różnorodnymi strategiami władzy jest o wiele ściślejszy, niż jesteśmy przyzwyczajeni myśleć. Jak zauważa John Tagg: „rzeczywistym jest nie tylko przedmiot fizyczny, ale także system dyskursywny, w którym obraz gra określoną rolę”.[5]

Fotografia studyjna całkowicie wpisuje się w ów reżim wizualny współczesności. Stwarza ona możliwość posiadania i reprodukcji własnej podobizny przez osoby dotychczas tej możliwości pozbawione. Jednak już sposób prezentacji postaci w fotografii studyjnej jest dość tradycyjny. Wzorcem staje się ciało „arystokratyczne”.

W XIX wieku tak same ciała, jak wyobrażenia o nich ulegają zasadniczej transformacji, który to proces wpisuje się w powstanie reżimu „współczesności”. Stulecie to cechuje ustanowienie podstawowym modelem ciała „uniwersalnego”. Nowej kategorii nie należy rozumieć jako przydatność do różnorodnych zadań – chociaż to okaże się jednym ze skutków – lecz jako wartość możliwą do przypisania wszystkim ludziom. Przyjmuje się bowiem, że każde ciało może zostać scharakteryzowane za pomocą tych samych, uniwersalnych kategorii, co na przykład ma miejsce w rozwijającej się wówczas intensywnie medycynie. Należy zaznaczyć, że pojęcie uniwersalności nie zakłada identyczności ciał, jednak różnice nabierają znaczenia dopiero wewnątrz określonego systemu wartości nakładanego na ogół. W powyższym schemacie ciału uniwersalnemu przeciwstawione zostaje to wyróżniające się, dla którego odrębność stanowi zasadniczy warunek istnienia. W efekcie na samym ciele właśnie zostają zapisane różnice, przede wszystkim socjalne. Stanowe, „arystokratyczne” ciało należy do wyróżniających się. Właśnie ten typ poddał analizie Norbert Elias w pracach poświęconych rycerstwu i arystokracji dworskiej w Europie.[6] Badacz opisał stopniowy proces postępującej „kultywacji” ciał przedstawicieli klas uprzywilejowanych, zaczynając od ograniczenia w publicznych sytuacjach różnorakich form wydalania substancji biologicznych jak siąkanie czy spluwanie, a kończąc na wprowadzeniu skomplikowanych norm zachowania.

Ciało arystokratyczne staje się synonimem wyrafinowania, poddawane zostaje długotrwałym i uporządkowanym praktykom dyscyplinującym – nauka norm właściwego zachowania w różorodnych sytuacjach jak na przykład taniec, fechtunek czy jazda konna – kształtującym w efekcie całościowy kod. Co szczególnie ważne w kontekście naszych rozważań, jest to jedyny rozwinięty kod cielesny rozpoznawany przez inne grupy społeczne i służący dla nich za punkt odniesienia. Z tego punktu widzenia nie można mówić o różnych kodach cielesnych.. Kulturę cielesną ma tylko jedna grupa, inne są jej pozbawione – podobnie jak za towarzystwo uważa się dobre towarzystwo, a za człowieka uznaje się osobę przyzwoicie ubraną i dobrze wychowaną. Dlatego też nie przez przypadek wzorcem dla fotografii studyjnej stało się ciało arystokratyczne. Idea ciała uniwersalnego nie tylko zastępuje ideę ciała wyróżniającego się, lecz również to wyróżniające się zostaje włączone do grona wzorców uniwersalnych.

Idea ciała uniwersalnego realizuje się także na innych niż fotografia obszarach. Nauki przyrodnicze i społeczne były podstawowym źródłem nowej wiedzy o ludzkim organizmie, popularyzowanej przez higienistów. Organizowali oni wykłady, a także publikowali w prasie artykuły propagujące nowe zasady pielęgnacji i hartowania oraz ćwiczenia gimnastyczne.[7] Równolegle popularnością cieszyły się „podręczniki dobrych manier”, lansujące wśród szerokiego kręgu odbiorców praktyki cielesne kultury szlacheckiej.[8] W rezultacie wzorce tak na poziomie dyskursów, jak i konkretnych praktyk ulegały krzyżowaniu i hybrydyzacji. Na przykład stosowany wobec ciał „arystokratycznych” wymóg utrzymywania właściwej postawy nie był związany z ideą zdrowia i wpływu pozycji kręgosłupa na funkcjonowanie organów wewnętrznych. Określenia „postawa prawidłowa” albo „postawa naturalna” nie miały praktycznie sensu w kulturze arystokratycznej. Istotne jest jednak, że oba dyskursy – dotyczący dobrych manier i zdrowia – zorientowane były na normę, a postawa ciała w jednym i drugim najczęściej określana była przez wskazanie wad. Podobnie wysoki poziom regulacji charakteryzuje dyskurs moralny, równie rozpowszechniony w XIX wieku, który zaczyna utożsamiać ze stanem moralności postawę. Jej wady u człowieka zaczynają być interpretowane jako świadectwo zepsucia moralnego. Schemat ten okaże się aktualny również w sowieckich normatywnych wyobrażeniach o ciele. Opieranie się o ściany, rozwalanie się na krześle czy trzymanie rąk w kieszeniach uważano za zachowanie niepożądane jeszcze w latach osiemdziesiątych.[9]

Podobne efekty praktyk hybrydowych można zaobserwować również w fotografii studyjnej. W tym wypadku nie można mówić jednak o mieszaniu się wzorców, lecz o skomplikowanym procesie włączania do normy, swoistej „przymiarki” odrębnej kultury cielesnej.

Poza. Fotografia studyjna wzoruje się na portrecie malarskim, stąd podobnie jak on odnosi swoje kody do norm ciała arystokratycznego. Najbardziej charakterystyczną oznaką tego mechanizmu jest postawa, którą winny utrzymywać postaci. Decyduje tu jednak już nie norma arystokratycznego kodu cielesnego, lecz reżim sprowadzający wszystkie ciała do jednego wzorca. Fakt, że staje się nim ciało arystokratyczne – jak już wskazywałam – nie jest przypadkowy, ale też nie wydaje się kluczowy. Ciało arystokratyczne staje się bowiem jednym z możliwych sposobów uniwersalnego kształtowania. Znaczenie paradygmatu ciała wyrafinowanego nie zatraca się całkowicie, stale towarzyszy mu natomiast kontrola, potrzeba doprowadzenia ciała do normy – jeżeli fotografia przedstawia kilka osób, ich rozmieszczenie jest bardzo charakterystyczne: para czy też grupa tworzy zazwyczaj dwupoziomową kompozycję. Postaci rzadko się dotykają, a jeżeli ma to miejsce, najczęściej oznacza pokrewieństwo. Na portretach indywidualnych równie często spotyka się pozycję siedzącą, jak stojącą, ale w większości przypadków obecny jest element służący za podparcie dla ciała. Ludzie występują w swoim najlepszych, odświętnych ubraniach. Czasem, aby osiągnąć pożądany efekt, używane są studyjne rekwizyty. Dla wielu osób fotografowanie się w studiach w drugiej połowie XIX i na początku XX wieku jest doświadczeniem „cudzego” ciała.[10]

Spojrzenie. Oglądając ówczesne zdjęcia studyjne współcześni widzowie często zwracają uwagę na wyraz twarzy: pełen napięcia, niekiedy prawie szalony, zwłaszcza dzieci mają nierzadko półotwarte usta. Błędem byłoby jednak na tej podstawie wnioskować o stanie psychicznym osoby na zdjęciu. Owego szcczególnego wyrazu nie należy tłumaczyć też niezwykłością sytuacji czy też długim czasem naświetlania. W fotografii studyjnej ciało traktowane jest integralnie,[11] twarzy nie podkreśla się nadmiernie i – w odróżnieniu od pozy – nie pracuje się z nią. Istotne jest kanoniczne ustawienie spojrzenia do kamery, które nie przewiduje jednak spotkania wzroku portretowanego i widza. Warto przy okazji dodać, że z twarzą i spojrzeniem od początku pracuje fotografia artystyczna – stosując jednorodne tło, modelowanie twarzy światłocieniem, skierowany poza kadr wzrok – a następnie kino. Obecność tych „dziwnych” wyrazów twarzy w fotografii studyjnej wskazuje na mieszanie się praktyk cielesnych. Człowiek o „arystokratycznym” ciele powinien bowiem umieć kontrolować nie tylko postawę, ale i wyraz twarzy i być przyzwyczajony do stanowienia obiektu spojrzenia.[12]

Tło. Horyzont, meble i rekwizyty – kapelusze, cylindry, laski, czasami także płaszcze, książki czy bukieciki kwiatów – odgrywają ważną rolę w fotografii studyjnej. Co więcej, ciało o doskonałych manierach nabiera pełni znaczenia tylko w odpowiedniej scenografii. Jest ona umowna, odsyła nie tyle do rzeczywistości, co do symbolicznego języka portretu. Z czasem tworzące ją przedmioty stają się coraz bardziej eklektyczne. Malowana tapeta, pełniąca funkcję tła, wiąże się z praktyką wypoczynku na łonie przyrody oraz podróżowania, które przez długi czas pozostawało przywilejem nielicznych. Dlatego też za tło najczęściej służą motywy egzotyczne: tropikalny las, stylizowane na antyczne ruiny, szczyty górskie itd. (zdarza się także wykorzystywanie motywów lokalnych). Zdumiewa stałość skojarzeń łączących fotografię z przyrodą – tradycja fotografowania się z kwiatami (bukiety w wazonach czy kwiaty w doniczkach) na tle tropikalnych lub kwitnących krzewów i drzew przetrwała niemal do naszych czasów.

Należy jednak podkreślić, że właściwy fotografii studyjnej reżim cielesny nie tylko utrwala się na światłoczułej błonie fotograficznej, ale także odciska się w ciałach. O ile początkowo pozy ustawia fotograf, o tyle stopniowo ludzie zaczynają odtwarzać postawę i kontekst z sytuacji fotografowania poza studiem.[13]

Do bardziej szczegółowej analizy wybrałam kilka przykładów sowieckiej fotografii studyjnej. W pewnym sensie można uznać je za reprezentacyjne, a precyzyjniej mówiąc należą one do jednego gatunku, jednak każdy przedstawia określony punkt na osi hybrydowych praktyk cielesnych. Równie ważne jest to, co łączy te ujęcia (należy zauważyć, że samo wykonanie zdjęcia w studiu nie jest niezbędnym warunkiem do zaklasyfikowania go jako fotografii studyjnej), jak i to, co czyni je wyjątkowymi (znaczącym może okazać się każdy szczegół).

Wybór fotografii studyjnej jako obiektu analizy w kontekście kultury ciała wydaje się trafny w szczególności dlatego, że pozwala sproblematyzować granicę między „sowieckim” i „przedsowieckim” okresami. Charakterystyczna jest swoista dziedziczność w procesach transformacji praktyk cielesnych (widoczna również w stylistyce ujęć) okresów przedrewolucyjnego i przedwojennego. Poczynając od pierwszych lat XX wieku,[14] coraz częściej spotyka się fotografie, na których ciała poddane są ewidentnie nienaturalnemu dla fotografowanych reżimowi, co zdradza ubiór, ale nawet częściej poza. Wynika to stąd, że krótki czas przygotowania do zdjęcia znacząco utrudnia precyzyjne ustawienie postaci. Na postawę składa się nie tylko ogólny zarys sylwetki, pozycja kręgosłupa (pleców), ale i też ułożenie poszczególnych części ciała jak głowa czy ręce. W pozie nabiera znaczenia każdy szczegół i zauważalne są nawet drobne odchylenia od norm.

Nieprecyzyjne „trafienie w postawę” dobrze widoczne jest na dwóch pierwszych zdjęciach. Pierwsze z nich[15] pochodzi jeszcze z okresu przedrewolucyjnego, z około 1910 roku. Przedstawia młodą kobietę ubraną w odświętną sukienkę, której elegancję podkreśla rzadko spotykany przedmiot – kobiecy zegarek w charakterze broszki. Mimo słabego stanu zachowania fotografii dobrze widoczny jest entourage studia, w którym tło ma imitować eleganckie wnętrze. Interesująca jest tu korelacja między stolikiem z bukietem kwiatów namalowanym na tapecie i tym, o który opiera się kobieta  na pierwszym planie. Rośliny pełnią tu funkcję nie tylko ozdoby, ale i atrybutu niewinności. Samo ustawienie postaci jednak zdradza doświadczenie cielesne nieprzystające do wykreowanego w studiu otoczenia. Kobieta na zdjęciu ewidentnie nie jest przyzwyczajona do pozowania. Ma lekko opuszczoną głowę, co wystarcza by zmienić wyraz całej pozy, a także stworzyć wrażenie chmurnego spojrzenia. Celem tej obserwacji nie jest podkreślenie wyższości osób posiadających konkretną kulturę cielesną, tylko ujawnienie norm obowiązujących w fotografii studyjnej oraz skomplikowanych stosunków pomiędzy nimi i człowiekiem w studiu.

Na drugim, pochodzącym z 1935 roku zdjęciu[16] nie widać studia jako takiego – za tło służy kotara, studyjne meble zastępuje zwykłe krzesło. Z pewnością jednak także w tym przypadku przygotowywano się pieczołowicie do wydarzenia, jakim był akt fotografowania. Wizerunek odtwarza kompozycję charakterystyczną dla podwójnego portretu studyjnego. Kobieta prezentuje się odświętnie, jednak uroczysty charakter jej ubioru potraktowany jest w sposób uproszczony, główną ozdobą czyniąc biały kołnierzyk bluzki. Strój mężczyzny ma z kolei na celu podkreślenie jego statusu społecznego; zwraca na niego uwagę zwłaszcza teczka, którą postać trzyma w ręce. W kontekście fotografii studyjnej przedmiot ten zmienia się niemal w atrybut.

Na zdjęciach z pierwszej połowy XX wieku trudno znaleźć rażące odstępstwa od póz normatywnych, dają się jednak zauważyć liczne drobne rozbieżności, na przykład w kierunku spojrzenia, ułożeniu rąk czy korpusu. Na ową dynamikę normy i odchylenia od niej wpłynęły skomplikowane procesy społeczne, które ukształtowały ciała „nowych mieszczan”. Przemiany urbanizacyjne zachodziły w Rosji (i nie tylko tam, oczywiście) już przed rewolucją, a kontynuowane były także po niej. Do analizy polityki ciała w kulturze sowieckiej lat dwudziestych i trzydziestych szczególnie użyteczne jest zastosowanie koncepcji „procesu cywilizacji” Norberta Eliasa.[17] Zdaniem niektórych badaczy najbardziej charakterystyczny sowiecki typ antropologiczny stanowią niedawni chłopi, w krótkim czasie przechodzący cielesną i społeczną transformację, która u przedstawicieli klas uprzywilejowanych przebiegała przez stulecia. Niemniej należy podkreślić, że w Rosji problematyka nabywania nowej kultury cielesnej – przyswajania zasad higieny i kontroli nad ciałem – była obecna także przed rewolucją, oraz że jeszcze w drugiej połowie XIX wieku procesy te przebiegały z opóźnieniem w porównaniu do krajów zachodnich. Nie oznacza to deprecjonowania specyfiki kultury sowieckiej, pozwala jednak zadać pytanie, jak w wariancie sowieckim wyglądał „proces cywilizacji”, jaka była w nim rola państwa oraz elit, jakie obierano wzorce i gdzie miały one źródła oraz o sposób przekazywania tych norm.

Ciekawym komentarzem do sowieckiej fotografii studyjnej jest typologicznie bliski drugiemu analizowanemu przeze mnie zdjęciu obraz Fiodora Bogorockiego Fotografują się w atelier (1932)[18]. Artysta dobrze oddaje tu eklektyczność fotografii studyjnej – egzotyczne tło, spojrzenia w różnych kierunkach, nieco spiętą pozę kobiety. Na płótnie najciekawsza jest jednak figura marynarza-rewolucjonisty, postaci często występującej w pracach Bogorockiego z tamtego okresu (Marynarze w zasadce, 1927–1928; Braciszek, 1932). Pojawienie się takiego bohatera na fotografii rodzinnej jest, jeżeli nie całkiem niewiarygodne, to przynajmniej dziwne. Malarz przypuszczalnie świadomie zamienia wzorce symboliczne – norma cielesna zastępowana jest przez normę ideologiczną. W tym kontekście niezwykle ważne jest, że artysta łączy styl fotografii studyjnej z ideą normatywności, oraz że stosowane przez niego zastępowanie norm wydaje się skuteczne. Pozwala to przypuszczać, iż w kulturze radzieckiej każdy pozytywny wzorzec – niezależnie od źródła, z jakiego jest zapożyczony – nabiera pozytywnego znaczenia ideologicznego.

Nieco inny przykład „przyswajania” wizerunku studyjnego, włączania go do radzieckiego porządku społecznego przedstawia trzecie ujęcie pochodzące z 1929 roku.[19] Biorąc pod uwagę pozy, ubrania, buty i fryzury kobiet, a także ogólną kompozycję grupy, zdjęcie bliskie jest wzorcowi. Dobrze zachowana jest także scenografia. Nic nie charakteryzuje ani samego zdjęcia, ani ukazanych na nim osób jako przynależnych do kultury sowieckiej, jednak z poświadczonego stemplem podpisu na odwrocie dowiadujemy się, że fotografia przedstawia grupę pracownic moskiewskiej fabryki Izolator. Charakterystyczna jest także forma inskrypcji – pełna data wykonania, sposób zapisu danych osobowych (nazwisko i inicjały).[20]

W sowieckiej kulturze cielesnej istotne jest nie pochodzenie wzorca, lecz stopień jego normatywności. Świadomość tego mechanizmu pozwala inaczej spojrzeć na tezę o powrocie wartości „burżuazyjnych” oraz znaczeniu idei „kulturalności” w połowie lat trzydziestych.[21] Bardziej niż z powrotem, mamy tu do czynienia z kontynuacją, gdyż analogiczne normy higieny, dobrych manier, poziomu wykształcenia czy codziennych zachowań funkcjonowały już w latach dwudziestych, chociaż możliwość ich realizacji znajdowała się poza zasięgiem większości społeczeństwa. Proces ten nie polegał również na uprzywilejowaniu wartości burżuazyjnych jako wyróżniającego się, dynamicznego wzorca. Przeciwnie, ówczesna idea kulturalności zakłada znaczną redukcję tego, jak rozumiano bycie kulturalnym. Co więcej jest to redukcja podwójna – w XX wieku wyobrażenia o ogładzie zostają sprowadzone głównie do powierzchowności; stylu ubioru czy sposobu wysławiania się. Z drugiej strony idei kulturalności lat trzydziestych i okresu późniejszego brakuje zdefiniowanego w sposób kompletny kanonu wyrafinowania. Zarówno w stosunku do wyglądu, jak i wykształcenia oraz manier wystąpienie jednego elementu wystarcza, by zostać zinterpretowane jako realizacja całego wzorca. Przykładowo elegancję reprezentuje pojedynczy detal – u kobiet zazwyczaj są to broszka albo naszyjnik, koronkowy kołnierzyk czy fryzura.[22]

Wielu badaczy zwraca uwagę na nową tendencję, jaką w połowie lat trzydziestych staje się dążenie do normalności; nie w sensie normatywności lecz w znaczeniu zwyczajnego, powtarzalnego stylu życia. Nie można jednak zapominać, że nawet w rozumieniu ideału owa normalność odnosi się do niepełnego wzorca i jest skorelowana z kategoriami prawidłowości, oceny oraz opinii zewnętrznej.

Zakończę te rozważania analizą ostatniej fotografii – wykonanej, jak wskazuje podpis u dołu, w Odessie w 1956 roku.[23] Ponieważ właściciel nie przekazał dodatkowych informacji, musimy polegać na samym wizerunku. Ujęcie to zdaje się w pełni oddawać specyfikę sowieckiej fotografii studyjnej, którą cechuje występowanie nieprzystających do siebie elementów. Jednak w odróżnieniu od poprzednio omawianych zdjęć, w tym wypadku owe cielesne i wizualne hybrydowe znaki nie oznaczają już transformacji, zmiany. Należałoby raczej odnotować, że został tu ustalony pewien porządek, w którym dziwna niedokończoność wizualnych i cielesnych gestów nabiera znamion normalności. Przypuszczalnie, na co wskazuje podpis w rogu, nie jest to pojedyncza fotografia – w widocznym na niej zaimprowizowanym studiu mogły zostać wykonane portrety innych osób. W takim wypadku sama sytuacja fotografowania czyni człowieka członkiem określonej grupy, co stanowi wyróżniającą cechę sowieckiej fotografii studyjnej, zwłaszcza powojennej. Funkcjonalnie ten rodzaj rejestracji na kliszach wykazuje podobieństwo do spisu nazwisk na odwrocie trzeciego z omawianych zdjęć. W powojennej sowieckiej fotografii studyjnej[24] istnieje specyficzny gatunek będący szerszą reprezentacją owego mechanizmu. Składają się nań tablice pamiątkowe wykonywane dorocznie lub na okoliczność wręczania dyplomów w placówkach oświatowych wszystkich szczebli. Portrety indywidualne wraz z podpisami (zawsze w określonym porządku – nazwisko i inicjały) tworzą zbiorową kompozycję. Albumy sowieckich obywateli wypełnione są zestawieniami, na które składa się zdjęcie indywidualne oraz grupy lub klasy.

Analizowany wizerunek został wykonany na klatce schodowej, która pełni funkcję wspomnianego zaimprowizowanego studia. Najprawdopodobniej po lewej stronie znajduje się będące źródłem światła okno. Kwiat w doniczce, ustawiony na wysokim kwietniku przybranym nieodzowną serwetką, zastępuje malowane tło z tropikalną gęstwiną. Uroczystego charakteru fotografii nadają reprezentacyjne schody i odświętność stroju kobiety, która nosi broszkę, buty na obcasie i trzyma w ręku małą torebkę. Jednak znów reprezentacja eleganckiej cielesności ulega tu ograniczeniu. Sukienka jest nieco pomięta, włosy nie zostały starannie ułożone, rajstopy nie pasują do wyjściowej sukienki. Należy jednak podkreślić, że ani specyficzna sceneria ani wygląd kobiety nie są niedostateczne w kontekście kultury sowieckiej. Podobnie jak wystąpienie jednego elementu jest tu traktowane jako równoważne z pewną wzorcową całością, tak tego typu zdjęcie może funkcjonować jako pełnowartościowa fotografia studyjna.

Wreszcie spojrzenie – kobieta patrzy w obiektyw, przez co widz spotyka się z nią wzrokiem. Niewątpliwie widoczny jest tu wpływ innych stylów portretowych, takich jak fotografia amatorska, które zwracają uwagę na indywidualny wyraz twarzy. W rezultacie zdjęcie dokonuje podwójnego adresowania. Efektem studyjnej sytuacji fotografowania jest neutralne, „publiczne” spojrzenie, podczas gdy ukierunkowanie wzroku kobiety wskazuje na prywatny, osobisty charakter obrazu. To zresztą kolejna cecha charakterystyczna sowieckiej fotografii studyjnej, która częstokroć odzwierciedla doświadczenie indywidualne.

Podsumowując, należy podkreślić, że wyróżnikami fotografii studyjnej w ogóle, jako specyficznej formy reprezentacji wizualnej, nie są sceneria studia ani osoba wykonującego zdjęcie profesjonalisty, lecz założenie – tak przez fotografa, jak i modela – wysokiego stopnia normatywności w wyobrażeniach o ciele i orientacji na wzorzec. Z kolei cechą specyficzną dla fotografii studyjnej obszaru sowieckiego jest istnienie wyraźnie zaznaczonego wzorca, przy jego jednoczesnej ograniczonej realizacji. Charakterystyczny dla tego kręgu kulturowego jest również złożony sposób budowania tożsamości postaci na zdjęciu, w ramach którego określenia „kolektywne” i „osobiste” („publiczne” i „prywatne”) nie przeciwstawiają się sobie, lecz wzajemnie się określają.

Tłumaczenie: Anastasia Nabokina

 

 

[1] Artykuł z książki Империя света: фотография как визуальная практика эпохи „современности”, (Москва: Новое Литературное Обозрение) (2011). Tłumaczenie z języka rosyjskiego Anastasia Nabokina.

[2] Zob. artykuły Р. Сарторти, Е. Доренко, Г. Орловой, Е. Деготь, Б. Гройса w: Советская власть и медиа, red. Х. Гюнтер, С. Хэнсген, (С.-Петербург: Академический проект) (2005), s. 145–227.

[3] Dobrym wprowadzeniem do zagadnienia jest książka Quetina Bajaca: Q. Bajac, LImage révélée. Linvention de la photographie, (Paris: Gallimard – Découvertes) (2001).

[4] J. Crary, Techniques of the Observer. On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, (Cambridge: MIT Press) (1990).

[5] J. Tagg, The Burden of Representation: Essay on Photographies and Histories, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) (1993), s. 4.

[6] N. Elias, O procesie cywilizacji. Analizy socjo- i psychogenetyczne, tłum. T. Zabłudowski, K. Markiewicz, (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo W.A.B.) (2011).

[7] Zob. na przykład: В.П. Жуковский, Гигиена семьи и обиходной жизни доктора, (С.-Петербург) (1893).

[8] Zob. na przykład: zbiór porad i wskazówek na różne okazje w życiu rodzinnym i publicznym: jak zachowywać się w towarzystwie na chrzcie, imieninach, ślubach, jubileuszach, proszonych obiadach, balach, rautach, spacerach, w teatrze, na maskaradach itd. (А. Якобсон, Правила светской жизни и этикета. Хороший тон, Типо-Литография, (С.-Петербург) (1889). Reprint: (Москва: РИПОЛ), (1991)).

[9] Jak pokazuje O. Bułgakowa, ważnym pośrednikiem w przyswajaniu i utrwaleniu tych wyobrażeń było kino. Zob. О. Булгакова, Фабрика жестов, (Москва: Новое Литературное Обозрение) (2005).

[10] Oczywiście istnieje również wiele zdjęć osób, których kultura ciała w studiu i poza nim nie różniły się. Jednak to właśnie przypadki niedopasowania jaskrawo uwidaczniają reżim cielesny fotografii studyjnej. Zdjęcie studyjne kogoś o arystokratycznej kulturze cielesnej jest w jakimś stopniu tautologią. Nieprzypadkowo w tym środowisku rozpowszechnia się fotografia amatorska, gdyż jego reprezentantom szczególnie łatwo przychodzi odejście od zwyczajowych póz.

[11] Za zwrócenie uwagi na ten fakt wyrażam wdzięczność Konstantynowi Bogdanowowi.

[12] Por. О.Б. Вайнштейн, Денди: мода, литература, стиль жизни, (Москва: Новое Литературное Обозрение) (2006), s. 145–148.

[13] Szczególnie interesujące są pozy przyjmowane na przedrewolucyjnych fotografiach grupowych, kiedy nie było możliwości kontrolowania ustawienia każdego człowieka – niektórzy zachowują cielesny kanon w całości, inni zmieniają ją całkowicie lub częściowo.

[14] Temat ten wymaga dodatkowej analizy, gdyż rosyjska fotografia studyjna w ogóle jest słabo zbadanym obszarem.

[15] Zdjęcie z archiwum rodzinny Batałowych (Samara). Dzięki uprzejmości autorki artykułu.

[16] Zdjęcie z archiwum rodziny Woroncowych. Dzięki uprzejmości autorki artykułu.

[17] N.S. Timasheff, The Great Retreat. The Growth and Decline of Communism in Russia, (New York: E.P. Duton & Company) (1946); V.S. Dunham, In Stalin’s Time. Middleclass Values in Soviet Fiction, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) (1976); C. Kelly, Refining Russia. Advice Literature, Polite Culture, and Gender from Catherine to Yeltsin, (New York: Oxford University Press) (2001); О. Булгакова, Фабрика жестов…, dz. cyt.

[18] Tę pracę, jak i inne obrazy Bogorockiego, można zobaczyć na stronie wirtualnego muzeum Masłowka – Miasto Malarzy (Масловка – Городок Художников): http://www.maslovka.org/modules.php?name=Content&pa=showpage&pid=73 (dostęp 20 lutego 2018)).

[19] Zdjęcie z kolekcji autorki artykułu, kupione na pchlim targu niedaleko stacji Mark w Moskwie w 2007 r. Dzięki uprzejmości autorki artykułu.

[20] Podobne zdjęcia zostały przedstawione na wystawie „Fotografia i dokument. 1880–1950” w ramach Fotobiennale 2006.

[21] S. Fitzpatrick, “Becoming cultured. Socialist realism and the representation of privilege and taste”, [w:] tejże, The Cultural Front. Power and Culture in Revolutionary Russia, (New York: Cornell University Press) (1992); В.В. Волков, “Концепция культурности, 1935-1938 годы: Советская цивилизация и повседневность сталинского времени”, Социологический журнал 1–2 (1996), s. 203–221; Н.Н. Козлова, “Социально-историческая антропология”, (Москва: Ключ-С) (1999), s. 151–169.

[22] Por. „jeżeli Rosjanka zapragnie wyglądać szykownie, to nie pójdzie ani do krawca, ani do sklepu po ubranie, tylko skieruje się prosto do fryzjera” (О.Б. Вайнштейн, “Улыбка чеширского кота: взгляд на российскую модницу”, [w:] Женщина и визуальные знаки, red. А. Альчук, (Москва: Идея-Пресс) (2000), s. 38).

[23] Zdjęcie z archiwum rodziny fotografa Olega Jakowlewa. Publikowane dzięki uprzejmości autorki artykułu.

[24] Rodzaj kolażu fotograficznego nie jest nowy, pojawia się on już w XIX wieku.

Oko artysty. Fenomenologia zmysłów w filmie Młyn i krzyż Lecha Majewskiego [Polish]

Iwona Grodź

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2018, vol.3, no. 1, pp. 13-26.

 

Iwona Grodź

Uniwersytet im. Adama Mickiewicza w Poznaniu

 

 

 

Oko artysty. Fenomenologia zmysłów w filmie Młyn i krzyż Lecha Majewskiego

 

Abstrakt

Tematem artykułu jest tajemnica widzenia „zaszyfrowana” w filmie Lecha Majewskiego Młyn i krzyż (2010) oraz obrazie Pietera Bruegla z 1564 roku: Droga krzyżowa, który był dlań inspiracją – analizowana w różnych kontekstach, odsłonach, planach, poziomach, relacjach. Tajemnica widzenia dzieła sztuki rozumiana jest bardzo szeroko, ale przede wszystkim jako „wartość dodana” do tego, co pierwotnie podlegało oglądowi, analizie, zestawieniu. To, co jest wypowiedzią metatekstową wobec, zarówno wypowiedzi malarza, jak i reżysera. Jest także autorską interpretacją wskazanego materiału wizualnego.

The subject of the article is the mystery of vision “encrypted” Pieter Bruegel’s 1564 painting: The Way of the Cross and in inspired by it Lech Majewski’s film Mill and Cross (2010) where he analyses Bruegel’s painting . in different contexts. The practice of seeing a work of art is understood very broadly, but above all as “added value” to the primal act to viewing, analysis, compilation. It is a metatextual statement to both the painter’s and the director’s works. It is also an original interpretation of the indicated visual material.

 

Słowa kluczowe: zmysły i kino, Lech Majewski, Młyn i krzyż, Pieter Bruegel

Keywords: senses and cinema, Lech Majewski, Mill and cross, Pieter Bruegel

 

 

 

To zadziwiające, że obraz jest trwalszy od ciała, ślad trwalszy od życia, tak jakby całe skomplikowane królestwo tkanek, komórek, cząsteczek i atomów wzrastało jedynie, aby się rozpaść, a ślad, zaledwie kilka reakcji elektromagnetycznych na cienkim pasku taśmy – trwa[1].

Czyż sztuka nie jest najbliższa tajemnicy poznania wszechrzeczy? Lech Majewski powiedział niegdyś, że wierzy filozofom, który twierdzą, iż to właśnie dzięki artystycznym przekazom „dosięgamy gwiazd”, zbliżamy się do metafizyki[2]. Do tego, co dla „oka pasywnego” – a więc takiego, które może być „widziane” przez innych – ukryte, a dla „aktywnego” – widzącego – jawne. Nie jest novum stwierdzenie, że oko zostało okiełznane, ujarzmione właśnie przez artystów, dzięki sztuce, która oku patrzącemu przydała świadomości, przemieniła w oko widzące i rozumiejące, w końcu – w oko miłujące[3]. Spowodowało to też bardzo ważne rozdzielenie ról w „dramacie widzenia” oraz zjawisko tzw. wymienności perspektyw, które zachodzi między:

  1. artystą‒autorem, którego oko jest zawsze okiem aktywnym, ale ukrytym w artystycznym przekazie lub za nim;
  2. bohaterem/bohaterami świata przedstawionego dzieła sztuki, którego/których oko – w zależności od zajmowanej pozycji czy etapu wewnętrznej przemiany – może być aktywne i ujawnione albo pasywne, również ukazane;
  3. widzem/widzami, którego/których postrzeganie może być pasywne, bo świadomie projektowane/modelowane (przyjęcie roli bohatera, choć będącego poza światem przedstawionym dzieła) albo aktywne i ujawnione (wejście w rolę „powtórzonego” artysty).

Wymienność perspektyw w dziele sztuki jest przedmiotem zainteresowania m.in. teoretyków zajmujących się zjawiskiem autobiografizmu, biografizmu i autotematyzmu[4]. W niej „zaszyfrowana” jest też metafizyka, gdyż to właśnie w ruchomych granicach między: „ja” empirycznym, porte-parole i „ja” sylleptycznym[5] – ukryte jest „oko metafizyczne” artysty‒autora. Magdalena Podsiadło przypomniała te trzy typy wypowiedzi autobiograficznej i wyjaśniła je, odwołując się do literaturoznawczych badań Ireny Skwarek i Jerzego Smulskiego[6]:

  1. porte-parole – „wycofanie się autora z diegezy i umieszczenie w niej swojego reprezentanta”, tworzy się wówczas relacja nazwana: „związkiem podobieństwa”, objawia się ona przede wszystkim w świecie fikcji, a preferowaną formą jest: „wyznanie”[7];
  2. „ja” empiryczne – „będzie dążyć do zachowania tożsamości między bohaterem, narratorem oraz bohaterem”, powstaje wówczas „związek tożsamości”, typowy dla dokumentu, filmowej awangardy, dla których preferowaną formą jest „świadectwo” (głównie za sprawą wprowadzenia do filmu samego reżysera)[8];
  3. „ja” sylleptyczne – „będzie starało się wprowadzić osobę autora do opowiadania, a równocześnie zaprzeczyć jego tożsamości z twórcą”, tworzy się wówczas „związek autentyczności towarzyszącej niepodobieństwu”, typowy dla filmowej fikcji łączonej z rzeczywistością, standardowo przybiera on formę „wyzwania”[9].

Tematem artykułu jest więc przede wszystkim tajemnica widzenia – „zaszyfrowana” w filmie Lecha Majewskiego Młyn i krzyż (2010) oraz obrazie Pietera Bruegla z 1564 roku: Droga krzyżowa, który był inspiracją dla reżysera – analizowana w różnych kontekstach, odsłonach, planach, poziomach, relacjach. Tajemnica widzenia dzieła sztuki rozumiana jest bardzo szeroko, ale przede wszystkim jako „wartość dodana” do tego, co pierwotnie podlegało oglądowi i analizie. Artykuł jest zatem wypowiedzią metatekstową wobec zarówno wypowiedzi malarza, jak i reżysera. Jest także autorską interpretacją wskazanego materiału wizualnego.

***

W kontekście omawianego filmu ważny jest niewątpliwie temat, a więc podjęcie zagadnienia percepcji sztuki i zmysłowego aspektu jej odbioru, który mniej lub bardziej łączy się z zagadnieniem autotematyzmu. Magdalena Podsiadło zauważyła, że „Artystyczna biografia – prawdziwa bądź fikcyjna – otwiera się na losy twórcy poddającego ją interpretacji. Nawet jeśli narracja nie odsłania autora dokonującego aktu wypowiadania, postać artysty staje się sygnałem kierującym uwagę odbiorcy w stronę twórcy filmowego obrazu”[10]. Często bywa tak, że „(…) dzieła i życiorysy konkretnych artystów zostały zagarnięte przez osobiste doświadczenie twórcy kinowego (jak w biografiach filmowych Szpilmana czy Caravaggia)”[11] – pisała Podsiadło. Wówczas „Losy reżysera i bohatera łączą się w subiektywnej interpretacji autora, tworząc złożoną, dopełniającą się wzajemnie wypowiedź na temat sztuki”[12]. To przypadek Młyna i krzyża[13]. Wspólnota twórców ujawnia się wówczas, gdy przyświecają im te same idee, np. artystycznej wolności, wiary w moc sztuki i wpływania za jej pośrednictwem na widzów[14]. Takie ustalenie przypomina o podwójnym kodowaniu na każdym poziomie dzieła artystycznego. Artysta‒reżyser (podmiot utworu) staje przed „wyzwaniem”, jakie stawia mu inny artysta. Mamy więc do czynienia z relacją: „oko aktywne artysty‒malarza” kontra „oka aktywne artysty‒reżysera”, dla którego to pierwsze było inspiracją, a więc zamieniło go także w odbiorcę. Tutaj ujawnia się kolejna podwójna płaszczyzna: oko aktywne, ale ukryte przechodzi metamorfozę i staje się okiem pasywnego, bo już ukrytego (modelowanego) odbiorcy. Artysta staje się również bohaterem – w Młynie i krzyżu pojawia się oko pasywnego, widzianego porte-parole: malarza (postać ze szkicownikiem w filmie) i reżysera (można założyć, że w jakiejś mierze jest nim młynarz). Takie spojrzenie umożliwia więc wskazanie dodatkowo oprócz – oka metafizycznego artysty – także oko metafizyczne bohatera filmu i oko metafizyczne projektowanego widza. Każdorazowo poszczególne role muszą być zestawione z innymi, żeby w sferze ich przenikania się można było zobaczyć tajemniczą nić związku-porozumienia, a więc:

  1. „oko” bohatera: bohater–artysta; bohater–inny bohater; bohater–widz.
  2. „oko” odbiorcy: widz–artysta; widz–inny widz; widz–bohater.

Uzasadnia to konieczność zadania pytania, czy sztuka komunikuje się z siłą wyższą. Odpowiedzi na nie udzielić może zaproponowanie spojrzenie na film Majewskiego przez pryzmat sensualny, uznanie, że to poznanie zmysłowe może uwrażliwić odbiorcę na pogłębione doznanie estetyczne, dzięki któremu możliwe są nie tylko przyjemność, ale i wyzwolenie, owa metafizyka. Potwierdza to także reżyser, który w 2002 roku przy okazji realizacji innego filmu: Ogród rozkoszy ziemskich (2004; dzieło zainspirowane obrazem innego znanego malarza – Hieronima Boscha) wydał książkę pod znamiennym tytułem Metafizyka. Warto ten fakt odnotować, bo choć dotyczy innego artystycznego wyzwania, innego czasu i „materiału analitycznego”, uświadamia, że odbiorców twórczości Majewskiego cechuje do pewnego stopnia wiara. Przeżycie estetyczne urasta w jego filmach do rangi zbawczego, metafizycznego fetyszu. W ten sposób również film utrwala życie, przeciwdziała zapominaniu, ale też jest narzędziem obnażającym okrutny mechanizm przemijania i śmierci[15].

Młyn i krzyż Lecha Majewskiego był projektem, który zabrał reżyserowi sporo czasu. Magdalena Lebecka przypomniała, że ta „filmowa próba wniknięcia w uniwersum obrazu Pietera Bruegla Starszego Droga na Kalwarię (olejny obraz na desce, obecnie znajdujący się w wiedeńskim muzeum Kunsthistorisches Museum), tylko na etapie postprodukcji zabrała reżyserowi aż dwa lata”[16]. Lebecka zauważyła, że „Można by przypuszczać, że eschatologiczna wizja Boscha wytyczyła drogę Majewskiego do Bruegla. Jednak tej hipotezy reżyser nie potwierdza. Przyznaje natomiast, że Petera Dziwnego zawsze zaliczał do artystów dla siebie najważniejszych”[17].Z propozycją współpracy, po obejrzeniu Angelusa (2001), pojawił się Michael Gibson – „uznany autorytet w dziedzinie flamandzkiego malarstwa”[18], który pragnął zrealizować film edukacyjny, dokumentalny na podstawie wydanej w wersji polsko-angielskiej książki Bruegel. Młyn i krzyż[19]. Ostatecznie jednak powstał filozoficzny esej, a więc gatunek, który dawał większe pole do pracy wyobraźni.

 ***

Ironista, w przeciwieństwie do metafizyka, który wierzy w istnienie prawdziwej natury, zarówno świata, jak i człowieka, utrzymuje, że człowiek jest jedynie „pozbawioną ośrodka siecią przekonań i pragnień”[20].

 

Od wieków przyjmuje się za prawdę twierdzenie, że sztuka to jedyna sfera, a artysta to jedyna ludzka istota, która może „działać przeciw nicości ziemskiego świata”[21]. Immanentnie przyznaje się jej pierwiastek metafizyki, a więc czegoś, co jest ponad fizyką, naukową możliwością wyjaśnienia zjawisk dzięki wierze w rozum, doświadczenie czy choćby zmysły[22]. Takie podejście umożliwia również wspomniany obraz Droga krzyżowa, od lat skłaniający do stawiania kolejnych pytań, przykładowo, dlaczego cierpienie Jezusa jest na obrazie Bruegla niewidoczne? Dlaczego zostało celowo ukryte? Jak uzasadnić użycie aż siedmiu perspektyw w obrazie?[23] Wskazać można przecież punkt widzenia: malarza, jego mecenasa, młynarza, sprzedawcy chleba, płaczącej grupy kobiet, Weroniki, Estery, tłumu ludzi. Polifoniczność spojrzeń jest niespotykana i może odsyłać do zmian sposobu widzenia, które w nauce zainicjowały odkrycia choćby Mikołaja Kopernika (De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, największe zdarzenie naukowe epoki, ogłoszono w 1543 roku)[24].

Warto kilka uwag poświęcić samemu obrazowi malarskiemu. Powstał on w czasie gdy filozofia nowożytna dokonała rozdzielenia nauki i metafizyki. Był to czas kontrreformacji i panowania katolickiej Hiszpanii we Flandrii. Gibson przypomniał jednak, że za dwa lata sytuacja miała się odmienić: „w sierpniu 1566 roku zwolennicy reformacji przystąpili do kontrataku i Flandrią wstrząsnęła fala brutalnych, masowych napaści na kościoły katolickie. W oczach protestanckich kaznodziejów malowidła i rzeźby kościelne były równoznaczne z bałwochwalstwem: w trakcie zaledwie trzech tygodni lud Flandrii, doprowadzony do ostateczności, zdewastował w całym kraju ponad czterysta świątyń, niszcząc rzeźby i paląc niezliczoną liczbę malowideł”[25]. Tak więc historycy sztuki dość jednoznacznie sugerują, że Bruegel wprowadził do swoich dzieł elementy narodowościowe, o wyraźnie historycznym znaczeniu[26]. Ponadto zrezygnował z jednej perspektywy na rzecz wielu punktów widzenia, a więc wielu płaszczyzn w obrazie. Pisała o tym szerzej Maria Rzepińska: „Zdarzenie główne jest zawsze umieszczane tak, że bardzo trudno w pierwszej chwili je odszukać. Czytelność akcji w jego obrazach jest w ogóle utrudniona z góry przez wprowadzenie owych »równouprawnionych« w skali grup i epizodów, rozrzuconych po całej płaszczyźnie obrazu, nie poddanych ani hierarchii umownej, ani perspektywicznej. Aby odczytać wizualnie takie obrazy, jak Przysłowia flamandzkie, Zabawy dziecięce czy Walka karnawału z postem – trzeba wodzić okiem po kolei po różnych strefach obrazu i oglądać każdy epizod. Jest to inny sposób percypowania niż ten, jakiego wymagają obrazy typu włoskiego czy też obrazy flamandzkie przed Boschem – stworzone wyraźnie dla oglądu całościowego”[27]. Dlatego tak trudno jest nam dostrzec Jezusa na obrazie Droga krzyżowa, choć znajduje się na przecięciu przekątnych obrazu. To paradoks niewidzenia cierpienia, jego „przeoczenia”, zbagatelizowania, choć dotyczy najważniejszej postaci. Czy chodzi o „beznamiętność” czy „bezradność” bohaterów z obrazu[28]? To kwestia godna uwagi. Hiszpanie okazali się bardzo okrutni i obojętni wobec protestantów – Flandrów, tak jak postaci z obrazu malarskiego wobec męki Jezusa.

Zaproponowana we wstępie metafora oka sugeruje istnienie szeregu wątpliwości, typu: która z postaci obrazu i filmu „widzi” albo jest częścią „historii/narracji drogi” (1), „młyna” (2), „krzyża” (3)? Przypomnę, że zwykle droga symbolizuje trud i zmianę. Młyn – oznacza życiodajny „przemiał” (przemianę) i ziemskie, rutynowe życie. Krzyż odsyła do idei ofiary i cierpienia. Następne pytanie to: którzy z bohaterów w końcu są mediatorami między wskazanymi opowieściami? Przynajmniej na kilka niejasności można odpowiedzieć już na tym etapie[29].Jakie zatem wydarzenia widzą poszczególni bohaterowie utrwaleni w obrazie i filmie? Malarz przede wszystkim cierpienie Jezusa? W filmie jego ogląd jest szerszy, bo – jak sam mówi – postępuje jak pająk, ogarnia wzrokiem szerszy horyzont, dysponuje większą wiedzą, dystansem. Dostrzega więc także cierpienie innych, przykładowo Matki Boskiej i zgromadzonych wokół niej kobiet. Może w tajemniczy sposób (gest ręki) porozumiewać się z młynarzem. Podobnie większym horyzontem postrzeżeniowo-poznawczym względem obrazu dysponuje mecenas malarza, młynarz, sprzedawca chleba i Weronika, choć nie do końca zwykli ludzie (tłum), którzy w filmie zajmują się po prostu swoimi sprawami, a uwiecznieni w obrazie wpatrują wytrzeszczonymi oczami w przestrzeń przynależną potencjalnym, przyszłym widzom. Niewątpliwą tajemnicą owiana jest także perspektywa Jezusa. Nie jest ona dana odbiorcom – jego twarz jest niewidoczna, a ofiara początkowo niezrozumiała. Zgodnie z monologiem wewnętrznym Matki Boskiej, który słyszymy w filmie, Jezus rozumiał, co to znaczy „nie widzieć” zmysłami rzeczywistości i żyć w ciemności: „Nie rozumiem. Kiedy dorastał, jego życie było pisane ognistymi literami na niebie. Obwieszczał, kto ma umrzeć, a kto żyć. (…) Dorósł i wszystkich zadziwił. Bez draśnięcia. Doszedł do bram nieba. Ogień przeznaczenia oświetlał mu drogę. Jezus przyniósł płomień losu. Rozjaśnił, wszystko zależało od niego…”. Po scenie ukrzyżowania natomiast słyszymy z offu: „Nie urodził się bez powodu. Wniósł jasność w ten świat, zagrożenie dla głupoty, rutyny, zwyczaju, ludzi żądnych pieniędzy, władzy, pustych słów. Rutyna i przyzwyczajenie odniosły zwycięstwo. Nie rozumiem tego”. Niezwykłość syna Boga polegała właśnie na tym, że miał on moc zgładzania ciemności, którą w jego czasie stanowiły obrazy (niebezpieczne, bo jednoznaczne, wyuczone schematy poznania albo „wizualne pułapki” stworzone przez cudze postrzeganie), a nie ich brak. Chrystus „rozjaśniał” świat. W ten sposób przeciwdziałał stereotypowemu postrzeganiu, rutynie, skostnieniu.

Kulista, a więc tradycyjnie doskonała budowa oka pozwalała zrozumieć mechanizm odwróconego widzenia. Tajemnicę obrazu ukrytego jakby pod powiekami, widocznego dopiero po jakimś czasie. Widzieć to rozumieć, ale nie spontanicznie, a często poprzez wyuczenie, „zaprogramowanie”. Dlatego w oczach patrzącego „gnieździ się” ciemność. Obraz uobecnia się nieświadomie w swoim rewersie na siatkówce. Dopiero w wyzwolonej głowie rodzi się rozumienie–widzenie. Tak jak metafizyka rodzi się niejako po zanegowaniu fizyki, a więc tego, co poznawalne. Na tak określonej granicy można rozpocząć poszukiwania oka artysty, bohatera i widza zarówno w obrazie Petera Bruegla, jak i filmie Lecha Majewskiego. To nie tylko granica wyobrażona w postaci prostej linii, ale także ukryta za życiodajnym młynem (przywodzącym na myśli wieżę Babel pomieszanych języków, nie tylko werbalnych, ale i wizualnych) i uwikłana w „niedoskonałość” naturalnej pajęczej sieci.

***

 Prawda jest tym, co wyklucza się wzajemnie,
a fizycy dopowiadają, że dobra teoria musi zawierać swoje przeciwieństwo
[30].

O ile Bosch jest wizjonerem i prorokiem,
to Bruegel – filozofem najwybitniejszym wśród malarzy.
A także uważnym obserwatorem
[31].

Poszukiwanie „oka” autora‒artysty w filmach o sztuce, o artyście, a więc w relacji artysta–inny artysta wiąże się z sytuacją podwójnego kodowania. Korespondencja między malarzem renesansowym– Pieterem Brueglem Starszym– a współczesnym reżyserem filmowym jest niewątpliwie fascynująca, ale i obarczona wieloma trudnościami. Przede wszystkim trzeba pamiętać, że malarz dysponuje okiem aktywnym/widzącym, ale chodzi o świadomość podstawową, umożliwiającą mu, po pierwsze, kopiowanie widzianej rzeczywistości ze wszystkimi jej fizycznymi i metafizycznymi właściwościami (stąd element zdziwienia), po drugie – tworzenie parabolicznych jej interpretacji. Takie możliwości są typowe dla autorskiej strategii świadka. Oko drugiego, tj. reżysera filmowego, przez swą wtórność jest bardziej świadome; Lech Majewski nie tylko widzi, rozumie, ale także kreuje, stwarza nowe sytuacje nadawczo-odbiorcze, np. zmienia czas, miejsce akcji, medium i narzędzia, służące kreacji obrazu. Na tym etapie ważna jest również pamięć o znaczeniu dla wizji reżyserskiej inspiracji pomysłodawcy całego przedsięwzięcia, współtwórcy scenariusza Młyna i krzyża Michaela F. Gibsona, który przyjmuje rolę narratora, choć w skończonym materiale nie słyszymy jego głosu. Innym artystą, z którym współpracował Majewski, był autor zdjęć – Adam Sikora. Zarówno Gibson, jak i Sikora realizowali autorską strategię artysty‒kreatora[32]. Tak powstał wideo-fresk, który można oglądać w nowej przestrzeni – w muzeum.

W relacji artysta–bohater ponownie ważne jest podwójne ujęcie, a więc pamięć zarówno o autoportrecie Bruegla ukrytym w obrazie Droga Krzyżowa, jak i autobiografizmie „zaszyfrowanym” w filmie Młyn i krzyż. Sprawę komplikuje trudność utożsamienia reżysera z konkretną postacią w obrazie czy filmie. Dlatego warto wskazać kilka osób i bliżej przyjrzeć się ich punktom widzenia. Przykładowo młynarz – ma szeroką perspektywę, mieszka na górze, ale działa wyraźnie „na rozkaz” malarza. Obrazuje strategię świadka, co najwyżej pomocnika lub psychoterapeuty artysty. Ten z kolei każdorazowo postrzega coś innego. Dysponuje „okiem ruchomym”, „żywym”, bo „wieloperspektywicznym”. Przykładowo jako malarz widzi cierpienie Jezusa – ziemskie, pozornie bezsensowne. Jako sprzedawca chleba dostrzega znaczenie pracy młynarza i wartość wypiekanego chleba. To też rodzaj cierpienia – ziemskiego, potrzebnego, bo sprowadzającego się do konieczności produkowania mąki, tego, co jest skojarzone z codziennością, dobrobytem i bezpieczeństwem. Spoglądając na świat przez pryzmat młynarza, artysta‒reżyser widzi, ale tylko to, co jest związane z życiem doczesnym, nie dostrzegając cierpienia Jezusa. Z uwagi na to jednak, że młynarz jest „artystą” w swoim fachu, ma władzę niczym ziemski bóg. Można się zastanowić, czy tak naprawdę nie jest ślepy, jedynie „udając” widzenie, lecz jest też kreatorem (ziemskiej) rzeczywistości.

Przejścia w filmie na wyższe piętra wtajemniczenia umożliwia kilka postaci, przykładowo malarz to porte parole reżysera, który przestaje być tożsamy już tylko z młynarzem czy sprzedawcą chleba. To przejście umożliwia „perspektywa pająka”, a więc większa świadomość obrazu nieruchomego i ruchomego (film) oraz jego znaczenia, symboliki, możliwości interpretowania, możliwego we wszystkich wymiarach: długości, z którą wiąże się czytanie od lewej do prawej życia jak Księgi (tę perspektywę jako pierwszy zasugerował analizując Drogę krzyżową Gibson); wysokości, która sugeruje wielość możliwych odczytań symboliki na osi wertykalnej obrazu, np. przydanie tajemnicy i znaczenia skale, na której stoi młyn, a która jest – w sensie fizycznym – najbliżej nieba; głębi, z którą wiązać można wielość planów na obrazie, a w filmie zabieg zwany kompozytowaniem; ostatecznie też czasowości obrazu, z którą wiąże się zabieg symultanicznego przedstawienia na jednym malowidle wydarzeń rozgrywających się w różnym czasie i przestrzeni, a w przypadku filmu – dowód na możliwość „wskrzeszenia”, dzięki nowym mediom, starego obrazu w nowej czasoprzestrzeni.

Na koniec pozostaje zasadnicze pytanie, kim jest tak naprawdę Jezus w obrazie malarskim, a następnie filmowym. Według Biblii Mesjasz to Syn Boga. W obrazie, przynależnym do sfery profanum, jest zwykłym człowiekiem. W filmie, który obecnie zatracił już niemal swoją materialność, stał się czystą kreacją wyobraźni, medium wirtualnym, jest przede wszystkim synem rozpaczającej kobiety, dzieckiem. To dzięki emocjom, takim jak miłość oraz wrażliwości i pamięci innych, staje się postacią ze sfery sacrum. W ten sposób mamy do czynienia ze swoistym paradoksem. Postaci, które w rzeczywistości nie zostały dostrzeżone, z czasem nabrały znaczenia. Film przypomina i utrwala ten fakt. Staje się w tym sensie medium metafizycznym.

Oko artysty‒reżysera ujawnia się w ostatniej scenie, w której kamera znajduje się w muzeum w Wiedniu. Kamera filmuje wnętrze sali, wiszące na ścianie malowidło Droga krzyżowa. Następnie powolnym ruchem zaczyna oddalać się od tego miejsca. Obraz jest wyraźny, ale im dystans jest większy, tym on staje się mniejszy. W końcu niknie z naszego pola widzenia. To oddalenie się ujawnia znaczenie upływu czasu, przemijania, zapominania, znikania obrazów (stopniowo nawet tych utrwalonych, uznanych arcydzieł), a wraz z nimi ludzi, tematów, spraw, konfliktów, jak w wirtualnej przestrzeni nowych mediów, ale też przestrzeni kreacji nowych światów.

Oko zmysłowe malarza‒bohatera‒Bruegla ujawnia się w jego autoportrecie „ukrytym” w obrazie. To oko przerażone i przerażające, bo widzące czas i jego upływ w niejako jednocześnie. W filmie takie oko jest porównane do oka pająka, oka przyrody: żywej, dzikiej, doskonałej w swojej niedoskonałości, bo zdolnej do precyzyjnego kopiowania rzeczywistości, a nie jej kreowania. To w tym oku – jak w sieci – jest „gniazdo” – początek, bezpieczeństwo, życie, ale i śmierć, jeżeli uświadomimy sobie, że to też pułapka, a więc krzyż dla „złapanego”.

Oko zmysłowe widza/widzów to otwarcie na zmianę, to wybór własnej drogi, a więc wyrwanie się z „ziemskiego młyna” zdarzeń, spraw, sensów na rzecz możliwości, jakie dają inne spojrzenia. Tajemnicą jest więc konieczność podjęcia wyzwania, trudu zmierzenia się z niewiadomą, wolnością w widzeniu i rozumieniu. W takim oku fizyką jest wielość obrazów, swoisty młyn obrazów, z których trzeba się wyzwolić, przejść przez etap wymienności perspektywy, a więc: młyna, drogi i krzyża widzianych przez malarza i reżysera. Następnie znaleźć się w oku obrazu, na krzyżu. Ponownie wejść w ciemność.

Obraz malarski jako – niedoskonała, ale istotna poznawczo – kopia wyobrażenia rzeczywistości, wskazuje dość jednoznacznie, że nie ma świata bez mitu, a więc też potencjalnie ukrytej w nim deziluzji. Dlatego każdy widz, prędzej czy później, zadaje sobie odwieczne pytanie: czy widzi to, co wie na temat świata, czy to, co pojmują jego zmysły? Każdorazowo mamy więc przed sobą wybór: czy percypowany obraz „otwiera” tylko nasze oczy (zmysłowe poznanie), czy także nasz umysł (wiedza)? Gdzie jest prawda widzenia, obrazu, przeznaczenia[33]? Czym jest w końcu tzw. omyłkowa prawda (falsetruth)[34]? Czy koło życia, przysłowiowe koło fortuny, jest w stanie ją obnażyć[35]? Metafizyka Młyna i krzyża ujawnia się także w momencie stawiania takich pytań przez jego twórców.

Bibliografia

Achtelik Aleksandra, „Drugie oblicze Lecha Majewskiego, czyli powieść Metafizyka”, Postscriptum 1-2 (2003).

Bakuła Bogusław, Człowiek jak dzieło sztuki. Z problemów metarefleksji artystycznej, (Poznań: Wydawnictwo WiS) (1994).

Balbus Stanisław, „Interdyscyplinarność – intersemiotyczność – komparatystyka”, w: Intersemiotyczność. Literatura wobec innych sztuk (i odwrotnie), red. Stanisław Balbus i in., (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN) (2009).

Balbus Stanisław, Intersemiotyczność a proces historycznoliteracki, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Naukowe UJ) (1990).

Białostocki Jan, Bruegel – pejzażysta, (Poznań: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN) (1956).

Biedrzycki Krzysztof, Wariacje metafizyczne: szkice i recenzje o poezji, prozie i filmie, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Universitas) (2007).

Bobowski Sławomir, Między świętością a potępieniem. Martin Scorsese i religia, (Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego) (2007).

Cembrzyńska Patrycja, „Pajęcza sieć obrazów Lecha Majewskiego”,Tygodnik Powszechny, 6:96-100 (2011).

Czapliński Przemysław, „Wyliczanka”, czyli gry Greenawaya [“Drowning” – which is Greenaway’s game], w: Poloniści o filmie [Polish philologists about the film], red. Marek Hendrykowski, (Poznań: Wydawnictwo UAM) (1997).

Czekalski Stanisław, Intertekstualność i malarstwo. Problemy badań nad związkami międzyobrazowymi, (Poznań: Wydawnictwo Naukowe UAM) (2006).

Gibson Michael F., Majewski Lech, Bruegel. Młyn i krzyż, (Olszanica: Wydawnictwo Bosz) (2010).

Gwóźdź Andrzej (red.), Filmowe światy. Z dziejów X muzy na Górnym Śląsku, (Katowice: Wydawnictwo Śląsk) (1998).

Hendrykowski Marek, „O podmiotowym charakterze wypowiedzi filmowej”, w: Studia z poetyki historycznej filmu, red. Alicja Helman, Tadeusz Lubelski, (Katowice: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Śląskiego) (1983)

Kuśmierczyk Seweryn, Zagubieni w drodze. Film fabularny jako obraz doświadczenia wewnętrznego, (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Skorpion) (1999).

Lebecka Magdalena, Lech Majewski, (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Więź) (2010).

Lebecka Magdalena, „Sprawozdanie z produkcji filmu Lecha Majewskiego Młyn i krzyż”, Kino, 1:88 (2009).

Lech Majewski, http://www.lechmajewski.art.pl/recenzje.php?id=41/, data dostępu 6 września 2018.

Majewski Lech, „Alchemik”, rozm. Magdalena Lebecka, Film&TV Kamera 2:4-15 (2007).

Majewski Lech, „Algorytm natury”, rozm. Piotr Zawojski, Opcje 3:36-41 (2011).

Majewski Lech, „Bruegel ma zawsze widownię”, rozm. Tadeusz Sobolewski, Gazeta Wyborcza (Duży Format) 10:14-17 (17.03.2011) (2011).

Majewski Lech, „Collage sztuki i technologii”, rozm. Magdalena Lebecka, FilmPro 1:71-77 (2010).

Majewski Lech, „Okradanie śmierci”, rozm. Grażyna Arata, Kino 3:25-26 (2004).

Majewski Lech, „Sztuka, która umożliwia zadomowienie”, rozm. Anna Bielak, Maria Lisok, Ekrany 1-2: 78-82 (2010).

Majewski Lech, „Szukam rajów”, rozm. Jerzy Wójcik, Rzeczpospolita 59:A9 (2004).

Majewski Lech, „Wierzę filozofom, że sztuka komunikuje się z siłą wyższą”, rozm. Anna Fuksiewicz, Kino 2:15-17 (2011).

Majewski Lech, Metafizyka, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie) (2002).

Marczak Mariola, Poetyka filmów religijnych, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo: Arcana) (2000).

Młyn i Krzyż, http://www.themillandthecross.com/, data dostępu 6 września 2018.

Nowakowski Jacek, W stronę raju. O literackiej i filmowej twórczości Lecha Majewskiego, (Poznań: Wydawnictwo UAM) (2012).

Podsiadło Magdalena, Autobiografizm filmowy jako ślad podmiotowej egzystencji, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Universitas) (2013).

Rorty Richard, Przygodność, ironia i solidarność, przeł. Wacław Jan Popowski, (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo W.A.B.) (1996)

Skwarek Irena, Dlaczego autobiografizm? Powieści autobiograficzne dwudziestolecia międzywojennego, (Katowice: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Śląskiego) (1986).

Smulski Jerzy, „Autobiografizm jak postawa i jako strategia artystyczna. Na materiale prozy współczesnej”, Pamiętnik Literacki 4 (1988).

Zajdel Jakub, Lech Majewski – pejzaż po burzy, w: Autorzy kina polskiego, tom 3, red. Grażyna Stachówna, Bogusława Zmudziński, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Rabid) (2008).

Zawojski Piotr, Poezja kamerą (za)pisana. Od Wojaczka do KrwiPoety (i Szklanych ust), strona internetowa: www.zawojski.com/2008/11/24,data dostępu 6 września 2018.

 

Przypisy

[1] Lech Majewski, Metafizyka (fragmenty), http://www.lechmajewski.art.pl/ksiazki.php?id=11, data dostępu 6 września 2018.

[2] Zob. Lech Majewski, „Wierzę filozofom, że sztuka komunikuje się z siłą wyższą”, rozm. A. Fuksiewicz, Kino 2: 15-17 (2011).

[3] Por. Georges Bataille, Historia oka, oprac. Tadeusz Komendant, (Gdańsk: Wydawnictwo Słowo/Obraz Terytoria) (2010).

[4] Por. Maria Czermińska, „Postawa autobiograficzna”, w: Studia o narracji, red. Jan Błoński, Stanisław Jaworski, Janusz Sławiński, (Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich) (1982); Marek Hendrykowski, „O podmiotowym charakterze wypowiedzi filmowej”, w: Studia z poetyki historycznej filmu, red. Alicja Helman, Tadeusz Lubelski, (Katowice: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Śląskiego) (1983); Magdalena Podsiadło, Autobiografizm filmowy jako ślad podmiotowej egzystencji, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Universitas) (2013).

[5] Magdalena Podsiadło, „Trzy typy wypowiedzi autobiograficznych”, w: tejże, dz. cyt., s. 107: „Sygnały autobiograficzne stanowią grupę powracających chwytów, tematów, motywów i sposobów prezentacji, które zapraszają odbiorcę do autobiograficznej lektury. (…) Projekt «ja» zawarty w filmie determinuje kompozycję świata przedstawionego, stopień fabularyzacji prezentowanej historii, posługiwanie się fikcją albo dokumentem, subiektywizacją, kreacją czy strategiami obiektywizującymi, a także wyznacza odbiorcy odmienne zadania autobiograficzne do rozwiązywania”.

[6] Przywołują oni najważniejsze przejawy postawy autobiograficznej. Zob. Irena Skwarek, Dlaczego autobiografizm? Powieści autobiograficzne dwudziestolecia międzywojennego, (Katowice: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Śląskiego) (1986), s. 30; Jerzy Smulski, „Autobiografizm jak postawa i jako strategia artystyczna. Na materiale prozy współczesnej”, Pamiętnik Literacki 4 (1988).

[7] Magdalena Podsiadło, „Trzy typy wypowiedzi autobiograficznych”, dz. cyt., ss. 108 i 119-126.

Czasami te typy występują w postaci czystej, ale zasadniczo o wiele częściej dochodzi do ich łączenia, swobodnego przechodzenia, przenikania.

[8] Magdalena Podsiadło, ss. 108 i 112-118.

[9] Por. Magdalena Podsiadło, ss. 108 i 126-133. Magdalena Podsiadło zauważa, że w twórczości Lecha Majewskiego dominuje: „ja” sylleptyczne oraz forma „wyzwania” rzucona odbiorcy (por. Pokój saren. Opera autobiograficzna, M. Podsiadło, s. 110).

[10] Magdalena Podsiadło, s. 94.

[11] Magdalena Podsiadło, s. 94.

[12] Magdalena Podsiadło, s. 95. Magdalena Podsiadło w tym kontekście wymienia następujące filmy: Andriej Rublow (1966, Andriej Tarkowski); Pogarda (1963, Jean-Luc Godard); Wszystko na sprzedaż (1968, Andrzej Wajda), Po drodze (1979, Márta Mészáros) itp.

[13] Zob. oficjalna strona filmu Młyn i krzyż: http://www.themillandthecross.com/, data dostępu 6 września 2018. Pozostaje pytanie, dlaczego akurat ten film został wskazany jako ważny dla ogólniejszego zagadnienia doświadczenia zmysłowego. Zarówno obraz, jak i za jego pośrednictwem film „dotyka” i opowiada o „sytuacji na granicy”: tego, co poznawalne i tajemnicze, pewne i wątpliwe, obiektywne i subiektywne, artystyczne i rzemieślnicze/codzienne, a więc fizykalne i metafizyczne jednocześnie.

[14] Zob. oficjalna strona Lecha Majewskiego, http://www.lechmajewski.art.pl/wiadomosci.php, data dostępu 6 września 2018. Stan badań na temat twórczości Lecha Majewskiego sprowadza się przede wszystkim do dwóch książek: naukowej monografii Jacka Nowakowskiego W stronę raju. O literackiej i filmowej twórczości Lecha Majewskiego (Poznań: Wydawnictwo Naukowe UAM, 2012) i popularyzatorskiej publikacji Magdaleny Lebeckiej Lech Majewski (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Więź, 2010); a także licznych artykułów wyszczególnionych w bibliografii do artykułu. Wybrany film doczekał się zasadniczo nielicznych analiz.

[15] Lech Majewski w swojej Metafizyce zanotował: „Chronologia? Czemu nie. Ostatecznie jakieś siły uporządkowały nasze egzystencje dziwnymi «przed» i «po», mamiąc nas logiką przyczynowo-skutkową, a my, zagubieni i osamotnieni, wierzymy, że wczoraj poprzedziło dzisiaj, a jutro zastąpi wczoraj, jakby nie rozumiejąc, że jutro i wczoraj są złudzeniami potwierdzonymi jedynie rozpadem materii, jedynym zegarem wszechrzeczy, ową energią ciała, lecz nie ducha” (zob. Lech Majewski, Metafizyka, dz. cyt.).

[16] Magdalena Lebecka, „Młyn i krzyż – Bóg wstrzymał oddech”, w: tejże, Lech Majewski, dz. cyt., s. 157.

[17] Magdalena Lebecka, ss. 157-158. Dalej czytamy, że „Jeszcze przed wyjazdem z Polski, ponad trzydzieści lat temu, przygotowywał inscenizację Króla Edypa Sofoklesa dla «Teatru Studio» Józefa Szajny. Tę antyczną tragedię zinterpretował, posługując się właśnie kluczem brueglowskim. Spektakl, jak wiele innych pomysłów artysty, nie został zrealizowany. Silna fascynacja autorem «Pór roku» jednak przetrwała. To był potencjał czekający na impuls z zewnątrz” (zob. Magdalena Lebecka, s. 158).

[18] Magdalena Lebecka, s. 158.

[19] Zob. Michael F. Gibson, Lech Majewski, Bruegel. Młyn i krzyż, (Olszanica: Wydawnictwo Bosz) (2010).

[20] Richard Rorty, Przygodność, ironia i solidarność, przeł. Wacław Jan Popowski, (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo W.A.B.) (1996), s. 126.

[21] Por. Przemysław Czapliński, “Wyliczanka”, czyli gry Greenawaya [“Drowning” – which is Greenaway’s game], w: Poloniści o filmie [Polish philologists about the film], red. Marek Hendrykowski, (Poznań: Wydawnictwo UAM) (1997).

[22] Najprościej rzecz ujmując: „Projekt metafizyki jest absolutny. Chodzi o wyjaśnienie bytu (dlaczego jest?) i poznanie jego istotnych właściwości (czym jest?), np. istoty czy przyczyn, relacji koniecznych, co może stanowić podstawę dla wypracowania kryteriów wiedzy pewnej. Według niektórych koncepcji metafizyki, jej przedmiot leży poza obrębem doświadczenia. Dlatego metafizykę krytykuje się z pozycji sceptycznych, empirystycznych, pozytywistycznych i scjentystycznych” – Kazimierz Leśniak, „Wstęp”, w: Arystoteles, Metafizyka, (Warszawa: PWN) (1983), ss. xii-xiii.

[23] Lech Majewski wielokrotnie wspominał eksperyment, który wykonała przed przystąpieniem do realizacji filmu, a który polegał na komputerowym wyeliminowaniu z obrazu wszystkich bohaterów i przyjrzeniu się pustemu krajobrazowi. Okazało się, że nie można dostrzec go w przedstawiony sposób używając statycznego „oka” (na przykład kamery). Podobne zdolności ma tylko „oko” żywe, ruchome, a więc ludzkie (Zob. materiał dołączony do filmu na DVD).

[24] Z jednej strony odkrycie ruchu Ziemi przydało jej znaczenia i zasugerował możliwość istnienia wielu tajemnic, które są jeszcze niewyjaśnione, zbliżyło też do człowieka i jego ziemskich spraw, choćby w tym sensie, że wiedza na jej temat „pozwoliła się okiełznać”. Z drugiej strony sprawy ziemskie przestały być już tak oczywiste, stałe i niezmienne, jak się początkowo wydawały. Ruch nadał Ziemi „walor filmowy”, a ten przyczynił się do myślenia o niej także w kontekście metafizyki. Obraz rzeczywistości, jaki dzięki takiej wiedzy powstaje, jest kompromisem: iluzją zmysłów „przefiltrowaną” przez pojmowanie rozumowe.

[25] Michael F. Gibson, Lech Majewski, Bruegel. Młyn i krzyż, dz. cyt., s. 20.

[26] Pisała na ten temat Maria Rzepińska, Siedem wieków malarstwa europejskiego, (Wrocław: Wydawnictwo: Ossolineum) (1986), s. 198.

[27] Maria Rzepińska, ss. 200-201.

[28] Zob. Jacek Nowakowski, „Kalwaria raz jeszcze – Młyn i krzyż”, w: tegoż, W stronę raju. O literackiej i filmowej twórczości Lecha Majewskiego, (Poznań: Wydawnictwo UAM) (2012), s. 220.

[29] Próba analizy tajemnicy wielości perspektyw w obrazie Droga krzyżowa znajduje się także w filmie dokumentalnym, który powstał przy okazji realizacji filmu Młyn i krzyż–Lech Majewski. Świat według Bruegela (2009, Dagmara Drzazga; zob. informacje na temat filmu: http://www.filmpolski.pl/fp/index.php?film=4223549, data dostępu: 6 września 2018): „to, między innymi, chce nam powiedzieć wielki malarz i filozof: najważniejsze wydarzenia dzieją się w chaosie codzienności, niezauważane przez współczesnych”.

[30] Magdalena Lebecka, „Młyn i krzyż – Bóg wstrzymał oddech”, dz. cyt., s. 160.

[31] Lech Majewski, „Collage sztuki i technologii”, rozm. Magdalena Lebecka, FilmPro 1: 71-77 (2010).

[32] Patrycja Cembrzyńska w kontekście wystawy prac Majewskiego w Muzeum Narodowym w Krakowie (01.04-05.06.2011) pisała: „Czy Majewski chce powiedzieć, że artystyczna kreacja nosi boskie znamię? Raczej mimochodem przypomina jedną z najstarszych mitologii sztuki, świadom, że mit artysty-kreatora, podobnego bogom, jego własna epoka poddała dekonstrukcji. Zresztą filmowy Bruegel wybiera na swojego «nauczyciela» nie Boga, który gwarantuje wsteczny sens tego, co stworzone, a pająka. Nie ma bowiem początku dzieła, nie powstaje ono ex nihil, tylko w sieci obrazów, którą artysta-pająk może cierpliwie, z mozołem tkać; to wątkiem, to osnową łączyć się z dziełami przeszłości” (zob. Patrycja Cembrzyńska, „Pajęcza sieć obrazów Lecha Majewskiego”, Tygodnik Powszechny 6: 99 [2011]).

[33] Zob. Michael F. Gibson, Lech Majewski, dz. cyt., s. 111.

[34] Zob. Michael F. Gibson, Lech Majewski, s. 112.

[35] Zob. Michael F. Gibson, Lech Majewski, s. 113.

The body of the viewer and immersive audio-visual art. The somatic character of new Japanese experimental film

Agnieszka Kiejziewicz

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2018, vol.3, no. 1, pp. 27-42.

 

Agnieszka Kiejziewicz
Jagiellonian University

 

 

 

The body of the viewer and immersive audio-visual art. The somatic character of new Japanese experimental film

 

Abstract

The author of this article aims at presenting the somatic character of the audiovisual experiments created by the Japanese directors after the year 2000. Focusing on their postulates, stating that the experimental film should “touch the viewer” and can “be felt,” the author analyses the chosen installations, audiovisual performances and screenings to show how the corporeality of the spectator becomes a part of the film. Moreover, the artists discussed in this article employ different methods of creating the somatic character of their works. The author mentions such artists as Takashi Makino, Rei Hayama, Kazuhiro Goshima and Ai Hasegawa, especially emphasizing the techniques they use to contemplate the possibilities of interacting with the body of the viewer. They combine live music and projection of audio-visual materials on several surfaces, edit the filmed sequences during the screening, depending on the reactions of the public, and prepare the viewer to understand the installations by providing them with elaborate technical descriptions or dilemma charts. In the presented article, the author reconsiders the meaning of the appearance of the viewer for the new Japanese experimental filmmakers, wondering why the directors are playing with the boundaries of audience’s understanding and are balancing between offering a comforting audiovisual spectacle and disturbing the viewer’s perception.

 

Keywords: Japanese audiovisual experiment, new avant-garde, Takashi Makino, Rei Hayama, Kazuhiro Goshima, Ai Hasegawa

Introduction

The directors of new Japanese experimental film, a phenomenon that has developed rapidly since 2000[1], are primarily focused on the viewer’s perception and their place in the process of “being touched” by the work of art[2]. They wish to influence the observer, initiate changes in their perception (for example, opening them up to new forms of visual art), and underline the significance of “feeling the film.”[3] Here, the main concern of the artists is, using terminology introduced by Luke Hockley in his Somatic Cinema[4], “the body of the viewer.” This means that screenings of their films (or displays of audio-visual installations in galleries), are designed to be perceived by all of the senses, to immerse the viewer into the audio-visual spectacle. They are often accompanied by ‘dilemma charts’, instructions, to-do lists and models that can be touched, or surroundings to be discovered. The corporeality of the observer becomes a part of the performance – one of the elements of the scenography, a lens filtering the picture, or even another screening surface.

The artists discussed in this analysis employ different means of fulfilling these schemes. For example, Takashi Makino combines live music and projection of audio-visual materials on several surfaces with simple 3D technique, called Pulfrich effect. Moreover, Hayama and Makino edit the filmed performances during the screening, depending on the reactions of the public and their personal feelings. Kazuhiro Goshima[5], another artist covered in this article, prepares the viewer to understand his installation by providing them with complex technical descriptions to be learned before the performance/screening. Ai Hasegawa[6], a biologist and computer graphics animator, even invites the viewer to contemplate the possibilities of their body. By offering false biological theories supported by convincing audio-visual material, anatomic models and dilemma charts, Hasegawa invites the viewer to undertake a game of imagining possible future scenarios for humankind. According to the artists, their works – using Hockley’s words to summarize the aims of the new generation of experimental audio-visual directors – are designed to enable the viewer to “experience the immersive qualities that are part of cinematic experience.”[7]

Moreover, the somatic character of the majority of the new Japanese audio-visual experiments can be made even more visible by comparing the directors’ achievements and goals with Hockley’s theory. He points out that experimental film often manifests “the shift from considering ‘viewer, screen’ and instead asserts the primacy of the ‘viewer-screen’ paradigmatic relationship as the key way through which to better understand the cinematic experience.”[8] In the optics of representatives of the new Japanese experimental movement, accepting the leading role of this new relationship allows for focussing on – again using Hockley’s term – “mindfulness.” If understood as “a practice of bringing one’s attention to bear on the present moment,”[9] it situates the process of the viewer gaining awareness (of their body or another aspect chosen by the artist) in the center of the artistic pursuits of the Japanese experimental directors. Writing about the somatic aspects of cinema, Hockley proposes perceiving film as “a type of transitional object”[10] and cinema as a “transitional phenomenon” . This corresponds with the point of view of moving pictures manifested by the directors[11]. For example, Takashi Makino perceives the moment of screening as a “creative collaboration with filmmaker and audience, in which each act of watching gives birth to a new cosmos”[12], and as “an act of true creativity.”[13] In his view, a film screening can initiate the process of transition of the viewer from one mental state to another – designed by, or at last expected, the director.

In considering the boundary-breaking works of this young generation of Japanese directors and their creative approaches to inter-media concepts, as well as their fascination with new technologies, their work can also be classified as “expanded cinema.”[14] Introducing Le Grice’s definition[15], it can be seen that these new Japanese experiments expand the boundaries of film and performance, going further than the experimental artists of Japan’s 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. After the year 2000, the ‘expanded’ character of the new wave of Japanese experimentation is intangibly connected to the emergence of new technologies, such as computer processing of images or the use of 3D. However, although primarily aimed at offering an experience distinct from live-action popular films[16], this expansion is often created with consideration of the position of the viewer.

This article will examine how these award-winning Japanese artists of the new avant-garde movement invite the viewer to immerse themselves in their installations and screenings, to transgress the boundaries of the body, religion and political views, and contemplate “film as a film.”[17] The audio-visual installations described in this article were chosen from different thematic areas, and represent artists with diverse views on the problem of the somatic character of their works. However, they all share the same approach to developing the concept of the new avant-garde movement, agreeing that the need to immerse the viewer should shape their artistic pursuits.

Toward The Tactile Visions

After several solo projects and collaborations with people from outside the world of art[18], members of the Collective [+] group[19] Rei Hayama and Takashi Makino decided to work together. This resulted in an audio-visual performance they call Toward The Tactile Visions[20]. The project, which had two screenings (the first in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on May 12th 2018, and the second in Bangkok on May 15th 2018[21]), workshops and meetings with audiences, was put together with Arnont Nongyao[22] and curated by Pathompong Manakitsomboon. Toward The Tactile Visions was designed to bring together the areas of interests of the artists to create an inter-medial experience for the viewer.

Here, it is worth mentioning the objectives and backgrounds of the artists before we present, later on, the connections between their different styles. Rei Hayama[23] studied at the Department of Moving Images and Performing Arts at Tama Art University,[24] but her films have also been screened abroad, including in the Netherlands, Slovakia, Germany, Belgium, and the USA[25]. Hayama’s films are deeply inspired by her childhood memories of living in a forest with her parents, where she was able to experience close contact with nature and observe the life cycles of particular species. She was inspired by birds the most, so in her films one can find many references to these “mysterious creatures,”[26] as she calls them. Hayama connects the creative process to her moods, describing it in this way: “I’m making films like making a forest. This is what I feel through my creative thought process; the feeling tells me how the fiction and reality is like a house and nature, and how we traverse between these two worlds again and again.”[27] The core concept of Hayama’s pictures is the act of transformation (often into a bird)[28], but she also references other symbolic figures: men, children, memory and nature. The filmmaker uses them to explain the relations between technological development and the longing for the past, when people existed closer to nature[29]. What’s more, the artist claims to take the perspective of “a bird’s-eye view,”[30] which she explains in her manifesto: “[…] I think about the thing that has been lost or neglected from an anthropocentric view of the world. I attempt to fall off from the arbitrary illusion of human’s »height«, transport nature into the space of human’s thought by the temporal art that makes time for thinking about what we are, and what is the relationship between human and others. My works are based on an allegorical plot, and it told by poetic writings and symbolical images such as recorded body action. There are some key factors often appear in work such as bird’s eye viewpoint, forest, pretend (play), the non-human leading character.”[31] In this case, it can be seen that Hayama seeks to avoid the anthropocentric point of view and gives voice to the animals instead, in an attempt to deliberate their gaze upon the human world[32].

In contrast to Rei Hayama, Takashi Makino[33] rejects decipherable visual forms and symbols, focusing on the abstract. He debuted in 2004 with a short film, EVE, which pointed the way ahead for the artist’s further development. As the filmmaker has indicated, he is searching for the best and most intimate way to show the tremendous character of the cosmos and make the liminal experience of ‘touching the void’ as palpable as possible. Makino’s pursuits stem from an accident he suffered when he was young, and a series of visions he then experienced. Subsequently, he found that film works for him as a tool for explaining his feelings, and similarly to Hayama, bring back memories and make them accessible to viewers[34]. To create, as he calls it, the “perfect film,”[35] Makino tests the viewer’s ability to understand his experimental visions of whirling shapes and colours. While explaining his choice of the artistic means, the director observes: “None of the creatures that exist in the world are born of their own volition; when they first achieve awareness, they find themselves adrift in chaos. It is only by creating cosmos that they are able to overcome the fundamental meaningless and fear of existence”[36].

The third member of the Toward The Tactile Visions project, Arnont Nongyao, experiments with the connections between sound and moving pictures, and considers film as an illustration of sound. Nongyao is a debutant, who had his first solo exhibition, entitled Another Sound, at the beginning of 2018[37]. As he describes his own objectives, his main aim is “exploring an approach to communications and the concept of life passing-on through sonic and visual mediations.”[38] Nongyao contributed to Toward The Tactile Visions mostly by adding sound to the filmed footage, using his previous experience of working on Another Sound. On the project, he considered sound samples to be a unique language that helped him communicate with his fellow artists, getting around the Thai/Japanese language barrier that forced them to communicate through experimental compositions[39]. It’s worth indicating that Nongyao’s performances are very similar to Makino’s: he shows films, mostly of whirling shapes and colours, on surfaces other than normal screens, accompanied by live music. The artist also works with scripts that can be modified on the fly during the screenings, based on live observation of the audience’s reactions.

The pictures and sounds included in the final version of Toward The Tactile Visions clearly bear a resemblance to previous works by Hayama, Makino and Nongyao individually. As the artists indicate on the event’s Facebook page[40], they aim to show the relationship between the medium and the emergence of “the consciousness and awareness of cinema as the real cinematic event.”[41] They also emphasise that contact with experimental/expanded cinema “contaminates”[42] the viewer – creating the ability to connect his body to the sound and image he experiences. Toward The Tactile Visions was designed with the purpose of teaching audiences about the diversity of possible cinematic forms that differ from narrative cinema. In their description, the artists also use the term “to touch” experimental cinema, and this idea underlines the somatic character of their work.

The first screening took place at Chiang Mai University Art Center, with the venue being a giant white cube that allowed the artists to project the films on every wall in the room. Later, the group discussed how the location significantly influenced the way they modified the event, and how the screening itself went totally differently than the second one in Bangkok. Apart from the displays of cameras and musical instruments placed around the venue, other items related to the film were set out. Among these were branches without leaves, specially prepared by Hayama to underline the theme of nature in the film. Moreover, the artists used their bodies as parts of the scenography, freely moving around the white cube and casting shadows on the screens. Some of the images in the film are Makino’s ‘noisy supernovas’ – colourful collages, changing from deep rose to blue, or light dots moving down the screen. Between the whirling abstractions, various distorted, enlarged shapes of recognisable items emerge, such as parts of plants, tools, animals and even people recorded during their daily routines. It is significant here that the artists are visible to the viewers throughout the screening, sometimes even stepping in front of the screen, continuously engaged in the process of creating the performance. It is worth noting that because of the shape of the venue, the second screening at the Alliance Française center in Bangkok was restrained to one big screen, with some additional effects projected onto the walls closest to the screen. Explaining the differences between two venues and their influence on the project, Hayama observed:

“At Alliance Française center, we did perform at the normal cinema. It was a very interesting contrast to our previous performance at Chiang Mai University. At Alliance Française center, we felt sort of limitation of the space for our performance because the space is well designed for screening cinema. In the end, we decided to add two small stand screens on both sides of the main screen. I put one guitar in front of the main screen, and the long strip of clear 16mm film was going through the string. The film strip was run through the middle of the audience to where the projector set and kept making a sound of the guitar. (At Chiang Mai University, I set the black film strip went through the tree branch instead of the audience. And the tree gradually made a scratch on the film during the performance.) Their audience could hear the image and see the sound. It also made the audience noticed the film and the situation of cinematic space.”[43]

The postulate of allowing the viewer to ‘touch’ the film was also fulfilled in another significant way. A projector was pointed at the audience, displaying images on the backs of the viewers’ heads and faces, making another screen out of their skin. As such, observers were also able to follow the images on their bodies and the bodies of the other audience members. The immersive character of the screening was reinforced by this attempt to make the viewer the center of the picture, liberating the picture from the confines of screens. The colours and movements of the projected images let the audience feel as though they were floating in a sea of pictures.

In Toward The Tactile Visions, these three artists came together to merge the styles and objectives known from their previous works. The visual collages of Makino, the focus on the environment and living creatures of Hayama, and the search for experimental sounds by Nongyao, were all brought together to fulfil the postulates of haptic cinema.

This May not be a Movie

Kazuhiro Goshima[44] began his film experiments slightly before the increase in popularity of this kind of artistic activity that occurred in 2000[45]. This visual creator debuted as a freelance media content designer in the mid-1990s, but soon gave up the commercial market and devoted himself to new forms of expression as an experimental filmmaker[46]. In his work, Goshima is mostly focused on the role of light and shadow, which in his hands shape not only recognizable images but also have the power to make their surroundings come alive. For example, in his 2013 Shadowland, the shadows are the “breath of the city” that gives the metropolis its unique identity[47]. From early on, Goshima has also been interested in playing with viewer’s perceptions. Using sudden close-ups and sudden disappearances of objects[48], experimenting with movement and the viewer’s position[49], or connecting sounds with blurry pictures, he makes audiences guess the final shape of the presented scene[50]. However, even though Goshima has been busy deliberating on the position of the viewer from the beginning, his first work engaging the viewer’s body could be said to have a somatic character, and appeared in his portfolio in 2014. This is an audio-visual installation entitled This May not be a Movie.

Analysing Goshima’s film, it is worth starting with Le Grice’s article Problematising the Spectator’s Placement in Film[51], which launched a polemic against Christian Metz’s paper The Imaginary Signifier[52]. Le Grice comments on the theoretical approach Metz manifests toward the role and condition of the viewer of experimental film. Following Metz’s findings, Le Grice focuses on the mechanisms of identifying viewers, while encountering (using Metz’s terminology) “inhuman sequences” in avant-garde films that “eliminate the portrayed character or even eliminate all photo-recording.”[53] He makes the observation (which could be useful when analysing Goshima’s films), that viewers might “identify with the camera.”[54] He says that this means identification with the mechanism, as well as the “authority behind the narrative order.”[55] Nevertheless, Le Grice tries to explain the place (and situation of the body) of the viewer trying to understand experimental films in which there are no narrative patterns visible. He concludes that “[…] it is necessary to assume that the spectator must produce an auditory and specular construction for the film which is not directly that of the film presented – the spectator must be expelled from the film text in order to produce the conceptual construct as an act of the symbolic.”[56]

The situation of the viewer explained above seems to describe the shape of the projection and the viewer’s identification process, as designed by Goshima in This May not be a Movie. Here, Goshima raises the question of what a film is, and at which point the viewer starts perceiving the sequence of moving pictures as a consistent film production[57]. As he pointed out in an interview for The Japan Times[58], he used the Japanese term dōga, translated into English as ‘movie’, ‘film’, ‘motion picture’, or even ‘cinema’. However, in the Japanese language dōga is comparable to the term eiga (which also translates as ‘film’). It is thus perceived as meaning ‘motion picture’ – expressing different content and emphasising that the work, as Goshima sees it, is “composited from still frames.”[59] Explaining the reasoning behind his work, the author says: “When you think about the fuzziness of meaning of the wider application of eiga in its broad conceptual sense, you realize that it is the product of multiple mechanisms. I created one mechanism that pushes it to its limit in one direction, and by doing so I hoped to expand the breadth of its conceptualization. That’s why although the title is »This May Not Be a Movie«, its real message is »It’s possible to alter the meaning of ‘movie’ any number of times«.”[60]

This May not be a Movie is in fact an audio-visual installation, built out of screens, fibre-optic cables, a lattice, am image sensor and a movie camera, situated in the center of a small room. For their first glimpse, it gives viewers no hints about its purpose or the meaning of the images displayed. The blurry, colourful images on the screen are pictures of several hundred lines of light that appear after changes in the brightness of each pixel on a piece of 4×5 inch film[61]. This is accompanied by an explanatory movie[62], from which the viewer can learn that behind the displayed images are the simple sequences of a Japanese man waving two white flags, running or riding a bicycle, as well as three people walking. This technical addendum explains the technological process and allows viewers to better understand the concept. However, it is impossible to fully experience the installation, as well as depict its meaning, without engaging with these additional materials. Here, Goshima seeks to show the viewer how the optical illusion of seeing a film works, stating that the amount of information the observer receives “exceeds the reality.” The director states that such experimental art can power the imagination and leave room for new interpretations of the objects so viewed. In this case, he re-examines the relationship between the viewer’s perception and the medium, focusing on the lack of identification of the observer with the presented pictures. Instead, he offers a pure description of the technological process, which reveals the boundaries of the viewer’s perceptions and its constraints. It can be stated that the center of Goshima’s installation is not the process itself, but the observer, whose body receives a new position – an imperfect lens that distorts the original picture.

The Mother of species

The last project described in this article was designed by Ai Hasegawa, a biologist and visual creator, who speculates on possible future scenarios and combines audio-visual art with her scientific background. So far, Hasegawa has presented such installations as the widely-discussed (Im)possible Baby[63], and The Extreme Environmental Love Hotel[64], in which she tackles socially important topics such as biotechnological modifications to human genomes, and environmental issues. Similar themes also appear in her 2013 installation I Wanna Deliver a Dolphin[65].

The artist approaches issues of overcrowding, overdevelopment, and environmental crisis through presentation of an alternative, even grotesque form of human reproduction – delivery of  endangered species[66]. Giving birth to animals (such as a dolphin, tuna or shark) could, according to Hasegawa’s speculation, satisfy humankind’s need to reproduce, as well as its need for nutrition[67]. The idea for her I Wanna Deliver a Dolphin audio-visual installation emerged when the artist turned thirty and she started thinking about having her own children. In an interview for an online magazine, Shift, she said that “I had turned 30, and was at an age when I would have to seriously think about having children. At the same time, there was a lot of news coverage surrounding environmental issues. Such news reports made me think about overpopulation and the food problem, and I thought, »are more humans necessary? Would children be happy being forced into this deteriorating world?«” In this case, it can be pointed out that I Wanna Deliver a Dolphin was a result of the author’s consciousness of her bodily changes, and a need for sharing that awareness with a broader audience.

As an example of an ideal species for becoming a human baby, the artist chose the Maui’s dolphin, which has the right size to be grown in a human placenta. Combining a highly suggestive fragment of film showing the birth of a dolphin and its first moments, with footage of a human mother and a model of a placenta displayed next to the screen, Hasegawa tricks the viewer into considering the possibility of the depicted situation. The scientific descriptions that accompany the screening seem to suggest the possibility of the process, further legitimized by technical details[68]. What’s more, the author presents a ‘dilemma chart’ and invites the viewer to consider whether they would like to deliver an endangered species. It’s worth pointing out that the project asks the question from a non-western, non-male perspective, which fact was especially praised by the jury of the 2014 Core 77 Design Awards[69]. The dilemma chart that accompanies the film is designed for female viewers to follow,[70] and in doing so imagine themselves in the situation presented on the screen. Here, the observer, tricked by the mock technical details designed to convince viewers of the truth presented on-screen, is invited to reconsider the abilities of their body. Moreover, the artist questions the motivation and morality of the viewer in imagining the possibility of giving birth to an endangered species, only to eat it for its unique, luxury meat. It is significant that while approaching the installation in the exhibition space, the viewer is not informed that the dolphin is a robot (and that the whole birthing process is simulated by an actress). The simulation is also enhanced with various graphic details, such as blood filling the birthing pool.

Following the primary aim of expanded cinema, Hasegawa pushes the boundaries of the relationship between audiences and audio-visual material, as well as encouraging immersion in the projection and a response to questions of a moral and even religious character. Here, the body of the viewer is a transmitter of meanings, which seems to be perfectly illustrated by a quotation from Vivian Sobchack’s Carnal Thoughts: “the film experience is meaningful not to the side of our bodies, but because of our bodies. Which is to say that movies provoke in us the »carnal thoughts« that ground and inform more conscious analysis.”[71]

Conclusion

The appearance of the body of the viewer – exposed to a cacophony of sounds, colours and the insecurity resulting from seeing controversial or thought-provoking content – becomes the reason for creating such encounters in moving pictures as those presented by the Japanese experimental directors discussed in this article. They are checking the boundaries of audiences’ understanding, continuously balancing between shocking and comforting them. What’s more, the artists are often genuinely interested in receiving feedback from their audiences, and they collect opinions on the emotional states the viewers reached during the screenings – becoming something like researchers on human perception. The somatic character of these new Japanese audio-visual experiments could be a subject of further interest, as these three directors at least are not stopping pursuing new methods of fulfilling their postulates. As such, it can be assumed that in the next few years the list of experiments, following their achievements presented in this article, will be expanded.

 

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Makino Takashi (ed.) Plus Documents 2009-2013, (Tokyo: Engine Books) (2014).

Marks Laura U., The Skin of the Film. Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, (Durham: Duke University Press) (2000).

Metz Christian, “The Imaginary Signifier”, Screen 16:2 (1975), pp. 14-76.

Rees Al, History of Experimental Film and Video, (London: Palgrave Macmillan) (2011).

Rei Hayama, http://reihayama.net/, date accessed 14 June 2018.

Ross Julian, “Interview: Takashi Makino”, Filmcomment (2014), http://www.filmcomment.com/blog/interview-takashi-makino/, date accessed 15 June 2018.

 

Sas Miryam, Experimental Arts in Postwar Japan: Moments of Encounter, Engagement, and Imagined Return, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press) (2011).

Shaneen Marianne, “Takashi Makino’s 2012”, BOMB – Artist in Conversation Magazine 130 (2015), http://bombmagazine.org/article/2000042/takashi-makino-s-em-2012-em, date of access 13 June 2018.

Shift. Japan-based international online magazine features creative culture, http://www.shift.jp.org/en/archives/2016/02/ai-hasegawa.html, date accessed 11 June 2018.

Sobchack Vivian, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture, (Berkeley: University of California Press) (2004).

The Japan Times, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2015/02/05/arts/kazuhiro-goshima-sheer-amount-information-4k-exceeds-reality/#.VvmZ4kcoN8h, date accessed 28.03.2016.

Toward the Tactile Visions, https://web.facebook.com/events/2087048401511185/, date accessed 10 June 2018 [event’s webpage].

Toward the Tactile Visions, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCcglLozI4B7M0IZS81hDj1g, date accessed 15 June 2018 [performance video recording, excerpt].

Wro Art Center, http://wrocenter.pl/pl/ai-hasegawa-jp-i-wanna-deliver-a-dolphin/, date accessed 18 June 2018.

Vacheron Joel, “Kazuhiro Goshima: After the Metabolic Cities”, 12th Biennial of Moving Images in Geneva, (JRP | Ringier, Centre St-Gervais, Genève) (2007).

Youngblood Gene, Expanded Cinema, (New York: P. Dutton & Co., Inc.) (1970).

 

 

Notes

[1] The new Japanese experimental film movement first emerged in 2000 as a continuation of the artistic attempts of previous generations of Japanese independent filmmakers. Artists such as Rei Hayama, Takashi Makino, Shinkan Tamaki, Kazuhiro Goshima and others not mentioned in this article, all wanted to revive the artistic means that seemed to have long disappeared since the video revolution of the 1980s, and the development of multiplex cinema in Japan in the 1990s. For more on the subject, see for example: Agnieszka Kiejziewicz, “The technologies of experimental Japanese filmmakers in the digital era”, Transmissions: the Journal of Film and Media Studies 1:1 (2016), pp. 99-114.

[2] See: Takashi Makino (ed.) Plus Documents 2009-2013, (Tokyo: Engine Books) (2014), pp. 4-7, 14. In a manifesto published by Collective [+], together with a short lexicon of their works, the artists underline the importance of influencing the viewer and inviting them to contemplate experimental and expanded works. Explaining the purposes of their artistic pursuits, the artists often use the phrase “to touch the viewer” – relating the act of communication between the creator and the observer to senses other than sight.

[3] See: Marianne Shaneen, “Takashi Makino’s 2012”, BOMB – Artist in Conversation Magazine 130 (2015), http://bombmagazine.org/article/2000042/takashi-makino-s-em-2012-em, date of access 13 June 2018. Summarizing Makino’s aims and achievements, Marianne Shaneen observes that Makino describes the screenings as “creative collaboration with filmmaker and audience”. Also, she points out that his art is “[…] an embodied, perceptual engagement with the continually transforming materiality […]” which generates “sensations of sublime transcendence—an inspiring model for experiencing everyday realities, as well as cinematic ones”.

[4] Luke Hockley, Somatic Cinema: The relationship between body and screen – a Jungian perspective, (New York: Routledge) (2014), p. 1.

[5] The artist’s website, see: Kazuhiro Goshima, http://www.goshiman.com/hp/04profile_e.html, date accessed 28.03.2016.

[6] The artist’s website, see: Ai Hasegawa, http://aihasegawa.info/, date accessed 15 June 2018.

[7] Luke Hockley, p. 6.

[8] Luke Hockley, p. 7.

[9] Luke Hockley, p. 7.

[10] Luke Hockley, p. 7.

[11] In the optics of the Japanese experimental artists discussed herein, the transitional character of cinema is related to the postulate that a film screening should change the viewer – develop their perception, initiate metaphysical reflection upon reality and teach them to read the meaning behind the experimental forms. As Takashi Makino points out: “While the audience experiences the film’s visual and sonic display, nonetheless, they are free to dwell into their own imagination. What fascinates me most about film expression is the potential for what is presented on the screen to collide with each individual viewer’s emotional landscape, and the new ‘image’ created inside the viewer’s mind resulting from this collision.” More, see: Makino Takashi, http://makinokino.exblog.jp/, date accessed 15 June 2018.

[12] Marianne Shaneen.

[13] Marianne Shaneen.

[14] Malcolm Le Grice, Experimental Cinema in the Digital Age, (London: Palgrave) (2001), p. 273.

[15] Malcolm Le Grice, pp. 273-274. Le Grice offers the following definition of expanded cinema: “The concept of Expanded Cinema was part of this [during the 1960s – author] general move by artists to break old artistic boundaries, explore cross-media fusions, and experiment with new technologies but, most importantly, to challenge the constraints of existing art discourses.”

[16] Makino states that Hollywood films predetermine certain images should be perceived – for example, those rendered in 3D. According to him, experimental cinema can offer an individual approach to the viewer that doesn’t determine the patterns of their reception; therefore it stands against mainstream cinema. For more, see: Ross Julian, “Interview: Takashi Makino”, Filmcomment (2014), http://www.filmcomment.com/blog/interview-takashi-makino/, date accessed 15 June 2018.

[17]See: Malcolm Le Grice, p. 275.

[18] For example, Takashi Makino has worked with musicians and composers, such as Jim O’Rourke. Moreover, Hayama was often accompanied by her sister, who helped with filming natural landscapes (for example, in the film Their Bird [2010-2012, 8 mm film and video, 13 min]).

[19] Currently, [+] is working more as a screening organizer group, not a group of artists pursuing the similar aesthetic objectives. For the project Toward The Tactile Visions, Hayama and Makino collaborated as individual artists, not the members of [+], what seems to be significant from the point of view of the mentioned directors. That decision of creating an independent project had not only the financial implications, but also allowed inviting Arnont Nongyao to the joint project.

[20] The only public information about the project was published on the Facebook event’s site. See: Toward the Tactile Visions, https://web.facebook.com/events/2087048401511185/, date accessed 10 June 2018 [event’s webpage].

[21] Excerpts from video recordings of the performances can be checked out on the Internet, see: Toward the Tactile Visions, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCcglLozI4B7M0IZS81hDj1g, date accessed 15 June 2018 [performance video recording, excerpt].

[22] See: IFFR, https://iffr.com/en/persons/arnont-nongyao, date accessed 17 June 2018. Arnont Nongyao (1979) is an experimental filmmaker from Thailand. He is mostly focused on searching for experimental sounds and vibrations – which he then incorporates into his films. So far, he has directed such films as: Mr. Weirdo and Anomalous Space (2003, short), A Perfect Disaster (2004, co-director), All the Chapter of the Song You Ate Me (2006, short), Anonymous (2013, documentary), Drink Sky On Rabbit’s Field (2014, short), Sound Inventing & Inside Inventor (2015, short), and Ghost Rabbit & The Casket Sales (2015, short).

[23] Biographical information and the Rei Hayama’s objectives were also presented in the author’s article, “Literary inspirations in Japanese audiovisual experiment. Rei Hayama’s film art”, Problems of Literary Genres 61:1 (2018) [in print].

[24] Light Cone, https://lightcone.org/en/filmmaker-2639-rei-hayama, date accessed 14 June 2018.

[25] Rei Hayama, http://reihayama.net/, date accessed 14 June 2018.

[26] Monica Delgado, José S. Hinojosa, “Interview: Rei Hayama”, desistfilm, http://desistfilm.com/interview-rei-hayama/ (2014).

[27] Monica Delgado, José S. Hinojosa. The quotation is presented in its original form.

[28] Hayama Rei, Private conversations with Rei Hayama (2017-2018), [interviews in the author’s own archive].

[29] Hayama Rei.

[30] Monica Delgado, José S. Hinojosa.

[31] Rei Hayama.

[32] However, it should be pointed out that the artists also take inspiration from western literature (for example, the poetry of Paul Valéry), films such as Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (Werckmeister harmóniák, 2000), and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s works, as well as the performative art of Ana Mendieta.

[33] Fore more about Takashi Makino, see: Kiejziewicz Agnieszka, “Enter the metaphysical cosmos: the visualizations of the universe in Japanese experimental cinema”, Maska. Anthropology Sociology Culture 29 (2016), pp. 147-156.

[34] Marianne Shaneen.

[35] Marianne Shaneen.

[36] Light Cone, Makino Takashi. Still in Cosmos, http://lightcone.org/en/film-7445-still-in-cosmos, date accessed 17 June 2018.

[37] Arnont Nongyao, http://www.arnontnongyao.com/arnontnongyao.com/Another_Sound.html, date accessed 15 June 2018.

[38] Arnont Nongyao.

[39] Arnont Nongyao.

[40] Toward the Tactile Visions, https://web.facebook.com/events/2087048401511185/, date accessed 10 June 2018 [event’s webpage].

[41] Toward the Tactile Visions.

[42] Toward the Tactile Visions.

[43] Agnieszka Kiejziewicz, Conversations with Rei Hayama (2018), [the interview with Rei Hayama, the material in the author’s archive].

[44] I wrote about the role of the technologies used by Goshima in his films between the 1990s and 2016 in an article: Agnieszka Kiejziewicz, “The technologies of experimental Japanese filmmakers in the digital era”, Transmissions: the Journal of Film and Media Studies 1:1 (2016), pp. 102-104.

[45] Kazuhiro Goshima, http://www.goshiman.com/hp/04profile_e.html, date accessed 28.03.2016.

[46] Agnieszka Kiejziewicz, “The technologies…”, pp. 102-104.

[47] Agnieszka Kiejziewicz, “The technologies…”, pp. 102-104.

[48] For example, in such films as Uncertain camera (2009), or In the forest of shadows (2008).

[49] For example, in Relative position (2012).

[50] For example, in Looking and listening (2014).

[51] Malcolm Le Grice, pp. 172-183.

[52] Metz Christian, “The Imaginary Signifier”, Screen 16:2 (1975), pp. 14-76.

[53] Malcolm Le Grice, p. 177.

[54] Malcolm Le Grice, p. 179.

[55] Malcolm Le Grice, pp.179-181.

[56] Malcolm Le Grice, p. 183.

[57] Kazuhiro Goshima, http://www.goshiman.com/hp/04profile_e.html, date accessed 28.03.2016.

[58] The Japan Times, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2015/02/05/arts/kazuhiro-goshima-sheer-amount-information-4k-exceeds-reality/#.VvmZ4kcoN8h, date accessed 28.03.2016.

[59] The Japan Times.

[60] The Japan Times.

[61] Kazuhiro Goshima.

[62] The explanatory movie was also posted on YouTube, see:  これは映画ではないらしい THIS MAY NOT BE A MOVIE, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4i-3Pc6nCE&feature=youtu.be, date accessed 17 June 2018 [Kazuhiro Goshima’s technical details explanation film].

[63] Ai Hasegawa, http://aihasegawa.info/, date accessed 15 June 2018.

[64] See: Shift. Japan-based international online magazine features creative culture, http://www.shift.jp.org/en/archives/2016/02/ai-hasegawa.html, date accessed 11 June 2018. The (Im)possible baby project is another example of Hasegawa’s speculative design. It was created to “stimulate discussions about the social, cultural and ethical implications of emerging biotechnologies that could enable same-sex couple to have their own, genetically related children.” The artist analyzed the DNA data of a lesbian couple, and comparing their genotypes, visualized the look of their potential children (two girls). Hasegawa used these simulation models to create a set of fictional photos, showing the unique moments that could have happened (for example, family meals and celebrations). The results were presented around the world as photo exhibitions, as well as in a 30-minute documentary, made with the help of the Japanese national television, NHK.

[65] I Wanna Deliver a Dolphin was also exhibited in Poland, thanks to the artist’s cooperation with the Wro Art Center in Wrocław. See: Wro Art Center, http://wrocenter.pl/pl/ai-hasegawa-jp-i-wanna-deliver-a-dolphin/, date accessed 18 June 2018.

[66] Ai Hasegawa.

[67] Ai Hasegawa.

[68] See: Ai Hasegawa. The technical details, presented together with the film and model, are as follows: “To make it possible for a human mother to deliver a dolphin from her womb, there is a need to synthesize »The Dolp-human Placenta«. The usual human placenta interacts to pass from mother to baby oxygen, carbon dioxide, nutrients, hormones, antibodies (Immunoglobulin Gamma, IgG) and so on. The Dolp-human placenta blocks the delivery of IgG to the baby. The placenta originates from the baby’s side, which in this case is a dolphin, and not from the human side. This avoids the ethical and legal difficulties associated with reproductive research involving human eggs. The decidua is formed by implantation of the egg. Usually, foreign cells in the body (for example from other individuals) are attacked by the immune system, but inside the decidua they are tolerated. However, even though the decidua accepts cells from other individuals, non-human cells would still be attacked. In the dolp-human placenta’s case, it has been modified to distinguish mammal from non-mammal cells, making it even more tolerant” [excerpt].

[69] Ai Hasegawa. The Core 77 Design Awards are awarded annually to the best practitioners of such areas of design as open design, interaction, design concepts, consumer products, visual communication, and so on.

[70] Reading the provided dilemma chart, viewers can find questions such as: Can you take responsibility for another person’s life? How about an animal child? Do you think your child is going to have a happy life in this world?

[71] Vivian Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture, (Berkeley: University of California Press) (2004), p. 60.

Historical insight into The Danube Exodus cinematic installation by Péter Forgács

Kamil Lipiński

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2018, vol.3, no. 1, pp. 43-58.

 

Kamil Lipiński
Adam Mickiewicz University

 

 

 

Historical insight into The Danube Exodus cinematic installation by Péter Forgács

 

 

Abstract

The article examines the wide-screen installation The Danube Exodus: Rippling Currents of the River (2002-2006) by Péter Forgács. Forgács designed it in collaboration with the Getty Team and the Labyrinth Project in heterotopic terms that revert events in time and space using various mutual juxtapositions, generated by viewers on a tactile interface. The expansion of cinema into museum spaces from the 1990s is understood as an open, work-in-progress mode of exhibition that entangles spatial arrangement. The film at the heart of the installation begins by placing two heterotopic journeys of exile in comparative context: Slovakian Jews being ferried along the Danube to Jerusalem, and the resettlement of Bessarabia Germans to Polish territory, also via the Danube. This comparative study of migratory aesthetics reflects the contemporary drive to fill the white spaces on the map of Europe. This article retraces the contexts of the immersion of this haunting journey from the past in new intersections that move from a description of the specificity of found footage to wide-screen panorama.

 

Keywords: found footage, heterotopia, spacing, wide-screen panorama, comparative study, exhibition

 

Introduction

In an article entitled Beyond the White Cube, Peter Weibel outlined the need for a “colonial remix” seen from the point of view of global culture, to demonstrate alternative ways of remapping visual culture

 

[1]. In discussing spatial analysis, we shall present various ways of reading The Danube Exodus: Rippling Currents of the River as an example of relocating the cinematic experience to an expanded environment, enriched with a haptic experience via user interface. To begin with, my interest is in conceptually nailing down the concept of heterotopia introduced by Michel Foucault, and to propose it as a new perspective of interpretation, building upon the writings of Victor Burgin and Gertrud Koch. Foucault’s concept could contribute to demonstrating how film fragments are interspersed within complex installations, derived from various times, as a mirror reflection of society. Having discussed the philosophical framework of heterotopia, I would then like to focus on the historical events outlined by The Danube Exodus: Rippling Currents of the River, to reveal how the juxtaposition of vision inscribed in the visual horizon of the fragmentation of images can be understood in terms of cinematographic heterotopy. Analysing the philosophical premises, let us investigate how the heterotopic journey introduces the history of the Eastern European region and situates its concerns within the broader, more current European high-cultural revival of amateur chronicles.

The second part of this essay offers an insight into the parallel timelines employed in The Danube Exodus to examine the similarities and differences between them. Insight into the archival found footage used in the film enables us to observe several overlapping narratives, derived from various periods, to build up a powerful wide-screen vision of Eastern Europe across the centuries. The installation provides heterotopic insights into the emerging interactive display used in The Danube Exodus project. Using various angles, this wide-screen panorama shows the ways in which we contest the primacy of monocular vision in the era of “polycentric vision”, restored by media archivists in numerous forms[2]. This installation presents the imaginative potential of various historical pieces of evidence that open up the circulatory, fragmentary horizon of contemporary aesthetics.

The concluding section presents a brief analysis of the ways in which we could interpret the immersive mode of The Danube Exodus’s historical storytelling, as inscribed in the manifold visual documentation. This visual journey, in situ, provides an insight into the visual testimonies of the past and lets us rethink the differences between ‘exile’ and ‘resettlement’ as two different strategies of movement, or displacement, in the era of genocide. The installation unfolds different modes of using “interactive memory strategy”, composed of moving images and stable documents, to mirror the wider circulation of “diversified representation“ in galleries at the beginning of the 21st century[3].

A heterotopic grid

Before we discuss The Danube Exodus, a glimpse at cinematic transformations will provide some useful aesthetic premises for the inscription of cinema in the art gallery, because – as Raymond Bellour famously observed – “cinema can also be reinvented, an another cinema, by other means.”[4] The principal drive of the media landscape emphasizes excessive concern on placing the viewer in new spaces that enrich the wider discourse with the conceptual collage of historical narratives. Since the 1990s, Victor Misiano has stressed the emergence of the role of the “curator-mediator”, which is marked by curatorial cooperation. This contributes to the drawing of a new face for museums, which “…opens up into its network of trustees, their affiliations with multinational corporations, and finally the global system of late capitalism proper, such that what used to be the limited and Kantian of a restricted conceptual art expands into the very ambition of its reach and is transformed into a cognitive mapping itself (with all its specific representational contradictions)”[5]. This modus operandi shifts the insistent promotion of the artist as designer, contemplation over function and the openness of the aesthetic resolution. In this respect, one could map out capitalism and adopt DJs and computer programmers as forms leading towards direct physical experience, relying upon the recombination of works with other pre-existing products that themselves rely upon re-appropriation, quotation, and parasitism. Therefore, one could argue, as Jean-Christophe Royaux did, that “…we can find cinema after cinema in most of the works of the post-minimalist generation”[6]. In developing his arguments, Royaux uses his concept of the “cinema of exhibition” to outline the ways in which one can “designate the particular forms of syntax of the exhibition”[7]. In tracing the transformations of moving images in gallery art and museums, Victor Burgin sought also to reaffirm that “the concept of heterotopia to real external places, he nevertheless arrives at his discussion of heterotopias via a reference to utopias – places with no other substance than that of representation: material signifiers, psychic reality and fantasia”[8]. Bringing forth this point of view, bear in mind that Michel Foucault laid out the premises of heterotopia in Des espaces autres in his lecture at the Cercle d’études architecturales, wherein he situated this perspective at the intersection of what’s real and what’s imaginary. In Foucault’s view, there are six relations between discursive, heterogenic spaces of heterotopia, with two of them being particularly worth applying as a method and form of interpretative explanation. In particular, Gertrud Koch lists the third and fourth principle of building a “heterotopic grid” that spans both painting, sculpture, architecture and photography[9]. Foucault’s concept defines the extension of the idea of the dispersion of knowledge and implies “juxtaposition in one single, real place, several places that are themselves incompatible”[10]. Among notable examples of these concepts, Foucault lists theatres, cinemas and gardens. In turn, according to the fourth principle of heterotopy, there is the possibility of making temporal juxtapositions, of “layers of time” – epochs called ‘heterochrony’ by Foucault. Inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of nihilism, Foucault pointed out the necessity of death in every culture (the end of life, decay and disappearance). These interspersed cultural lines present the ways in which “…our experience of the world is less that of the long life developing through time than that of the network that connects points and intersects with its own skin”[11]. In this sense, this heterotopic grid can be conceived as a spatiotemporal framework to demonstrate the evolutionary course of historical events, and the need for thinking in terms of a ‘set of relations’ that ‘delineate sites’ and co-create our presence as a ‘configuration’. Oscillating primarily between utopian and dystopian qualities, heterotopia aims at “indefinitely accumulating time” in museums and galleries[12]. These spaces build “…the counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality”[13]. In this respect, social reality reflects an inverted society. Although it never becomes a real space, it does, however, have its roots in real spaces. This dimension of signifiers embodies ‘distorting mirrors’, and discovers the space of the ‘other’ as a space illusion that encapsulates “the dreams and desires of society”[14]. Inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of perspectivism and parallel interpretations of history, Foucault argued that heterotopia entails “…in this way a sort of perpetual and indefinite accumulation in an immobile place, this whole idea belongs to our modernity. The museum and the library are heterotopias that are proper to western culture of the nineteenth century”[15]. Heterotopia considered as an atlas of singularities is an archive that, as a mobile ship, has all of these traits. Georges Didi-Huberman suggested that it can be adopted in various contexts on the epistemological, aesthetic and political levels.

Inspired by Foucauldian thinking, Victor Burgin argued that this concept could be extended in many ways to a nascent “cinematographic heterotopia” as a utopian society – “out of time”. In Burgin’s discussion, this concept is extended by reference to Félix Guattari’s post-media aesthetics to describe “media-based imagery”, which relies upon the ‘ecology of mind’ (écologie de l’esprit) and infiltration of subjectivity by the media. This immersion in manifold representations explains the ‘recycling’ desire for exploration and the re-use of existing aesthetic forms. Specifically, these works can be used as a figure of parataxis derived from rhetoric to describe situations “…in which the relations are not given, but deduced”[16].

Expanded space

Further insight can be gained by examining the tactile interface used in the installation that allows viewers to navigate the found footage journeys of the refugees escaping the heterotopic ship. In The Danube Exodus, two timelines can be found, as well as additional historical context that acts as an information carrier under the influence of contact with the body’s surface. When viewing the installation, audiences can choose between three main narrative threads: the boat captain, the Jewish exodus, and the German exodus. In this circular environment, touch determines the selection of images on the screens. Through this tactile mapping of the stories, we can select particular variants of the stories that demonstrate the experience of spatiality, and the flows of moments and memories presented in the context of new configurations. Visitors can select one of eighteen three or five-minute sequences from different ethnic areas, enriched with interviews. The four-and-a-half hour film-strip, composed of five ninety-minutes films, that is used in The Danube Exodus is understood as a metaphor of relativism seen in five split-screens, which emphasizes the incongruence of two reconstructions. This impression of an ‘enlarged’ installation relies upon entering into the dialogue between the recipient and the represented subject, which represents the three main threads (the captain, the Jewish exodus, and the German exodus). The use of an immersive interactive menu system draws attention to the travel experience, directed and dictated by touch displays. These histories, displayed on a five-screen panoramic display, reflect the specific configuration of the mobile camera and present the way that cinema inherits the concept of the mobile eye (l’oeil mobile) from modern painting. “Polyvision” exceeds the frontality of one of several different screen, while continuing to bring dramas and scripted places into play”[17]. Putting in motion specific segments allows the viewers to immerse themselves between two realms of overlapping historical narratives in a heterotopic fashion: the journey between Slovakia and Haifa, and in parallel, the journey of the deported Germans to Poland.

These two journeys provide an interesting account of two possible ways of thinking about migration and re-settlement in historical narratives with multiple points of view. The two main historical narratives receive additional context sourced from the special collection of the Luigi Ferdinando Marsili Research Library – an early eighteenth century six-volume encyclopaedia about the Danube. In explaining the origins of the encyclopaedia, Zaia Alexander and Marsha Kinder stated that it was executed “On the commission of Holy Roman (Hapsburg) Emperor Leopold I, an Italian military engineer prepared a map of the country recaptured from the Turks – Hungary. In addition, there were three huge leather-bound albums in each volume concerning different aspects of the region, especially the richness of the flora and fauna of the Danube river and the breadth of Marsili’s interests”[18]. This web-like narrative encompasses not only a hyphological narrative, but also two forms of scores interpreted in terms of the span of the river itself, and some if it is included as complementary audio-visual material for the two main journeys.

An archival journey

Briefly introducing the aesthetic context in which The Danube Exodus project emerged, let’s note that Forgács primarily initiated his research by collecting and reconstructing private, archival and visual diaries derived from various sources. Forgács mainly collected this footage by publishing an announcement in certain journals, and on the basis of the responses, assembled “…pre-existing images, regrouped and overworked by artists engaging the viewer in reflection […] on the history and film of occidental clichés”[19]. Some of these conceptual solutions for restoring sound and images date back to the late 1970s, drawing inspiration from the film Private History by Gabor Bódy and Peter Timar.

Forgács began his work in the neo-avant-garde environment, where he experimented with multifarious audio-visual forms with sound effects, commentaries and montage. Later, he was invited to edit the fourth themed issue of the Infermental international video journal. From the late 1970s onwards, Forgács also worked with Group 180 as a recitativo, in which he created commentaries on juxtaposing sound and image. Inspired by Sándor Kardos’s Horus archive, in 1983 Forgács then began – with the help of the Budapest Photo & Film Archives Foundation – collecting found footage from the 20th century. After gathering materials and interviewing the families of the survivors, Forgács juxtaposed a variety of visual documents, such as family photos and official diaries.  In 1998 he built a story shedding new light on the paths of resettlement caused by the Holocaust. The Danube Exodus presents two separate spaces in its story, located in two crucial sequences in the various configurations of its 40 hours of material controllable through the tactile interface. The film gives interesting insight into the 60-minutes of 8 mm film made by the boat’s captain, Nandor Andrásovits. The film was lent to Forgács by the captain’s widow, who documented his travels around Europe. Forgács and the Labyrinth Project used the film as “found footage for a newly-edited narrative that incorporates resonances and ironies within these historic encounters”, collected together at the Cultural Research Institute in Budapest. This narrative was navigated by the touch-screen interface to revive them during art exhibitions. This work includes forty-nine minutes of outtakes from the Jewish voyage that Forgács received from historian-archivist Janos Varga, who originally inherited the material from Andrásovits’ close friend Zelan Pathanazy[20]. In brief, Forgács presented a vision of a Jewish-German exodus based on two separate stories, both, however, being connected.

The escape project for fear of anti-Semitism was implemented by the president of the orthodox community in Bratislava Aron Grünhut on two borrowed ships to Palestine. The first of the two journeys shown in the film presents the vicissitudes  of 608 Slovak Orthodox Jews escaping from Bratislava in 1939, on an extraordinary, epic journey along the Danube to the Black Sea towards Palestine. This amateur documentary provides insight into the on-board life of refugees on their two-month journey, and it could be interpreted as the embodiment of a heterotopia set on a spaceship. The focus is primarily on Noemi Julia , a steamship previously used by holidaymakers cruising the Danube. The journey of the Slovak and Hungarian Jews from Bratislava through Central Europe along the Danube River, via Romania and Bulgaria to Palestine, included several hundred people from a large community which had been assigned to extermination by the Nazis. This migration presents the spatial displacements aboard the Queen Elizabeth as it travelled along the river Danube from Slovakia to the Black Sea, with the ultimate goal of Haifa in Palestine. The total length of its journey was 1446 km Given the British restrictions on Jewish emigration and entry to Palestine, each of the refugees was restricted to taking a fifty-kilometer bag for the Danube cruise of 1446 kilometers.  In the beginning, their route led on the Danube waters crossed the territory of Bulgaria. Despite the British protests, a group of refugees managed to enter the vessel Noemi Julia in the port of Sulima on the Black Sea and sail to Haifa after eighty-three days. Most of the presented scenes abound with a positive resolution. We observe scenes showing the wedding on the ship and, to a large extent, the rather joyful atmosphere of everyday customs and prayers. However, some scenes are accompanied by moments of fear when drinking water is lacking. Each passenger was assigned two glasses of water daily, and all passengers suffered from sea sickness during a storm. The documentary of Nándor Andrásovits presents in an intimate light the journey by ship across the Black Sea and then towards Palestine. In the final part, we can observe how the Jewish group, when finally arriving in Haifa on the ship Noemi Julia, is arrested by the British government in order to clarify the matter. Fortunately, after a month they are released and can enjoy freedom in Palestine. Thus they became a part of 500,000 Jewish settlers living under the British Mandate. Based on the reconstruction of archival materials, Forgács asks in this documentary work about the fate of a select group of history of the Chosen People returning to their spiritual capital. . In Forgács’s vision, this collision of narratives demonstrates a microhistory of fleeing Jews reminiscent of the history of repatriation of the Chosen People to the Promised Land. It is worth noting that, in general, during World War II, seventy-seven thousand people escaped from the Third Reich through the Danube. . This exilic movement reflects the Jewish return to the promised land as a fortunate escape from the phantom of genocide that was spreading across Europe.

The German resettlement   

The second of the two journeys of inquiry presented by Forgács was filmed by captain Andrásovitz the following year, in 1940. The narrative illustrates the voyage of natives of the Bessarabia Germans who tried to escape their resettlement by the Red Army to Third Reich. Accepting the proposition to be resettled in occupied Poland in accordance with the agreement between Hitler and Stalin, the refugees decided to abandon their homeland themselves. Andrásovitz’s ship was then chartered to resettle the Bessarabia Germans displaced from Romania at the turn of October and November 1940 resulting in the Soviet Annexation of Bessarabia. As a part of the wider narrative of the Holocaust, this footage is a record of the seven-week repatriation  of 93,000 German farmers (Volksdeutsche), escaping along the Danube by boat. The Soviets paid the Third Reich in wheat and coal, and promised to pay compensation to the displaced upon arrival. Initially, the Germans were transported by carts to the river jetties, where the Erzsébet Királyne ship, led by Commander Nandor Andrásovits, and one of the twenty seven transport vessels waited for them. Erzsébet Királyne took 600 passengers during each trip. . The cruise began at Reni and led to Semlin, where the Germans were examined. Then they were transported to Galati and then to Russe. From there, they were transported by train to Prague and to camps in the Third Reich. The action ended on November 16, 1940. Some of the Bessarabian Germans were later settled in the lands of Poles expropriated by the Nazis. In the final part of the history, Forgács introduces a micro-narrative about one anonymous relocated family in 1942 to Kościan, near Poznań. At some point, Polish owners appear there, asking for the return of the precious violin, probably the Stradivarius brand, left there because of a rush when leaving the house. However, they leave without the violin. The Bessarabian Germans in 1945 left the territory of Greater Poland and went to the West towards Frankfurt.

The difference between these two journeys lies in the emotional approach that Forgács takes, given that the deportation of the Jews and Germans are separate, albeit related stories. In the first story, the Jews enjoyed the journey, dancing, and singing, as they had saved their lives from the threat of extermination. In contrast, the Germans Exodus is shown in a nostalgic light, with the farmers mourning the loss of their homes and estates in exchange for unsure promises of abandoned territory. In contrast to the Jewish happiness, the Bessarabia Germans regretted leaving their homes and estates. These remote stories can be seen in terms of “intensities”, according to which “stupefaction, terror, anger, hatred, pleasure and all the intense emotions are always displacements within a place”, and present “the term emotion into motion that leads to its own exhaustion, an immobilizing motion, an immobilized mobilization”[21]. According to Forgács, this story builds an intimate insight into their lives and differences in their motives not only at the historical level, but also in the assigned fate of exile to which they were condemned and had to conform.

The dual nature of the installation

Let us return to the question of how The Danube Exodus can attempt to answer questions about the nature of cinematographic heterotopia, showing the dual nature of the installation between the real and imaginary spaces, which create a space for “openness inaugurating dialogue”[22]. Let us also note that heterotopia can be used as a starting point for thinking about this complex installation, which spans film, interactivity and use of a website designed by the Getty’s Design Team and the Labyrinth Group. The installation can be perceived in terms of “constellation” as the “horizontal textual organization of objects which brings into play a different definition of cinema, one that is minimal but sufficient, as a set of ways of passing from one (any) element to another”[23]. It should be emphasized that along with the emergence of the forms of “expanded cinema”, this extended narrative (traceable from the 1960s) characterises both “emancipation or extension within the field of exhibition, and they also reflect a collective need to imagine other kinds of relationship with the spectator (a tunnel, a ‘touch screen’)”[24]. Moreover, interactivity has enriched mental activity with, in this case, the ability to touch and play with the film, making it possible to shape the images projected in the installation. In a similar manner, this form of “haptic perception is usually defined by psychologists as the combination of tactical, kinaesthetic and proprioceptive functions, the way we experience touch both on the surface of an inside our bodies”[25]. Some insight into the theoretical articulation of touch aesthetics is given in Walter Benjamin’s writings, in which he stresses the relationship between optics and tactility assigned to the realm of copies (Abbild), which thereby demand contemplation, absorbed attention and a fixed gaze that sees into the distance and demands to be looked at. The installation’s value is brought about through the dominance of the copy, which brings the masses closer to the reality in exchange for losing the aura, the cult value associated with the original, optical image (Bild). This double recounting and documenting of reality engages in an interplay between the context of art and the language of science, as well as demonstrating how “techniques and practices come and go from the laboratory to the atelier and vice-versa”[26]. In other words, the interface designed by the Getty Team and the Labyrinth Group presents a transmedia journey that covers five screens (each of which is two meters high and three meters wide), creating a fifteen-meter-wide panorama. Perceptually immersed in this panoramic view, “the audience is immediately surrounded on all sides by a three-dimensional interior, the faux terrain, which is imperceptibly connected to the two-dimensional visual action and often makes the visual frontier untraceable”[27]. Interestingly, panorama considered as a form of “popular entertainment lost their importance after 1900, however, their principles have survived the cinematic camera’s pan and static shot movements”[28]. The Danube Exodus’s expanded view demonstrates that “an entire world is in the flux as if one is inside a train, where the fragments of the outside view are “seen through the window”[29]. More specifically, the Getty Team and the Labyrinth Project have designed a wide-screen panorama that covers both a “circular” environment and “panoramic” cinema.

This polycentric vision of narrative visual culture permits entry into dialogue and stimulates the movement of circular panoramas, hovering on the edge of the many visual shreds of evidence. Note that the multi-layered, non-linear storyline designed by Labyrinth for the interface could be compared to a hyper-textual rhizome, vaguely inspired by Jorge Luis Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths. In particular, the Jewish Exodus of refugees can be used as an illustration of the return home of the ‘chosen ones’, while the journey of the Bessarabia Germans presents a vision of homesickness and a feeling of permanent loss. This spatial decoupage of two different historical stories shows the mutual similarities and differences between them. In this installation’s circulation, the images in-between the screens could be compared to Bruno Latour’s concept of “circulative reference”, as a method of “drawing things together”. Building on the principle of sustainability and formal changeability, the kinaesthetic nature of the work makes an impact on the status of stable artefacts in the dynamic and liquid architecture of work-events. Through selection of maps and variants of the presented history, viewers can manoeuvre between the paths of history, primarily between movement and Taoist no-movement . This interplay between photography and cinematic movement enables us to juxtapose images in different spaces and times, interpreted as a potential process under construction, an ‘any space’, fundamental to Deleuzian time-images. One can see in this interactive installation how “the digital and visual interface is at the same time divided between aesthetics and operability”[30]. More specifically, Laura Mulvey suggested that the audio-visual universe could now be “halted or slowed down or fragmented”[31]. Therefore, Raymond Bellour probably argued that these kinds of installations “may seem to be the effect of so-called ‘crisis’ within cinema and the difficulties of contemporary art of which installations are probably the most vivid manifestation”[32]. From this angle, the juxtaposition of images can be perceived as “one of the effects of the games of visible figures. The efficiency of the cinema out of is that “the works make speak, and make speeches about them”[33]. In other words, this sensual formation arises from the fact of the interlacing fragments of micro-narrative inscribed in the context of dialogical inter-spaces of the refugees’ flight, which allows for a meandering within the audio-visual journey. The soundtrack to The Danube Exodus can be described as heterotopic, as it combines different musical traditions that owe much of their power to the hypnotic, mesmerizing score by Tibor Szemzö, which draw on the composition of the rhythm of the narrative and solemn music, “in harmonic tones”, with bells, the rhythm of marching soldiers, “occasional voices and the sound of water”[34]. These musical noises are combined with natural ambient river and waterfront sounds by McKee of Earwan Productions, the mechanical rhythms of the ship’s engines, regional music, the songs and prayers of the refugees, and the voices of the Captain and his crew. The virtual space of the interface entangled in the visual dimension of the film’s projection contributes to the production of an environment in which we can encounter displaced pieces of film (the internet, the media and so on), but also the psychical space of a spectating subject that Baudelaire first identified as “a kaleidoscope equipped with a consciousness”[35]. Significantly, kaleidoscopic circulation of images “hinges on fragmentary, circular and repetitive short sequences in response to which the viewing subject as a subject of signifier may come into being on Mobius band of impressions and imaginations”[36]. This perspective particularly represents the specific orientation towards a post-medium condition resulting in the emergence of “expanded space beyond the confines of the movie theatre” within the gallery and museum. To explain this drive to recycling games with representations, Victor Burgin argued that being immersed in a spatial environment, “visitors of art galleries have encountered a wide range of works that make more or less direct reference to the cinema – from works by artists that manipulate existing footage from mainstream films in order to isolate and explore cinematographic conventions”[37]. The Danube Exodus interactive project creates a situation in which “moving image work relies on loop and reprise, on para-tactical elements rather than on continuous temporal progress”[38]. This specific narrative proceeds in a different order, in accordance with the touch-screen images immersed in the “spaces and moments of the story” to present a wandering “new spatiotemporal structure of difference constructed by new telecommunication techniques”[39]. Visitors can easily decide which parts of the story will be seen and in what order, as we become not only visitor and witness, but also creator. This dialogue, even if highly illusive and insufficient, seems to provide an insight in to the archival footage used, that could be used as a function of experimental, laboratory study in order to revive fragments of moving pictures reconstructed in the more accessible way for a contemporary perceptual needs of the viewer. In Robert Simanowski’s view, “the mapping is a perfect symbolic form of our time, not primarily for its realization to the database paradigm of the endless and unstructured collection of data records, but for its modus to turn the data to us to explore”[40].  Thus, in The Danube Exodus one can enter into a dialogue with works based on navigation, dictated by an interactive menu created by the viewer via the touchscreen interface. More specifically, the sequencing and composition of the narrative permit forward movement without the possibility of returning to the previous sequence. This passing between the spaces of history enables viewers to enter into narrative passages and navigate between them in a one-way direction. And according to Heraclitus, this “irreversibility of history” shows that no one can enter the same river twice…

Conclusion   

Let me note very briefly that the importance of The Danube Exodus lies rather in the questions and difficulties that emerge from spatial, non-linear, deconstructed stories in the light kinaesthetic juxtapositions aboard the ship. Observing the vicissitudes of the refugees seen in the film footage lets us reiterate Hannah Arendt’s long-lasting diagnosis “that the symbol of the twentieth century of the people deprived of their rights and refugees deprived of the homeland, confirms it with amazing accuracy”[41]. If we accept this remark, we can open up a renewed dialogue with representations of migratory aesthetics derived from the past, and point out the role of the relocation processes in order to rethink art cinema. This perspective seeks application of Foucault’s claims, conceived in terms of the heterotopic grid, as a way of perceiving a manifold visual interpretation of the archives as a fruitful tool for historical research. The Danube Exodus project provides an interesting account of the perspectives of interpretation of “Holocaust-effects” as ways of seeing an experience by means of “repetition and obscuration”[42]. An audience immersed in this installation can embark on a metaphorical journey within the imaginary geography of historical Eastern Europe, as seen through the prism of “immersive strategies of panoramic installation”[43]. Through this “fusion of horizons”, one can see a curatorial drive to recombining and reading interdiscursive areas because, as Gregor Stemmerich puts it, “the basic idea of a work of art should be an integrated part of a situation, place or location – not in order to harmonize the relationship between the artwork and its surroundings and evoke complex issues, possibly interconnecting various discourses related to it that would normally be barred from consciousness”[44]. The importance of found footage archives lies in the how the combination of signifiers of Western and Eastern cultures produces a vision of found footage heterotopia. This provides insight into the way we think about the juxtaposition of story immersed within a wide-screen narrative, rediscovered post-mortem. In particular, this mapping of specific elements of spatial graphics allows us to immerse ourselves in an unexplored atmosphere of forgotten history, viewed through the prism of “integrated humanities”. The use of amateur chronicles is a particular method by which we can understand found-footage heterotopia, comprehending it as a place in which the history of Eastern and Western technology, amateur filmmaking and the professional model of curatorship intermingle, not being ideologically invisible. However, found footage re-entangled in an art installation partially loosens the narrative, to rediscover overlapping ontologies and the way in a “material form in which they are presented as archives in the form of installation”[45]. The question is, however, whether this project preserves the principle of aesthetic historicity, which relies upon the premise of correspondence and metamorphosis defined by Jacques Rancière as having three features. Primarily, the sentence, the episode, the image is isolated to express its nature and the tonality of the collection. Furthermore, it provides the possibility of correspondence, through which all manner of signs of nature come into resonance or dissonance. This “combination of characters coincides vaguely with the object or develops in the form of significant living”[46]. If we accept these premises, the migration of peoples looking for recognition by inscription in their situation are placed in a context “making it possible to transform the artificial into something living, and the repetitive into something unique”[47]. The installation’s multi-screen projection, connected with the interface of this heterotopic installation, reflects The Danube Exodus’s formal complexity and mobilizes the imagination. More specifically, circulation of images increases the role of amateur, private archives in reviving the collective memory. The Danube Exodus panoramic installation can be read plurally, comparatively challenging us to play, however vertiginously, within the screens. Art cinema considered as “ghost visions” could provide a direction toward thinking about alternative ways of returning to the historical event by filling the ‘white space’ in the history of refugees’ journeys across the map of Europe.

References

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Bellour Raymond, “D’un autre cinema”, in La Querelle des dispositifs: cinéma, installations, expositions, (Paris: P.O.L.) (2002).

Blümlinger Christa, “Culture de remploi- questions du cinema”, Trafic 50 (2004).

Burgin Victor, “Possessive, Pensive and Possessed”, in The Cinematic, (London & Cambridge, Whitechapel) (2006).

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Burgin Victor, “The Time of Panorama”, in Situational Aesthetics. Selected Writings by Victor Burgin, ed. Alexander Streitberger, (Leuven, Leuven University Press) (2009).

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Habermas Jürgen, Staatsbürgerschaft und nationale Identität: Überlegungen zur europäischen Zukunft, (St. Gallen: Erker) (1991).

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Notes

[1] Peter Weibel, “Beyond the White Cube”, in: Contemporary Art and the Museum. A Global Perspective, ed. Peter Weibel, Andrea Budensieg, (Ostfidern: Hatje Cantz Verlag) (2007), p. 143.

[2] Ella Shohat, Robert Stam, “Narrativizing Visual Culture, Towards a Polycentric Aesthetics”, in: Visual Culture Reader, ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff, (London & New York: Routledge) (1998), p. 46.

[3] Kristian Feigelson, “The Labyrinth. The Strategy of Sensitive Experimentation. A Filmmaker of Anonymous”. in: Kinokultura, http://www.kinokultura.com/specials/7/feigelson.shtml (date accessed 20.05.2018).

[4] Raymond Bellour, “D’un autre cinema”, in: La Querelle des dispositifs: cinéma, installations, expositions, (Paris: P.O.L.) (2012), p. 168.

[5] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or the cultural logic of late capitalism, (Durnham: Duke University Press) (1991), p. 157.

[6] Jean-Christophe Royaux, “Towards a Post-Cinematic Space-Time”, in: Brillo Box Illuminated, ed. Sarra Arrhenius, Magdalena Malm, Christophe Ricupero, (Stockholm: IASPIS) (2003), p. 110.

[7] Jean-Christophe Royaux, p. 110.

[8] Victor Burgin, Possessive, Pensive and Possessed, in The Cinematic, (London & Cambridge, Whitechapel) (2006), p. 199.

[9] Gertrud Koch, Die Verkehr der Illusion. Der Film und die Kunst, der Gegenwart, (Berlin: Suhrkamp) (2016), p. 224.

[10] Michel Foucault, Of other spaces, trans. Jan Miskoviec, “Diacritics” 16:11 (1986), p. 24.

[11] Michel Foucault, p. 22.

[12] Michel Foucault, p. 13.

[13] Michel Foucault, p. 14.

[14] Paolo Magagnoli, Documents of Utopia. The Politics of experimental documentary, (New York: Wallflower Press) (2015), p. 28.

[15] Michel Foucault, p. 13.

[16] Victor Burgin, “Interactive Cinema and Uncinematic”, in Screen Dynamics. Mapping the borders of the cinema, ed. Gertrud Koch, Volker Pantenburg, Simon Rothohler, (Vienna: Österreichisches Filmmuseum) (2012), p. 102.

[17] Raymond Bellour, “D’un autre cinema”, in: La Querelle des dispositifs: cinéma, installations, expositions, (Paris: P.O.L.) (2012). p. 166.

[18] Zara Alexander, Marsha Kinder, The Danube Exodus: The Rippling currents of the River, (Budapest: Ludwig Museum) (2006), p. 13.

[19] Sébastien Dénis, “Esthétique de l’archive”, in: Arts plastique et Cinéma, CinémAction, 122 (2007), p. 266.

[20] Zara Alexander, Marsha Kinder, p. 13.

[21] JeanFrançois Lyotard, “L’acinéma”, in: Cinéma: théorie, lectures, Textes réunis et présentés par Dominique Noguez, Revue d’Esthétique (Klincksieck: Paris) (1973), p. 365.

[22] Robert Simanowski, Digital art and meaning. Reading Kinetic Poetry, Text Machines, Mapping Art, and Interactive Installations, (Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press) (2011), p. 128.

[23] Jean-Christophe Royaux, p. 110.

[24] Stephanie Moisdon Trembley, “Time as Activity”, in: Brillo Box Illuminated, ed. Sarra Arrhenius, Magdalena Malm, Christophe Ricupero, (Stockholm: IASPIS) (2003), p. 84.

[25] Laura U Marks, The Skin of the Film. Intercultural cinema, embodiment and the senses, (Durnham/London: Duke University Press) (2000), p. 162.

[26] Bruno Latour, “L’art. de faire science”, Movements 62 (2012), p. 92.

[27] Oliver Grau, “Into the Belly of an Image. Historical aspects of Virtual Reality”, Leonardo 32:5 (1999), p. 167.

[28] Victor Burgin, “The Time of Panorama”, in: Situational Aesthetics. Selected Writings by Victor Burgin, ed. Alexander Streitberger, (Leuven, Leuven University Press) (2009), p. 295.

[29] Victor Burgin, p. 295.

[30] Jean-Pierre Fourmentraux, “Introduction”, in: Images interactives. Art Contemporain. Recherche et création numérique, (Paris: La Lettre Volée) (2016), p. 6.

[31] Laura Mulvey, “The Pensive Spectator”, in: The Death in 24th Second. Stillness and the Moving Image, (London: Reaktion Books) (2006), p. 181

[32] Raymond Bellour, D’un autre cinema, op. cit.. p. 41.

[33] JeanFrançois Lyotard, “Petites ruminations sur le commentaire d’art”, Opus International, 70/71 (1979), p. 17.

[34] Leah Ollmann, The Danube Exodus: The Rippling Currents of the River, (Budapest: Ludwig Museum) (2002), p. 20.

[35] Victor Burgin, “Possessive, Pensive and Possessed”, in: The Cinematic (London & Cambridge, Whitechapel) (2006), p. 220.

[36] Gertrud Koch, “Introduction”, in: Screen Dynamics. Mapping the borders of the cinema, ed. Gertrud Koch, Volker Pantenburg, (Vienna: Österreichisches Filmmuseum) (2012), p. 104.

[37] Gertrud Koch, p. 102.

[38] Gertrud Koch, p. 107.

[39] Jacques Derrida, Christine Malabou, Counter-Path. Travelling with Jacques Derrida, trans. David Wills, (Stanford: Stanford University Press) (2004), p. 18.

[40] Robert Simanowski, p. 181.

[41]Jürgen Habermas, Staatsbürgerschaft und nationale Identität: Überlegungen zur europäischen Zukunft, (St. Gallen: Erker) (1991), p. 25.

[42] Ernst Van Alphen, Caught by History: Holocaust Effects in Contemporary Art, Literature, and Theory, (Stanford: Stanford University Press) (1997), p. 106.

[43] Ernst Van Alphen, p. 203.

[44] Gregor Stemmerich,White Cubes, Black Box and Grey Areas: venues and values”, in: Art and the Moving Image, ed. Tanya Leighton, (London: Tate Publishing) (2005), p. 64.

[45] Christa Blümlinger, Culture de remploi- questions du cinéma, Trafic, 50 (2004), p. 350.

[46] Jacques Rancière, “L’historicité de cinema”, in: De l’histoire au cinéma, ed. Antoine de Baecque, Christian Delage, (Bruxelles & Éditions Complexe) (1998), p. 49.

[47] Boris Groys, “Art in the Age of Biopolitics. From Artwork to Art documentation”, in: Art Power, (Cambridge & London: MIT Press) (2008), p. 64.

 

Boundaries are (but) a blur: Computer-generated imagery and the formation of seamless filmic space

Maciej Stasiowski

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2018, vol.3, no. 1, pp. 59-77.

Maciej Stasiowski
Jagiellonian University

 

 

 

Boundaries are (but) a blur: Computer-generated imagery and the formation of seamless filmic space

Ever since cinema’s inception, the physical creation of fictional settings has been the province of architects, set designers, cinematographers, and – nowadays – of artists in art departments, ardent in bringing to life often impossible spaces. As far as optical illusions go, in order to exist they need not a restless eye, but a static one. But what if the space being rendered is itself fluid, dynamic by default? Braiding computer-generated imagery into live-action film footage has become progressively more robust in revealing its non-material base through texture, light reflexivity, and the way these additions interact with the pro-filmic space. Nevertheless, they too are just as reliant on a suspension of disbelief in their striving for a photographic verisimilitude. Preceded by scale models, montage juxtapositions and painterly optical illusions, digital scenography has become the next logical step in enhancing filmed footage; boosting an impression of reality, going so far as to sacrifice (or ‘dematerialize’) the physical in favour of the hyperreal.

With the help of software enabling motion tracking (to merge 3D visuals into filmed scenes), picture correction, and digital composition in the post-production stages, as well as completely digital animated previsualizations, filmmakers are now able to come up with radically new spatial environments. In this way, the innovative concept of cinematic screen space that blurs or even nullifies material borders is introduced. Seamless transitions link contradictory settings into homogenous environments, whereas uninterrupted long takes can now arise through digital ‘stitching’ aimed at achieving near-to-experiential involvement. Through this, contemporary spectacles postulate a new kind of viewer – one who absorbs visual and acoustic effects viscerally, and allows himself to become engulfed by and pulled into the filmic space.

Along with films that not only employ computer-generated imagery (CGI), but are realized with techniques characteristic of animated film (at nearly every stage of their production), a general approach in treating the representational emerges. The digital space of representation outruns traditional matte paintings with its moving, dynamic descendants, if not entire 3D scenes/environments reconstructed digitally, wrapped in photographic textures. This article sets out to investigate the poly-sensory quality of represented spaces. In their surrogate of an out-of-body experience through cinematographic strategies, editing becomes quite reluctant to tie down visual spectacle to a specific point-of-view or point-of-audition narrative. Films embroidered with CGI put forward a new mode of ‘navigating’ filmic space. They reposition their audiences in a represented space, making them willingly succumb to a multisensorial ‘flow’ of diegetic events. Eventually, even Daniel Dayan’s notion of suture, explaining the process through which the viewer is positioned in filmic locations, becomes replaced by a sensation of fluid environments, intangible settings, and floating worlds inextricable from our perceptual cues, as reproduced by digital cinematography.

Bringing Maurits Cornelis Escher back to life through the power of CGI and a lack of humble decency, if that was ever an option, might have brought about the digital revolution in cinematography we are witnessing right now. But nothing of note happened in this regard, and while Escher’s grave in Baarn is rarely frequented by production designers or digital matte artists, let alone Hollywood executives, the branch of visual special effects in contemporary productions develops precisely along the lines of his architecturally-accurate optical illusions in their progressive conquest of photographic mimesis. Drawings resembling photographs, 3D models indistinguishable from material objects, abstract graphics thoroughly intercepting indexical veracity, and – apparently – promoted animation as a main mode of filmic expression, and all in the guise of photographic textures wrapped around objects, places, and actors alike. This is the cinema of the future, and the future is now.

What this article postulates is an emerging concept of representational space in films which not only employ computer-generated imagery (CGI), but are realized with techniques characteristic of animated film. These, in turn, steer nearly every stage of their production. As digital visual special effects (DVFX), with time, have come to emancipate themselves as a category, the industry standard nowadays sees feature films often driven by the use of computer graphics integrated with the live-action footage, or substituting for portions of it. Quite often what we see on screen are not just lifelike, moving matte paintings created in Maya or 3D Studio Max, but entire 3D scenes and environments reconstructed digitally, though covered with photographic textures. “Over the past twenty years, the Visual Effects (VFX) and Art Departments have worked more and more closely, bridging the gap between real life and digital environments. Sets are now often built to incorporate green and blue screens so that they can be seamlessly extended in post-production.”

 

[1] With the dematerialization of generic film sets comes the introduction of a virtual camera whose weightless, continuous gliding over modelled landscapes presents the viewer with a novel way of taking in visual information – immersing them into the action and scene of events. Instead of resorting to the shot-reverse shot mechanism of narrative subjectivity – regarded by Daniel Dayan as the base principle of cinema, according to which the viewer projects him/herself into filmic space[2] – we are instead drawn into represented space in a cinematic version of an out-of-body experience, in which editing is quite reluctant to constantly tie the visual spectacle down to a specific diegetic perceiver. Rather, repositioning the audience in represented space forces them to succumb to a multisensorial investment in the ‘flow’ of events on screen. As all transitions are rendered seamless and digital stitches concealed, films embroidered with CGI put forward a new mode of navigating the filmic space; Dayan’s notion of suture, standing in as a means of situating ourselves in imaginary yet veritable locations, is replaced by a sensation of fluid environments, intangible settings, and floating worlds inextricable from our perceptual cues, as reproduced by digital cinematography.

Illusionism applied

Take any one of Escher’s lithographs and you’ll immediately see that creating optical illusions involves a spatial imagination and a knowledge of visual cues based on human perceptual habits, even more so of their shortcomings. Ascending and Descending (1960), for example, lures us into believing that the circular staircase is a buildable three-dimensional object, even though it remains an impossible figure, in the realms of the Möbius strip. On the slightest disruption of that accurately constructed three-point perspective – reprised under the guise of a magician’s sleight-of-hand in the Penrose stairs scene[3] from Inception (2010, Christopher Nolan) – the last step, that seemed to be conjoined with the first, suddenly drifts apart with a single swift movement of the camera crane, thus revealing a gaping fissure, previously non-existent due to the advantageous position of the assumed vantage point. Observations can be made as follows: one – the space is non-existent, because an infinite staircase is an impossible object, and two – the picture’s representational space is possible as long as we maintain the vantage point posited by Escher or Wally Pfister, Nolan’s cinematographer. The way we look at space becomes space itself – three.

This tension, which arises between the scene and the observer, or speaking more scientifically, that turns space into a (mathematical) function of the gaze, has been one of cinema’s prime features from the very beginning. Set designers, with cinematographers, are often ardent students of classical art. This pertains to ‘proper’ construction of perspectives for matte shots, just as much as it later translates into the relationship established between the represented space and the viewer. In classic cinema, as Daniel Dayan noted, “[c]amera lenses organize their visual field according to the laws of perspective, which thereby operate to render it as the perception of a subject.”[4] In order to deepen that impression of subjectivity, a variety of visual cues are being employed. Among them are “…forced perspectives [which] created the illusion of great depth. In resorting to this technique, modern art directors joined company with writers on perspective from the Renaissance and Baroque eras, whose schemes were routinely taught in American art schools.”[5] Building an optical illusion first of all requires another illusion to back it up – namely, an optically-biased environment, disguised as a space extracted directly from real life that would give no reason to the onlooker to question what they see. Since cinema’s inception, architects, set designers, cinematographers, and now art department virtuosos have become skilled in creating fictional scenes that would be impossible to encounter in real life, because in order to exist, they involve not a restless, but a static eye.

Beyond expressionist ‘Caligari’s cabinets’, filmic scenery, encompassing physical locations, set decorations and painted backdrops, has undergone a long journey to the point of redefining the entire approach to film design, brought about with the CGI revolution. Not yet at the stage when the first computer artwork was being introduced into practice (namely, John Whitney’s opening sequence to Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958)), what was considered ‘computer art’ was still, for example, largely the analogue re-filming of console displays in Tron (1982, Steven Lisberger). This eventually led to over-stated claims of the arrival of the digital age, with a mere 6 minutes’ worth of CGI in Jurassic Park (1993, Steven Spielberg). In fact, it was Toy Story (1995, John Lasseter) that arrived on the scene as the true binary Prometheus, disrupting the balance of computer-generated special effects shots versus regular footage, expanding the category of digital FX into full-length 3D animated features. In this way:

[a]gainst the backdrop of the wider proliferation of digital technologies, media and communication networks, digital or digitised practices have found their way into almost every aspect of filmmaking, including sequence pre-visualisation, blue and green screen shooting, face and body motion capture, compositing of image elements and digital rotoscoping, non-linear editing and sound mixing.[6]

Computer-generated imagery braided into live footage is reliant on a suspension of disbelief, according to which any film is assumed to be lifelike as long as it presents us with objects whose photographic verisimilitude – its indexical value – seem undeniable. As parametricism in architecture evolves into yet more advanced and elaborate forms, and with CGI as a standard in movie production, what was formerly regarded as merely a new tool to aid the design process has not only reconfigured both practices, but also introduced an innovative concept to the cinematic screen space, which blurs or nullifies material borders. With the help of software enabling motion tracking – facilitating the merging of filmed scenes and 3D visuals – picture correction, and overall digital compositing at the post-production stage, as well as completely digital animated previsualizations (being ‘storyboards 2.0’), filmmakers have been able to come up with radically new spatial environments (albeit mainly in the science-fiction and superhero genres). And while the surface might be misleading, resembling classical cinema, the ‘engine’ of present-day productions is purely digital, driving all production phases in contemporary filmmaking.

What prevails, then, is a desire for seamless visuals that reinforce the illusion that we are indeed looking at cities full of Marvel’s superheroes, and that flying beyond the galaxy’s farthest edges appears as if they’ve really been put in front of an actual camera. But both presumptions are wrong. Digital scenography – preceded by scale models, montage juxtapositions and painterly optical illusions – has come to supersede or enhance the practice of filmmaking and the usual modus operandi, subsequently dematerialising the physical borders of pro-filmic reality, blending interior and exterior barriers, and transforming the spaces depicted and the camera’s gaze into a seamless whole. Contemporary cinema has emancipated itself from the rules of classic montage. We are already being flooded with over-invested blockbusters that tend to rely very little on the viewer’s critical awareness. Instead, immersive narrative strategies (Gravity (2013, Alfonso Cuarón), Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014, Alejandro G. Iñárritu)) are preferred. These eliminate the cognitive stage of mental ‘stitching’ – along the lines of Dayan’s suture theory – of the filmic narrative, requiring from the viewer complete involvement and naïve insertion into the events depicted, rather than any intellectual distance:

Narrative cinema presents itself as a ‘subjective’ cinema. […] These films propose images which are subtly designated and intuitively perceived as corresponding to the point of view of one character or another. The point of view varies. There are also moments when the image does not represent anyone’s point of view; but in the classical narrative cinema, these are relatively exceptional. Soon enough, the image is reasserted as somebody’s point of view.[7]

Of course, filmmakers have always excelled in hiding the ‘stitches’, just like the brush strokes that might have made one suspect the painterly nature of an end credits’ sunset, or the true storage capacity of the Hangar 51 warehouse in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, Steven Spielberg). With digital image processing, these directorial dreams have come true, although not without affecting our relationship with on-screen spaces – formerly a montage of fragments,[8] now a seamless environment in which the architecture of the material, illusory and computer generated all converge.

Pro-filmic space in pre-digital cinema

The emerging filmic space’s uninterrupted nature often (unsurprisingly) finds its central inhabitant in a character who exists on the borders between fantasy/delusion/mental illness and concrete reality. The procession of visual information – in such features as the aforementioned Birdman, Gravity, or The Revenant (2015, Alejandro G. Iñárritu) – postulates a manic, restless and slightly neurotic subject, whose incessant daydream we are drawn into, all the more to experience it first-hand. We are used to gazing at cinematic space as an imagined, otherworldly reality on a screen in whose wilderness the characters are meant to wander, struggle, or simply interact. Inside a bluescreen environment this task becomes much harder to accomplish, as far more unknowns about the represented space are introduced into the equation.

It is no longer a case of catching hold of and restoring a slice of pro-filmic reality, but rather of encoding the ‘data’ seized by the device. With the digital, to record reality is already, and simultaneously, to reconstruct it. We know of course that any representation, however slavishly recorded it may be, is always-already a (re)construction.[9]

It is a spatiotemporal collage conceived by editing, within-the-frame montage, compiled from a variety of sources, chiefly pro-filmic space, stage sets, scale models and matte paintings. Their juxtaposition creates the setting for the plot. Graphic artists, set designers and cinematographers have always been preoccupied with hiding from the viewer’s gaze any inconsistencies in the composited image, a practice originated with artisan-come-artists such as Robert…

…Mallet Stevens [who] had discovered the empirical approach of the professional designers. He began to study camera angles, which varied according to the focus of the lens employed. Intrigued by these studies, [Jean] Perrier took them up as well and developed a rational concept of film set design as a function of the position of the camera and the lenses. The graphic method that he worked out enabled him to determine which plan and dimensions of a set would produce the image desired and drawn by the designer.[10]

Such views can only propagate themselves. As Michael Tawa writes, “[t]he cinematic image is […] a manner of penetrating space. It constitutes the way in which a look perforates and advances into space.”[11] Therefore, represented space arrives on the ‘silver screen’ as an entity that has already been manipulated, enhanced and infused with digital hyperrealism, whose: “…architecture changes the sizes and proportions of real architecture. Even though buildings constructed in the studio were usually made smaller than life-size, their physical diminution was not noticeable when they were filmed with actors.”[12]

Fiction film beguiles us into accepting spaceship interiors and alien temples as instances of ‘probable’ architectural typologies. Documentaries make us alert, as they strive for verity, even though throughout history truth-seeking has been achieved through quite diverse means. Animated and experimental films are unique in this manner, as they present us with spaces that, even when originating in real life, have been intercepted in order to test the borders of our cognition; the limits of our perceptual capabilities, as in structuralist film. But apart from generic convention, CGI facilitates the coming (or designing, rather) into graphic existence of any environments of pure abstraction, the digital kin of Douglas Trumbull’s stargate-corridor in 2001 (1968, Stanley Kubrick) – a perfect example of a purely ‘retinal’ space that is brought to life on an inherently Dayanian basis of shot interchange (the fluorescent stream reflected upon Bowman’s face and helmet upon which we see the corridor as a projection).

Ambiguous space: a shortcut from animation to live action cinema

With the introduction of computers to filmmaking, the spectrum of tools allowing for processing of imagery grew considerably, facilitating chirurgical incisions, letting cuts proliferate in a more in-depth manner, while the stitched-together patient would emerge with no visible scars. Animated films, especially experimental shorts (such as the first computer films by John Whitney Sr., beginning with Catalog (1961), which introduced the idea of morphing and sequences of transformative algorithms applied to on-screen objects), have evolved into the backbone of any big-budget action film circa 2018. Thereby, special effects entered mainstream live-action cinema and thoroughly reshaped the production pipeline, emerging soon after as their own separate category. Conversely, space in animation has always been an artificial construct, along with the characters themselves (bodies, contour lines etc), the convention of background images and their own laws of physics, which come into being only when acted out.

Along with digital special effects, new stages of film production quickly caught on, such as previsualisations of more complicated sequences (fight scenes, explosions, stunts etc), and animatics – an animated version of the storyboard. As a consequence, although still regarded as a waste product, a test ‘movie’ comes into being alongside the main feature. That was the case for Gravity, which was created not unlike a typical Pixar production. The final cut of the film was decided upon in the pre-production stage. While shooting (mainly in a bluescreen environment), a ‘virtual camera’ was programmed to perform smoother movements than a physical one could. Post-production is nowadays the lengthiest gestation period in a film’s production process, and involves colour correction, lighting adjustments and the addition of special effects to accompany traditional animatronics and digital compositing. In this way, a typical film begins its life as an animated storybook, with concept art and digital previsualizations, etc, and ends up as an animated film ‘in disguise’, harnessing live action with the dexterity of a professional puppeteer. By flowing into mainstream (mainly ‘action’) cinema, it doesn’t just introduce the issue, but reinforces the problem of imagery’s ambiguous status.

Michele Pierson rehearsed this possibility in 2002, speculating that digital special effects would effectively begin to ‘disappear’ as a visual category, as CGI became a more persistent and wide-ranging presence onscreen, and as the impulse towards photorealism in digital imaging eradicated the ‘bracketing of’ and stylistic foregrounding of special effects that Pierson had identified in earlier phases of the digital effects tradition.[13]

Two examples of animated films are analysed below, examining their visual strategies (which made their way, further on, into CGI-imbued live action cinema) – extracted from two anime classics, covering distinct sequences that are explicitly pure visual transitions conjoining separate settings. One created on the brink of the digital era, the other in its midst: Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell (1995), and Satoshi Kon’s Paprika (2006). The latter is a film with computer-generated dream-reality transitions. The former features a main character in a sea-diving sequence, in which the director/animator plays around with the illusion of water reflections. As depicted, they are indistinguishable from the character and the environmental design. Meanwhile, Paprika constantly transitions its narrative between reality and dream, unnoticeably  in the course of the plot, whereas the horror of waking up is ‘smoothed out’ with the use of digital special effects: blurring, twisting, morphing of the hand-drawn imagery, and all as abruptly as the morning bugle.

Ghost in the Shell: Re-surfacing

Halfway into the story, we find Ghost in the Shell’s central character, Major Kusanagi, taking some time off in a slow-paced ocean diving sequence. As she floats towards the water’s surface, we see her perfectly reflected in the upper right corner of the screen. Cut to a frame divided diagonally by the water line – the character in the lower left half of the screen rises floats gently upwards towards her double in the upper right. Despite our knowing the scene is set underwater, there seem to be no other indications, such as a watery blue hue, wavy shapes in the drawing, or a lack of focus. Which one of the two characters is Kusanagi, and which her reflection? Of course, both are images, as there was no real actor there to begin with. Mamoru Oshii frequently plays with pictorial conventions, creating equivocal 2D settings, depicting them at a fixed angle to reinforce an optical illusion that would have been shattered if presented stereoscopically. The water’s undisturbed surface, as painted, appears indistinguishable from a mirror, or polished chrome. Thus Oshii strains the limits of representation, demonstrating how images can imply, instead of merely depicting. Apparently, in their slavish attitude to the animated forefather, the creators of the live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell (2017, Rupert Sanders), tried to achieve a similar effect using not merely a CGI’d reflection, but a genuine double for the actress[14] descending from above – an image perfectly sharp and easily mistakable for the actress ascending from below.

Paprika: jumping fences

In Paprika, the ambiguity at play concerns the gradual intrusion of the dream world into concrete reality. Director Satoshi Kon’s team uses digital effects, such as  morphing, to mark the transition from a dreaming life to a waking one. At some point in the story, Chiba, the main female character, is scrutinizing the apartment of her colleague (a former programmer). Descending to the basement, she suddenly realizes she’s wandered into a huge amusement park. She notices a doll bearing a significant resemblance to her colleague and approaches it, jumping over a fence which suddenly dissolves like a reflection in water. The barrier vanishes and Chiba finds herself in mid-air, having just jumped over the railing on the apartment’s balcony several floors above the ground. Digital embroidery makes the drawing undulate, morphing the safe space of the apartment into a vertiginous drop. Further in, Kon nullifies differences between the images shown, as the protagonist’s alter ego, Paprika, is able to use the spaces of television screens, billboards and picture frames as gateways to the ‘realities’ they depict.

By fusing characters and backgrounds, or simply treating them as items of equally artificial and abstract origin, animated film doesn’t withhold from following gradual and abrupt metamorphoses within the course (and space) of a long take. “One-shot animated films are formulated from the potential changes of the scenery, running without cutting interruptions. To overcome this narrative restriction, the singularity of the shot is mitigated by the fluency of transitions and transformations at a blank stage, and the division of the frame to support simultaneous storytelling.”[15] In both Ghost in the Shell and Paprika, the environment’s status is ambivalent, far from acting out its solid and static nature. In animation, a particular artist’s style often serves as a masking tool, preying on our habit of separating moving characters from static backgrounds, as if they were actors in actual spaces. Instead, Kon and Oshii prompt the viewer to discredit this ‘reality principle’, regarding it as nothing more than a construct, regardless of how convincing it looks and how engaging the plot. “What is notable is the extent to which the photorealist principle is adhered to even in the depiction of the most fantastical subject matter, and even within sequences which function as explicit ‘showcases’ for – and thus explicit acknowledgments of – computer-generated imagery (CGI).”[16]

In film, meaning is generally derived from the collision of two images, making montage the main rule of composition for ‘moving pictures’. In the Hollywood system this serves the principle of editing for continuity, in which “…actors’ movements are matched across cuts, and as the scene develops the shots get closer to the performers, carrying us to the heart of the drama […]”[17]. Furthermore, “…nearly all scenes in nearly all contemporary mass-market movies (and in most ‘independent’ films) are staged, shot, and cut according to principles which crystallized in the 1910s and 1920s.”[18] Post-classical style strives, as Bordwell remarks, for a sensation of intensified continuity, a “…traditional continuity amped up, raised to a higher pitch of emphasis.”[19] Cutting heightens awareness, as it requires the viewer to mentally reconstruct relationships between perceived images, especially as images tend to weaken in resemblance.[20] Thus, fragments of architectural spaces and shots of a scale model can consequently be turned into a virtual building in the audience’s imagination. Daniel Dayan summarised these rules in his ‘suture theory’ of the mental stitching together of visual information (frames, shots) into a scene, sequence, virtual environment, event… depending on the discursive approach we choose.

The evasion this account identifies is deep and pervasive: the reverse shot of the gazer […] sutures over that profound wound in our being […][;] suture, in other words, provides film spectators with the illusion of an origin for what they see. Film’s construction of seeing needs to be naturalized. More importantly, the construction of seeing needs to be naturalized.[21]

Another level – or ‘sequel’ to Dayan’s concept – comes with CGI. Seamless transitions linking contradicting environments and creating long takes with the aid of digital imagery aim at something different – involvement. “Digital imaging’s original incarnation was as a ‘special effect’, the ‘digital effects’ it first showcased in specific shots and later specific sequences of particular films […] At another level this was a way for early digital effects movies to trial visual effects artists’ capacity to integrate the digital with the pro-filmic in a convincing way, and to test out the spectator’s tolerance of the digital elements and the composited image within safe limits….”[22] We are easily fooled by impossible, illogical spatial constructions when they emerge as walked-through corridors traversed uninterruptedly, staircases and rooms that lose us in their maze, either of Escher’s or Industrial Light & Magic’s provenance. Having this principle of continuity when discussing the CGI-cast space of representation in mind, we can inspect the (in)famous incessant ‘take’ of (rather than in) Birdman as representative of this trend in transiting long takes from modernist cinema into action films, from Nostalgia (1983, Andrei Tarkovsky) to Gravity.

Birdman or (The Expected Case to Study)

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is nothing but Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) cut together digitally. Prior to its triumphal procession at the 87th Academy Awards ceremony, the film’s antecedents included Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void (2009), and Robert Altman’s multiple prism narratives, such as Shortcuts (1993). All of these films attempted a sense of simultaneity, continuity and recreation of a life’s stream of events, and tried to bypass the shattered, montage-driven form of the world traditionally put on screen. Apart from the obvious importance of staging – the actors’ blocking, camera placement, rehearsals and the other preparatory activities that bring cinema closer to theatre – computer postproduction played a crucial part in Birdman, precisely because it made the illusion possible. Typically,

[a] shot is a single uninterrupted camera take with no perceptually detectable temporal or spatial discontinuities. Cinematic sequences are composed of a range of shots that present different vantage points on an action, event, or state of affairs for the purpose of narrating a fiction, depicting an environment, communicating a point of view […]. Shots and sequences can therefore be defined as recognitional prompts that present diagnostic information that enables viewers to perceptually recognize their content in much the same way they recognize everyday objects, actions, and events in ordinary contexts.[23]

Birdman’s famously long take – as is more frequently the case with cinematic displays of digitally-enhanced prowess – was in fact a composite of various shorter takes edited together into a single seamless transition. This further enhances the nervous, syncopated rhythm of the film as the viewer follows its central character, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), nervously pacing the narrow corridors of a Broadway theatre and dealing with the various people and obstacles along the way. Three of the post-production tricks that made this seamless-looking feat possible are examined below, which include use of  computer software to create an uninterrupted narrative flow.

  1. Matchmoving…

…is a common means of conjoining digital imagery with filmed footage. In the film, during Riggan’s nervous pacing, the theatre’s dimly lit interiors were a perfect opportunity for making digital seams, placed so as to preserve the lighting and colour consistency of the images. Unlike the fades to black practiced by Hitchcock, the seams here are invisible, conjoined by the graphic artists at Rodeo FX. They employed a variety of techniques, including use of three time-lapse sequences and the aforementioned matchmoving – the matching of camera angles, motion, lighting etc. between two separate shots, in order to insert CGI material into the scene. Even a CG camera was used to seamlessly make a move that would tie all the unrelated elements together. All of this effort resulted in about 100 digital ‘stitches’ altogether, including transitions to fully digital backgrounds.

Current computer technology has made it easier to incorporate motion into composited shots, even when using handheld cameras. […] In post-production, a computer can use the references to compute the camera’s position and thus render an image that matches the perspective and movement of the foreground perfectly. Modern advances in software and computational power have eliminated the need for accurate placement of the markers – the software figures out their position in space. A perceived disadvantage of this is that it requires a large camera movement, possibly encouraging modern film techniques where the camera is always in motion….[24]

In Birdman, the idea was to give the impression of uninterruptedness by combining scenes that normally wouldn’t be subjected to much post-processing (it’s usually action sequences that involve bluescreen environments, supporting wires and stuntmen), such as dialogue sequences that might require colour correction, but do not involve heavy use of visual effects. In the Birdman sequence examined here, the character engages in frequent actor-to-actor interplays, only to be suddenly pulled up out of them by a crane, into an SFX display. And so, the illusion of continuity resultant from cutting together scenes shot inside a greenscreen environment, with scenes shot on location or on soundstages (such as the opening shot of Riggan levitating in his dressing room and the endless corridor walk he goes on just a few minutes later), create a consistent plane of magical-realism in the film’s diegetic space. And this magical-realist take has often been seen in the emphasis on continuity and immersion in modernist cinema’s spatiotemporal durée, in which subsequent actions are as much corporeally justified as they are metaphorically. It moulds together historically disparate periods (as seen in the works of Carlos Saura, Theo Angelopoulos, Miklós Jancsó), immersing audiences in the real-time duration of the scene (Béla Tarr, Michelangelo Antonioni, Andrei Tarkovsky), with the intention of attaining the stasis of a fleeting moment. However, CGI long-takes usually want none of that, let alone those in Birdman. Here, smooth transitions are set up between spaces and moments so as to point towards the distorted mindset of the protagonist.

  1. Photogrammetry…

…is the technique of extracting information from two images from different POVs, setting compatible points and creating a 2.5D representation of the image. It enables the determination of the position of a camera from two (or more) separately-taken shots, or photographs, and on the basis of data gathered on location, reconstruction of a 3D model of the scene. This pre-dates traditional matte painting, and gives an impression of three-dimensionality. It’s also indispensable in shots with mirrors. In Birdman, crew reflections were digitally erased. Parts of the set had to be either obscured with a bluescreen or taken out in post-production using rotoscoping, for example, in the dressing room scenes in which the large mirrors would normally reflect the film crew. Instead, the filmed reflections were replaced with CG reflections of the actors only, as well as of objects lying on a table visible in the shot.

  1. Digital compositing…

…is what allows for the illusion to play out loud. In Birdman, it ‘erupts’ sporadically, most prominently in a brief episode emphasizing an outburst of anger from Riggan, as – when walking down the street – he suddenly transforms into his audacious alter-ego, the titular ‘Birdman’ superhero character. Simultaneously, audiences are shell-shocked by the fantastical (though still convincing) images of an aerial attack on the city. Parked cars exploding, debris falling from destroyed buildings, wreckage and fire from every corner of the until-recently peaceful urban scenery. On the other hand, digital intrusions are applied to small details too. The stuntman dressed in Birdman’s costume wasn’t blessed with Michael Keaton’s chin – he received that in post-production.

This coherence in the design of each frame (as well as their flow), can also be observed on the ‘molecular’ level, as the software used privileges the manipulation of curved lines directly on screen; it favours continuous surfaces and smooth forms, let alone the fluidity of camerawork, complex shots and transitions. It can also effortlessly recreate nearly infinite zoom, and has no problem with a scarcity of interrupting cuts. This appears as “…a return to what we might describe […] as cinema’s graphic anima: Image manipulation, retouching, color timing, editing and post-production operations, all now digital, have encouraged a heightened “picturization” of films, for example, by broadening the color palette and the ways it can be manipulated.”[25] What had once been achieved with great difficulty, is now made to appear smooth. Like Birdman’s dynamics, with the film’s amplitude rhythmically changing each scene’s ‘time signature’ (an intensified continuity), speeding up then slowing down, but never grinding to a halt. These concealed incongruities mask the fact that the conjunction of heterogeneous spaces result in new viewing habits and different tasks for the viewer. And not passive reception of the information projected, but active negotiation of instances in a stream of attractions. Immersion here means surrender to the apparatus of cinematic projection.

The emergent option of eliminating all montage edits whatsoever is much less constrained than it used to be, for example in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 Rope. Moreover, the promise of seamlessness acquired by any formerly disjointed sequence of images grants the filmmaker the ability to not only sustain the illusion of a long take, but erase any barriers that would have normally been posed by material objects – be it props, set decorations or even other actors, as in the case of Gravity.

The aesthetics of the film try to replicate the protagonist’s fearful and fascinated exploration of a horizonless world through 3-D cinematography and very long takes, which together induce in the spectator an equally ambivalent sense of disorientation and weightlessness. The reduced narration and the poetic exploration of zero-gravity turns the film into a laboratory of the senses, which brings the spectator close to the bodily experience of floating, drifting, and being suspended in space.[26]

Even actors’ bodies no longer pose any obstacles to the camera’s penetrative look, as they can be substituted by CG counterparts; the formerly impenetrable borders between interior and outside space (and in metaphoric terms, between dream and waking life, inner psyche and outer reality), can now be traversed without resistance. This relegates material objects on set to the status of artistic creations (in Birdman, the creators often replaced props such as the cosmetics on a dressing table, or a framed poster, with digital doubles), generated on an ‘animator’s desk’ ex nihilo.

Images of the real world can now blend with fiction’s images of possible worlds because they are constructed and perceived in the same way. And this point surely touches on the ethics of our faith in images, particularly with respect to the documentary contract and journalistic coverage of the world’s factual events.[27]

In animated films, the attributes of material objects and physical laws have to be implied, acted out; they need to give off an illusion of corporality through texture, or usually weight, through light play and the way characters interact with the object. Dematerializing them in live-action cinema, as with actors in a bluescreen environment (or the more frequent practice of bright green Christo-like wrapping of their body parts, indicating areas of later intervention for CG artists ), pares them down to the status borne by any other object. Threads are composited into a film’s fabric (virtual camera movements, CG puppets replacing actors), and regarded as a coherent whole. “With motion capture something like the opposite occurs: here, a photo-realist image achieves the flexibility of an animated image.”[28] Altogether, this has given rise to the category of animage, which stresses the actual ‘fabric’ of the filmic spectacle, constituted not out of a montage of shots representative of real-life environments, figures, and events, but – as is frequently the case – an animated narrative encrusted with photographic ‘skins’ only in the post-production stage. “This, then, is animage: an animated image that is already no longer an image (it is no longer an impression of the world precisely), something conveyed by the privative prefix ‘a’. But animage is also – and now more than ever – an image that moves to the beat of animation.”[29]

There is an ontological shift in the represented space we perceive, which – out of a continuous flux – forms the underlying principle of most digital interventions. “In digital cinema […] there is no such thing as a still image, no punctual moment. There is only a consistent process of becoming (and unbecoming), based on the binary sequencing of zeros and ones, which creates a constant relay of appearing and vanishing, of presence and absence.”[30] This becomes evident when we compare a simple travelling scene from Birdman with a similar idea executed nearly 40 years earlier, in Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975). In both, the beholding eye – the camera – appears as a disembodied entity, traversing walls and material obstacles; in the Antonioni film it passes through the bars on a window separating the hotel room in which David Locke dies, from the courtyard outside. In Iñárritu, the obstacle covers the entrance to Riggan’s dressing room, as the crane climbs up to his balcony following a lengthy time-lapse sequence. Collaging, or making a photomontage out of disparate spaces, gives rise to the illusion of the camera’s all-penetrating gaze – the disembodied floating of the spectator’s eye is given much more than a mere ‘backstage pass’ into Riggan’s floor show, turning it into an absolute beholder. Such swift hovering about a virtual set implies a bit more than a delusion of grandeur. In fact, it reintroduces filmic space as a 3D model, in which territory we are to manoeuvre, vastly removed from the notions of classical construction, the ‘tutor code’ of cinema that dresses up and stitches together the projected show from fragments, presented to the camera’s restrained immobility.

Conclusive remarks

The Eisensteinian concept of the dominant, indicating aspects of the film frame or scene, is brought to the fore as it denotes both aural and visual layers of the spectacle. In the age of CGI, the same factors can easily be emphasised through colour correction, or elaborate camera movements (amongst other methods), meant to channel and direct the audience’s attention towards the particular element of the representation considered by its creators as the most pregnant with significance. Eisenstein writes: “[o]rthodox montage is montage on the dominant, i.e. the combination of shots according to their dominating indications. Montage according to tempo. Montage according to the chief tendency within the frame. Montage according to the length (continuance) of the shots, and so on. This is montage according to the foreground.”[31] A logical extension of this comes with a composting strategy to guide the audience’s attention. In other words, providing them with visual cues. The Soviet film director regarded lighting effects, framing, camera movements, composition of the cadre, sound, texture and other aspects manipulated by the filmmaker as a means of evoking a certain engagement on the viewer’s part, focusing their attention on specific elements of the screen’s tapestry; elements that embody the general meaning of the scene. With contemporary productions, this strategy is repurposed by means of colour correction, digitally-added lens flare, vibrant luminescence, or manipulated brightness levels.

What is the consequence of this kind of multi-aspect use of digital processing, compositing of a homogenous environment in which the look, mediated by the camera, is invisibly paired with CG additions? As in a Eisenstein’s own Alexander Nevsky (1938), the space of representation becomes coupled with vision – an aspect that, when experienced in 3D, redesigns whole shots in a way that aims at the viewer’s cone of vision.

[I]n light of the revival of 3-D images, the screen is no longer only a visual container framing the image, but has expanded into the auditorium space, further blurring the boundaries between inside and outside, in-here and out-there. It now opens up a virtual space that extends in depth, alternately thrusting itself menacingly out towards the spectators and pulling them into an enveloping embrace.[32]

Objects are thrown at us, and we intuitively dodge them just before realising we didn’t have to. That ubiquitous strategy of creating an immersive spectacle will probably soon fall into decline, both as antecedents and nemeses of Birdman quickly grow in numbers. Awareness of these strategies involving a pliant ‘interface’ raises questions about what is real and what is simulated. The next logical step for any self-conscious film made in the digital age would be to engage a thematic exploration of interruptions, blemishes, and borderline cases, in which digital intrusions into (supposedly) material reality cause an involution of the latter.

[I]t is our contention that in the era of digital cinema, the body and the senses are if anything even more central for a theoretical understanding of the film experience, whether it is the feeling of bodily presence created through digital sound, the sensory overload and profusion of detail achieved by high-definition digital images when projected in an IMAX theatre, or the ‘freedom’ to have ‘movies to go’ on portable devices and to control their sequence and flow with our hands.[33]

In this regard, Ari Folman’s The Congress (2013) and Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (2012) both raise the subject of digital alteration of what we see on screen more directly, revealing the technique, demonstrating glitches, and philosophising about the future condition of filmmaking. Such films engage – even on their margins – a discussion of digital paraphernalia, pointing to the ‘engines at work’ underneath the representations we see on screen. An example of this might be temporal masking, which results from compression, making use of “[t]he human visual system [as it] takes a while to adapt to abrupt scene changes. During this period it is less sensitive to details, and images may be represented in a coarser way.”[34] Emphasizing, at the same time, the ‘lossy’ aspects in coding visual imagery, precisely by a display of digital artefacts, that “[a]t low qualities […] become very visible and take the shape of abrupt changes in luminance and color between neighboring blocks, due to the JPEG processing that is performed independently for each block. This is why compression artifacts are often called blocks, or blocking artifacts.”[35] But the digital paradigm shift is rarely taken into consideration when talking about contemporary film. Not just because of Hollywood’s timidity in discussing face transplants for their major productions, but also due to a reluctance, maybe even inability, to pay attention to the invisible world of code behind the glossy, lossless surface. Soon, cinema may well be without any material reality outside the machine, as long as it remains armed with vast libraries of data from the physical world; a hermetic hermitage of digitized props, ready to be used and reused in any future spectacle.

Finally, as an afterthought, let us revise Dayan’s view that stitching (suture) was an automatic activity on the part of the viewer, who was critically aware of – even if accustomed to – the constructed reality they perceive, although symbolically desirous of writing themselves into the filmic space as witnessed in cinemas (in CinemaScope, preferably!). “To see the film is not to perceive the frame, the camera angle and distance, etc. The space between planes or objects on the screen is perceived as real, hence the viewer may perceive himself (in relation to this space) as fluidity, expansion, elasticity.”[36] Just like any other entrant in the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects category, Birdman and Gravity, the Ghost in the Shell live-action remake (2017, Rupert Sanders), and Ready Player One (2018, Steven Spielberg) all inevitably do just that; throwing their audiences (or should we say, their audience, as it’s unlikely that we’re speaking of a revolving cast of characters), into the midst of a DVFX hailstorm. Sooner than expected, we could find ourselves confronted with a seamless cloth of digitally composited and enhanced reality. Then, it will be our turn to rip the stitches apart.

References

Ackland-Snow Terry, Laybourn Wendy, The Art of Illusion: Production Design for Film and Television, (Marlborough: Crowood Press) (2017).

Barsacq Leon, Caligari’s Cabinet and Other Grand Illusions, (New York: New York Graphic Society) (1977).

Bertalmío Marcelo, Image Processing for Cinema, (Boca Raton, London and New York: CRC Press) (2014).

Bordwell David, ”Intensified Continuity: Visual Style in Contemporary American Film”, Film Quarterly 55:3 (Spring 2002), pp. 16-28.

Bryant Antony and Pollock Griselda (ed.), Digital and Other Virtualities: Renegotiating the Image, (London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010).

Butte George, “Suture and the Narration of Subjectivity in Film”, Poetics Today 29:2 (Summer 2008), pp. 277-308.

Dayan Daniel, “The Tutor-Code of Classical Cinema”, Film Quarterly 28:1 (Autumn 1974), pp. 22-31.

Dobbert Tom, Matchmoving: The Invisible Art of Camera Tracking (San Francisco and London: Sybex) (2005).

Eisenstein Sergei, “The Filmic Fourth Dimension” (1929), in Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, Jay Leyda (ed. and transl.) (New York and London: Harcourt) (1949).

Elsaesser Thomas, Hagener Malte, Film Theory: An Introduction through the Senses, (New York and London: Routledge) (2015).

Gaudreault André, Marion Philippe, The End of Cinema? A Medium in Crisis in the Digital Age, John Belton (ed.), Timothy Barnard (transl.) (New York: Columbia University Press) (2015).

Hernández María Lorenzo, “The Double Sense of Animated Images: A View on the Paradoxes of Animation as a Visual Language”, Animation Studies 2 (2007), https://journal.animationstudies.org/maria-lorenzo-hernandez-the-double-sense-of-animated-images/, date accessed 9 July 2018.

Pethő Ágnes (ed.), The Cinema of Sensations (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing) (2015), pp. 36-44.

Prince Stephen, Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: The Seduction of Reality (New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press) (2012).

Purse Lisa, Digital Imaging in Popular Cinema, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) (2013).

Ramírez Juan Antonio, Architecture for the Screen: A Critical Study of Set Design in Hollywood’s Golden Age, (Jefferson and London: McFarland & Company) (2012).

Shimamura Arthur P. (ed), Psychocinematics: Exploring Cognition at the Movies, (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press) (2013).

Tawa Michael, Agencies of the Frame: Tectonic Strategies in Cinema and Architecture, (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing) (2011).

Whitlock Cathy, Designs on Film: A Century of Hollywood At Direction (Sydney, London, New York: HarperCollins) (2010).

Notes

[1] Terry Ackland-Snow, Wendy Laybourn, The Art of Illusion: Production Design for Film and Television, (Marlborough: Crowood Press) (2017), p. 42.

[2] Daniel Dayan, ”The

Tutor-Code of Classical Cinema”, Film Quarterly 28:1 (Autumn 1974), p. 30.

[3] Not ‘sequence’, as it is crucial to analyse this part of the film as taking place within the same interior, as well as noticing its constructed perspective which brings the illusion into being.

[4] Daniel Dayan, p. 28.

[5] Juan Antonio Ramírez, Architecture for the Screen: A Critical Study of Set Design in Hollywood’s Golden Age, (Jefferson and London: McFarland & Company) (2012), p. 63.

[6] Lisa Purse, Digital Imaging in Popular Cinema, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) (2013), p. 2.

[7] Daniel Dayan, pp. 28-29.

[8] This has been historically motivated by the intention to optimize “… viewing positions by decomposing events into different shots, each of them showing the event part preferably from an appropriate position and viewpoint, [which] does not come for free but instead implies a reduced spatial coherence across shots that goes along with increased cost of cognitive processing.” [Stephen Schwan, “The Art of Simplifying Events”, in Psychocinematics. Exploring Cognition at the Movies, ed. Arthur P. Shimamura (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press) (2013), p. 222.].

[9] André Gaudreault and Philippe Marion, The End of Cinema? A Medium in Crisis in the Digital Age, ed. John Belton, transl. Timothy Barnard (New York: Columbia University Press) (2015), p. 65.

[10] Leon Barsacq, Caligari’s Cabinet and Other Grand Illusions (New York: New York Graphic Society) (1977), pp. 44-45.

[11] Michael Tawa, Agencies of the Frame: Tectonic Strategies in Cinema and Architecture, (Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing) (2011), p. 30.

[12] Juan Antonio Ramírez, p. 83.

[13] Idem, p. 24.

[14] See: Lisa Purse, p. 27. A similar discussion is conducted there on a sequence from Live Free or Die Hard (2007, Len Wiseman), in which John McClane looks past his perfectly clear reflection in a glass pane, enhanced this way to direct the viewers’ attention to the symbolic act of confronting oneself.

[15] María Lorenzo Hernández, “The Double Sense of Animated Images: A View on the Paradoxes of Animation as a Visual Language”, Animation Studies 2 (2007), https://journal.animationstudies.org/maria-lorenzo-hernandez-the-double-sense-of-animated-images/, date accessed 9 July 2018, p. 40.

[16] Idem, p. 6.

[17] David Bordwell, ”Intensified Continuity: Visual Style in Contemporary American Film”, Film Quarterly 55:3 (Spring 2002), p. 16.

[18] David Bordwell, p. 24.

[19] Idem, p. 16.

[20] The case of abstract and experimental cinema, but also the premise on which Eisenstein’s intellectual montage was founded.

[21] George Butte, ”Suture and the Narration of Subjectivity in Film“, Poetics Today 29:2 (Summer 2008), p. 283.

[22] Lisa Purse, p. 18.

[23] Noël Carroll and William P. Seeley, ”Cognitivism, Psychology, and Neuroscience: Movies as Attentional Engines”, in Psychocinematics: Exploring Cognition at the Movies, ed. Arthur P. Shimamura (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press) (2013), p. 62.

[24] André Gaudreault and Philippe Marion, p. 161.

[25] Idem, p. 162.

[26] Thomas Elsaesser and Malte Hagener, Film Theory: An Introduction through the Senses, (New York and London: Routledge) (2015), p. 124.

[27] André Gaudreault and Philippe Marion, p. 69.

[28] Idem, p. 165.

[29] Idem, p. 175.

[30] Antony Bryant and Griselda Pollock, “Editors’ Introduction”, in Digital and Other Virtualities: Renegotiating the Image, ed. Antony Bryant and Griselda Pollock, (London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010), p. 8.

[31] Sergei Eisenstein, “The Filmic Fourth Dimension” (1929), in Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, ed. and transl. Jay Leyda (New York and London: Harcourt) (1949), p. 64.

[32] Idem, p. 43.

[33] Idem, p. 195.

[34] Marcelo Bertalmío, Image Processing for Cinema, (Boca Raton, London and New York: CRC Press) (2014), p. 103.

[35] Idem, p. 108.

[36] Daniel Dayan, p. 29.

Prosthetic Memory and the New Civil Rights Cinema of the 21st Century

Patrycja Włodek

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2018, vol.3, no. 1, pp. 78-88.

 

 

Patrycja Włodek

Pedagogical University of Cracow

 

 

Prosthetic Memory and the New Civil Rights Cinema of the 21st Century

 

Abstract

Memory studies are one of the most dynamically developing areas of the humanities. Although most scholars are focused on various forms of collective memories, some differ from this general trend. Alison Landsberg’s theory of prosthetic memory is one such different approach. This new form of ‘public memory’ makes it possible for individuals to be affected by events that they did not themselves experience. It works through various forms of media, such as films or experiential museums. Although Landsberg’s theory is at times not exactly precise and leaves room for doubt, ‘prosthetic memory’ can be applied to the interpretation of various contemporary movie trends, such as the new civil rights cinema of the 21st century, and can also help to redefine some of most basic cinematic devices.

 

Keywords: prosthesis, prosthetic memory, memory, retro, nostalgia, cinema, new civil rights cinema

 

 

Memory and its relation to media has recently become not only one of the most discussed topics in the realm of pop culture, but also one of the most influential. Thanks to postmodernism, ‘nostalgia film’, retro styles and other rose-tinted modes of depicting history, cinema in the second half of the twentieth century has turned not toward the future, but the past. However, unlike traditional costume dramas (which of course are still being made), new ways of depicting the past concentrate on issues such as retrospective shaping of historical narratives and the very function of memory. These subjects, which have also become the main topics of the dynamically-developing field of memory studies, divide scholars. Some see these throwbacks to the past either as a danger, or in the best-case scenario, as a sign of the end of creativity. Simon Reynolds complains about the lack of the “next big thing”

 

[1] in music caused by retromania, and Fredric Jameson and Jean Baudrillard[2] believe that looking at the past is a victory of image over reality. Zygmunt Bauman, in his last book Retrotopia, describes the fear of both the present and the future as a reason for searching for utopias in the past, which is perceived as safer and more harmonious than anything that lays ahead of us[3]. Authors such as the ones mentioned above most often see the past as an object of manipulation, as well as a tool for further manipulation. For them, looking back to the past remains a sign of real things forever lost, and can’t be of any value.

It can be assumed that such pessimistic views were based on the part of pop culture that idealizes the past and depicts it as a pastoral realm of conservative values, in order to “attempt a trans-historical reconstruction of the lost home”[4], and maintain the status quo of “the simpler times” – both politically and artistically. It is no accident that Jameson based his definition of ‘nostalgia film’ on movies such as American Graffiti (1973, George Lucas) and Star Wars (1977, George Lucas), historical and pop cultural throwbacks to the 1950s of the chaste, idealized Eisenhower era. Reynolds, too, said as much in regards to the music of that time. In fact, the Fifties and ‘the Good Sixties’ (before John F. Kennedy was assassinated) were convenient tools of the Reaganite political rhetoric of the 1980s. They were also noticeable in movies “evoking the past through the deployment of a limited iconography that erases contradictions in the past in favour of a coherency of style”[5], and used to support slogans such as ‘America’s back’ or ‘Let’s make America great again’. As such, it’s understandable that filmmakers, looking at the cosy images of bucolic suburbs introduced in American Graffiti and its innumerable imitations, and at other images of the fake past hiding any hints of social and political conflicts and not posing any challenge to the status quo, saw them as yet another tool for manipulating audiences into ideological submission.

Even though the conservative image of the past can still be found in American movies today, perception of the retro style as something amounting to nostalgic idealization became rare, not only among scholars, but also in films themselves. The subversive and progressive potential of revising and redefining the past is discussed by such authors as Marc Ferro, who proposed reflecting on counter-discourses[6] that present a counter-history, and Kaja Silverman, who “finds political potential in retro fashion”, stating that it “avoids the pitfalls of a naïve referentiality, by putting quotation marks around the garments it revitalizes”[7]. According to Silverman, as well as Elizabeth Guffey[8] and others, history can be depicted in pop culture not only nostalgically, but also nonchalantly, ironically and/or critically, and can therefore become a tool not for sustaining, but challenging the status quo. It could, at the very least, diversify peoples’ notions of events that occurred in the recent past.

How can moviemakers achieve such goals? Of course, strategies differ depending on the genre, but certain strategies seem to have gained popularity with filmmakers as well as audiences. Among them, we can find the critical depiction of history, reversing traditional historic narratives (e.g. in American revisionist westerns), or the autothematic use of classical formulas and the filling-in of the gaps left in those narratives. For example, by introducing black American or homosexual characters to genres reserved in the mid-century for white and heterosexual characters only (as Todd Haynes does in his melodrama Far from Heaven, his 2002 take on the Eisenhower era). These strategies mostly reference shared images of the past – its mythologisation and demythologization in collective forms of memory that can be influenced by politics, media, current historical narratives, etc. Since it is almost impossible to examine exactly how movies influence our memory as individuals, media and film scholars rarely focus on individual memory, instead shifting their attention to strategies for shaping and governing collective memory built on symbols and icons, reproduced by and through other movies.

However, concepts that are predominantly focused on the perception of the past by individuals (due to media coverage), also seem to prove just how difficult it is to explore such relations more than intuitively. This is why Alison Landsberg’s theory of prosthetic memory is both unusual and difficult. It is challenging, because it focuses exclusively on the individual spectator and their reaction to cinema, something that is not popular among media and memory scholars. It is difficult because to some extent it proves that those avoiding the topic of individual media relation seem to be right.

Prosthetic memory is “…a new form of public cultural memory […] that emerges at the interface between a person and a historical narrative about the past, at an experiential site such as a movie theatre or museum”[9], and makes it possible for individuals to be affected, by way of empathy, by events that they did not themselves experience. The notion of media affecting people on their innermost private level is, of course, not new. However, it has most often been regarded negatively. For example, representatives of the Frankfurt school and  ideological criticism perceive media as tools for manipulating audiences seen as passive and mindless. On the other hand, some positive takes can be found within the reflection on queer cinema. According to Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin, film might be considered queer not only if its characters are homosexual, but also when, in the very “psychological processes of looking at and identifying with characters”[10], someone finds empathy for an experience that’s very much outside their own (not necessarily only in terms of sexuality). Therefore, Hollywood cinema, in which viewers are traditionally encouraged to identify with the central characters through plot, narration and visual devices, can be used to “experience the world through other people’s eyes”[11] – not only those of the white, heterosexual men that still dominate screens, but also of women, members of ethnic and racial minorities (BAME characters[12]), and gay men and women.

Of course, it is almost impossible to accurately examine or prove that kind of influence, but even random accounts of such reactions can legitimise the aforementioned definition of queer cinema. Alison Landsberg never mentions Benshoff and Griffin’s concept, but proposes something quite similar: “[one of] the greatest powers (and pleasures) of narrative cinema [is] to produce empathy and social responsibility as well as political alliances that transcend race, class, and gender”[13], as “…prosthetic memories do not erase differences or construct common origins”[14]. However, Landsberg adds something to this equation that complicates things even more – memory. The most important question she asks is, “…to what extent do modern technologies of mass culture, such as film, with their ability to transport individuals through time and space, function as technologies of memory?”[15]

Prosthetic memory is enabled by media and allows viewers to experience something they have not themselves lived through, and that doesn’t even have to be ‘part of’ the group they identify with (for example, their gender, race, ethnicity or race). On the one hand, these kinds of memories don’t belong to any particular group. This makes prosthetic memory different from any kind of collective or cultural memory. On the other hand, these memories have the power to influence individuals, and shape or even change their point of view or life experience. They are mediated – acquired through media by watching movies or going to experiential museums, etc. At the same time, it is the bodily experience that provides the “conduit for prosthetic memory”[16]. In fact, while explaining the idea of prosthetic memories, Landsberg uses examples from science fiction cinema, including Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott), Total Recall (1990, Paul Verhoeven) and Strange Days (1990, Kathryn Bigelow). In these films, memory and identity can be literally transmitted through digital devices, implanted inside the body of a person who never lived them. Does that make them false, or their ‘owners’ less human? The filmmakers argue the opposite. In Blade Runner and its sequel, Blade Runner 2049 (2017, Denis Villeneuve), androids equipped with artificially-generated memories are more human than the humans themselves.

This idea is of course very tempting cinematically, and therefore pop culture constantly provides movies and TV shows based on it. Among the most recent examples are the long-running serial Black Mirror (Channel 4, 2011-2014; Netflix, 2014–), and Altered Carbon (Netflix, 2018), both of which toy with the idea of identity and self being transferred into or through a device no bigger than a pen drive. In relation to actual viewers – the real audience watching movies – it is of course much more complicated and intuitive, partly because of difficulties with how to understand the word ‘memory’ in this context. In fact, Landsberg doesn’t even define it. On one hand, she uses the term as commonly understood, which suggests that prosthetic memories, while acquired through media, are almost literally attached or implanted within the mind/body of the individual viewer. On the other hand, memory sometimes means the same thing to her as knowledge or personal experience, expanded by gathering new information about the past.

The theory is most convincing when its author describes not how media enables people to acquire memories of events they haven’t lived through, but how media helps create new memories – of experiencing certain emotions, or gaining knowledge. For example, taking part in reconstructions of historical battles (controversial as they are), will not make anyone remember the actual events, but will create mediated memories of taking part in a reconstruction. Likewise, visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which is thoroughly described by Landsberg, will not bring anyone even remotely close to what actual Holocaust survivors went through, but will create in them memories of seeing an exhibition and submitting themselves to the historical narrative it provided. Therefore, such visits will widen one’s knowledge, and through the guide narration and exhibits, allow them to see the world through someone else’s eyes. As an example, the author describes “a boardwalk-like walkway. The ground under your feet is uneven. You are walking on cobblestones – cobblestones, you learn, which came from the Warsaw ghetto”[17]. The transferential space of the Memorial Museum that surrounds visitors with real artefacts puts them in the victims’ shoes (to some extent, literally). A similar space can be found in The Warsaw Uprising Museum, where visitors can ‘experience’ some of the discomfort of the insurgents hiding in the sewers and so on. In that way, prosthetic memories could “derive from engaged and experientially oriented encounters with technologies of memory”[18].

Of course, cinema can also serve this purpose, and the idea of memory as prosthesis becomes less abstract and more easily grasped when applied to actual films and formulas. Not necessarily through the science-fiction genre, but those with the ambition to recreate the forgotten experiences of discriminated groups can give a boost to empathy and raise awareness – both public and individual – of counter-narratives and counter-memories. Landsberg herself uses the cinematic example of Rosewood (1997, John Singleton), the true story of a lynch mob that attacked African Americans in 1923 in Rosewood, Florida. Recent American cinema provides even more, non-singular examples, many of which can be found in the trend known as the ‘new civil rights cinema’ of the 2000s. The Help (2011, Tate Taylor), The Butler (2013, Lee Daniels), Selma (2014, Ava DuVernay), and others are all examples of films that deliberately aim to provide audiences with prosthetic memories in a less literal sense than described by Landsberg.

New civil rights cinema can be defined as a group of African-American-centric films that “emerge as a counterpoint to earlier Hollywood offerings that focused largely on whites”, and make “an effort to reframe the civil rights movement”[19] of the 1960s, vilified by conservative administrations as ‘the bad Sixties’. Moviemakers locate their African-American heroes in the midst of social upheavals, as in Selma, or in hostile and discriminatory communities, as in The Help. Instead of alleviating or undermining social ruptures, as nostalgia films would in order to create a vision of “…history without guilt […] that suffuses us with pride rather than with shame”[20], new civil rights cinema emphasises social injustices, racial prejudice and the urgent need for progressive movements. At the same time, it operates within the area of memory and the historical narratives shaping it.

It is fair to assume that the new civil rights cinema is targeted at a general audience, against racial divisions. Yet, in regard to both black and white viewers, it has slightly different aims and uses different strategies, as described by Landsberg. She firmly emphasises that prosthetic memory unites people by showing differences, and creates alliances “…by encouraging people to feel connected to, while recognizing the alterity of, the ‘other’”[21]. At the same time she admits that prosthetic memories can also lead to homogenous identity, as in the case of the immigrants from Eastern Europe that she examines. Newcomers, in order to become Americans, had to shake off their former identities and acquire a new, American one.

However, unification by way of prosthetic memory can also work the other way around – by reminding people of a group identity (and by extension, individual identity), and its historical role. For example, African-American actors in Hollywood traditionally played supporting or episodic roles, and were therefore excluded from the narrative. Moreover, even in movies centred on racism and civil rights violations, such as Mississippi Burning (1988, Alan Parker) and A Time to Kill (1996, Joel Schumacher), it was white characters who held the active, prominent positions within the narrative. The black characters were portrayed as too scared or weak to act, waiting to be saved. New civil rights cinema, especially Hidden Figures (2017, Theodore Melfi), Selma and The Butler, brings African Americans back to the centre of events, highlighting their agency and role in the civil rights movement (The Butler) and other prominent activities (such as the vital role played by black female scientists in the Mercury space programme, in Hidden Figures[22]). Here, it is white characters who appear as background figures. Therefore, memory is being radically shifted, and prosthetic memories ‘implanted’ in those who, for example, were too young to remember the Selma to Montgomery marches (Selma), enabling reinforcement of a group identity.

At the same time, such movies are supposed to attract white audiences as well. Just as in the case of Toni Morrison’s novels, “…while the black characters […] acquire memories that might be considered their cultural inheritance, she intends white readers to take on those memories, too”[23] by enabling empathy and ethical thinking. That means “thinking beyond the immediacy of one’s own wants and desires”[24]. How can that be achieved in a feature film? The afore-mentioned movies, The Help, The Butler and Hidden Figures, are interesting examples. On the one hand, they use careful, self-reflexive stylization and – sometimes – documentary footage connected thematically to the civil rights movement. On the other, in terms of narrative they are made in a rather conventional way. The Butler is especially characteristic of the biopic formula. However, this last feature in particular allows redefinition of ostensibly basic narrative devices in terms of prosthetic memory.

Filmmakers have in their repertoire a number of tricks that can help them to either manipulate viewers, or enable them to perceive events from their leading characters’ perspectives, and sympathize with them. Such devices lie at the very heart of classical cinema, aimed at immersion and emotional involvement. Yet, the new civil rights cinema requires from its audience something more than just the regular engagement typical of any other screening, as it “uses cinematic identification to create the conditions under which audience members can acquire prosthetic memories”[25]. That is why The Help and The Butler both employ first-person narration. This is especially emphasised in The Help, the story of black maids serving a wealthy, middle-class white woman in the suburbs of Jacksonville, Mississippi in 1963. In the first two minutes of the film it is established beyond any doubt that the black woman’s perspective will be the privileged one. In the very first scene we see a sheet of paper which will be filled with the main character, Aibileen’s (Viola Davis), words. A few seconds later Aibileen/Davis looks straight into the camera and starts talking about her experiences as a black maid. This breaking of the fourth wall is a clear violation of classic cinema’s rules, but here it’s not supposed to create distance between the character and the audience. On the contrary, she speaks directly to us, reaching outside the frame of the screen, so that we can put ourselves in her rather unfamiliar situation and ask ourselves the questions she has to answer. For example, how would we feel raising a stranger’s children, while our own are looked after by someone else?

Of course, it is no coincidence that The Help brings up such an emotional, personal issue, since it is one of the easiest ways known in cinema to manipulate someone into empathy. Still, it’s not quite enough, because a few seconds after Aibileen breaks the fourth wall, we begin to hear her in voice-over. It is she who will tell us the entire story – from her own perspective. Therefore, black audiences get a chance to identify with a representative of their own race and heritage (Aibileen’s grandmother was a house slave), while white viewers for the most part of the movie leave the privileged and familiar area of their own perspective. Interestingly, just as in Rosewood, which has been analysed by Landsberg, The Help makes even more effort, by putting a direct representative of white audiences inside the story (while strongly establishing a black woman’s point of view and emphasising the importance of her finally-heard voice). Within the story, it is a white girl from the suburban middle class, Skeeter (Emma Stone), who listens to Aibileen and the other maids describing their awful fate. She writes their stories down and has to reach beyond her own exclusively white experience, in order to guide audiences to do the same – to inhabit memories of discrimination and a new model of slavery that defined racial relations in the Eisenhower- and Kennedy-era South[26].

The Butler also privileges a black servant, Cecil (Forest Whitaker), working for decades in the White House, who like Aibileen narrates events in first-person. He witnesses successive presidents and their decisions on racial injustice, such as the desegregation of Little Rock High School in 1957. Crucially, while it’s powerful white men actually making the choices and signing the documents, Cecil’s perspective shows that in fact all of the changes began with black communities demanding their rights – such as the Freedom Riders, and those who marched on Washington with Martin Luther King. Again, while providing African-American audiences with their inheritance and collective memory, The Butler encourages white audiences to acquire prosthetic memories of that struggle, by using both a personal perspective and a sentimental plot centred around Cecil’s conflict with his son.

While Hidden Figures and Selma never introduce a first-person narrator, they also encourage the audience to see through the black characters’ eyes. Their directors use point-of-view shots, or limit the viewers’ range of knowledge by making them privy only to the knowledge the characters would have (three characters, in the case of Hidden Figures), and hence, their perspective. This encourages “mental identification”[27], the very condition that prosthetic memory needs to even occur. In Hidden Figures especially, we enter and leave the scene when characters do, and experience what they experience, even if there is no voice-over to explain exactly how they feel. Even the rather omniscient narration in Selma puts the black characters front and centre, especially Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo).

In this way, while not acquiring actual memories of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, the audience can experience some of the characters’ emotions, understand their situation and gain some knowledge about the past, and the kind of real memories someone in their position might have had. As Landsberg says, putting oneself in someone else’s situation “might be instrumental in enabling a white person to experience empathy for African Americans”[28]. She uses another prominent example: the 1970s TV adaptation of Alex Haley’s novel Roots, which tells the story of Kunte Kinte (John Amos), a slave kidnapped from Africa in the 18th century. Roots was a ground-breaking show, as it was one of the first depictions of the realities of (the often mythologised) slavery in American pop culture. “What was new about Roots was its attempt to use the mass media to create images of slavery and, even more important, to portray a sympathetic black character with whom a white audience might identify. By granting Kunte Kinte point-of-view shots, the miniseries enabled white viewers to see through a black man’s eyes”[29].

However, the way in which Landsberg describes the influence of Roots on white audiences – and the idea of prosthetic memory – might be seen as problematic, especially from the contemporary point of view. She states that “Kunte Kinte became more than a role model. He became, in effect, a body that could be worn”[30]. In light of these words, it has to be remembered that the inhabiting of black identities is very often seen as an offensive act of cultural appropriation, especially when the “body could be worn” literally, for example as a Halloween costume. It is fair to assume, then, that due to Roots’ immense popularity dressing up as Kunte Kinte was not unusual. Given the intimate nature of memories and trauma, even within communities, prosthetic memory could be seen as a device for progress and empathy, as well as for the appropriation of elements of a minority culture by members of dominant groups.

This kind of situation is put at the centre of the conflict in Dear White People[31], in which events are catalysed by a university fraternity encouraging Halloween party guests to dress up as famous black people (media celebrities)[32]. This, of course, causes outrage among the black students and poses the wider question of the thin line between acquiring prosthetic memories through media, and the unwelcome appropriation of unique and often traumatic experiences (or memories) that belong to a different group. The question remains: who is to say that those memories (for example, of slavery and racial discrimination) “do not ‘naturally’ belong to anyone”[33]?

Of course it would be unfair to say that cultural appropriation is actually what Landsberg has in mind. She states more than once that the idea of prosthetic memories is a utopian one, aimed at the noble task of creating empathy and putting oneself in someone else’s shoes, in order to shape one’s subjectivity and political views. The actual intention of engaging audiences in current events and influencing the future by “enabling people to feel just such an engaged and experiential relationship to the past”[34] through prosthetic memories, can be found in many contemporary feature films and documentaries, on the big screen and television, all of which emphasise the immediate connection between past events and the realities of today. For example, I Am Not Your Negro (2016, Raoul Peck) affiliates the civil rights struggle of the 1960s with today’s Black Lives Matter movement, while also undermining ‘white’ prosthetic memories (for example, classical westerns depicting ‘how the West was won’), as reproducing racial stereotypes. In 13th (2016), Ava DuVernay shows how criminalization of black males and the image of the “Black Buck” (an aggressive black male), is derived from slavery and Jim Crow rights. Further, O. J. – Made in America (2016, Ezra Edelman) explains how the memory of racial injustices can deform the course of law.

These movies can force audiences to look beyond racial divisions (like those created by O. J. Simpson’s infamous case), and deal with painful memories in order to “prosthetically” acquire an unfamiliar point of view. That, hopefully, “…can make people feel themselves a part of larger histories, of narratives that go beyond the confines of the nuclear family and that transcend the heretofore insurmountable barriers of race and ethnicity”[35].

 

References

Baudrillard Jean, Simulations, (New York: Semiotext(e)) (1983).

Bauman Zygmunt, Retrotopia, (Cambridge: Polity Press) (2017).

Bordwell David, Narration in the Fiction Film, (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press) (1985).

Benshoff M. Harry, Griffin Sean, Queer Images: A History of Gay and Lesbian Film in America, (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield) (2006).

Boym Svetlana, The Future of Nostalgia, (New York: Basic Books) (2001).

Drake Philip, “’Mortgaged to Music’: New Retro Movies in 1990s Hollywood Cinema”, in: Paul Grainge (ed.), Memory and Popular Film, (Manchester: Manchester University Press) (2003).

Gruner Oliver, Screening the Sixties. Hollywood Cinema and the Politics of Memory, (London: Palgrave Macmillan) (2016).

Guffey Elizabeth, Retro. The Culture of Revival, (London: Reaktion Books) (2006).

Jameson Fredric, Postmodernism: or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, (Durham: Duke University Press) (1991).

Landsberg Alison, Prosthetic Memory. The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture, (New York: Columbia University Press) (2004).

McGee Patrick, Bad History and the Logics of Blockbuster Cinema, (New York: Pallgrave MacMillan) (2012).

Reynolds Simon, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, (New York: Faber and Faber) (2011).

Silverman Kaja, “Fragments of a Fashionable Discourse”’, in: Tania Modleski (ed.), Studies in Entertainment (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (1986).

 

Notes

[1]Simon Reynolds, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, (New York: Faber and Faber) (2011), electronic edition.

[2]Jameson, Fredric, Postmodernism: or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, (Durham: Duke University Press) (1991); Jean Baudrillard, Simulations, (New York: Semiotext(e)) (1983).

[3]Zygmunt Bauman, Retrotopia, (Cambridge: Polity Press) (2017).

[4]Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, (New York: Basic Books) (2001), electronic edition.

[5] Philip Drake, “’Mortgaged to Music’: New Retro Movies in 1990s Hollywood Cinema”, in: Paul Grainge (ed.), Memory and Popular Film, (Manchester: Manchester University Press) (2003), p. 191.

[6]Patrick McGee, Bad History and the Logics of Blockbuster Cinema, (New York: Pallgrave MacMillan) (2012), p. 16.

[7]Kaja Silverman, “Fragments of a Fashionable Discourse”’, in: Tania Modleski (ed.), Studies in Entertainment (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (1986), p. 150.

[8]Elizabeth Guffey, Retro. The Culture of Revival, (London: Reaktion Books) (2006), p. 11.

[9]Alison Landsberg, Prosthetic Memory. The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture, (New York: Columbia University Press) (2004), p. 2

[10]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 11.

[11]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 11.

[12]BAME – Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic.

[13]Harry M. Benshoff, Sean Griffin, Queer Images: A History of Gay and Lesbian Film in America, (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield) (2006), p. 11.

[14]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 9.

[15]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 21.

[16]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 28.

[17]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 132.

[18]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 143.

[19]Oliver Gruner, Screening the Sixties. Hollywood Cinema and the Politics of Memory, (London: Palgrave Macmillan) (2016), p. 226, 127.

[20]Svetlana Boym (2001).

[21]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 9.

[22] In Hidden Figures social progress and the fight against racial discrimination are equated with space conquests and progress in science.

[23]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 100.

[24]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 149.

[25]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 109.

[26] However, The Help lacks narrative consequence – in many scenes filmmakers focus on Skeeter’s (and some other white characters’) point of view. Also, eventually it is she who writes down black servants’ memories and experiences and publishes them as her book. Therefore narrative intentions from the opening scene are not fully carried trough.

[27]David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film, (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press) (1985), p. 67.

[28]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 109.

[29]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 102

[30]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 103.

[31] Both movie (2014, Justin Simien) and TV series (Netflix, 2017–).

[32] The same situation occurs in On My Block (Netflix, 2018), in which kids from a rich neighbourhood dress up as cholos (Mexican gangsters).

[33]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 19.

[34]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 143.

[35]Alison Landsberg (2004), p. 152.

Tactile epistemology: sensoria and the postcolonial

Marta Stańczyk

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2018, vol.3, no. 1, pp. 89-99.

 

Marta Stańczyk

Jagiellonian University

 

 

Tactile epistemology: sensoria and the postcolonial

 

Abstract

In this article the author focuses on the so called “tactile epistemology” in postolonial studies – different cognitive and representational modes that enable create subversive narrations negotiating new relations between centre and margins. Affective, multisensory, synaesthetic body is an archive of power relations, an experience of colonization and – most of all – a discoursive transgression, reversing ideology based on the Western eye. The main goal of this article is to present three most influential theoretical stances connecting sensoria with the Other. The concepts of Laura U. Marks, Milena Marinkova, and Sara Ahmed are illustrated with the examples form Claire Denis’ and Urszula Antoniak’s oeuvre.

 

Keywords: tactile epistemology, senses, embodiment, Laura U. Marks, Sara Ahmed, Milena Marinkova

 

 

 

The distance from this sentence to your eye is my sculpture.

(Ken Friedman, Fluxus score, 1971)

 

 

Will Higbee coined the term “cinema of transvergence” in order to enable film scholars to “better appreciate how postcolonial and diasporic cinemas engage, function and produce meaning within and across national and transnational positionings.”[1] Through this notion he tries to ephasize the possible inversion between centre and margin, the dynamics of differences, and the negotiation of meanings and power relations. Furthermore, the concept alters cinematic experience by changing the form of storytelling. Its focus on minorities renarrates traditional relations in movies and its deconstruction of the cinematic form constitutes the apology of différance. One of the most important methods of deploying it is, as Laura U. Marks calls it, a tactile epistemology.[2]

Affective and sensuous incentives improve subversive narrations in postcolonial prism. Body language helps in coping with dominant discourses and in expressing the experience of the other – the experience of physical and mental colonization. Marks introduced term “haptic visuality”, which highlights the meaning of defiance and a fact that receiving input is influenced by the experience of migration, exile, dispersion, eradication, etc. Such scholars as Marks, Milena Marinkova or Sara Ahmed, in their critique of the Western discourse of the other, confide in a multisensory experience and memory of senses. They link this discourse to ocularcentrism and – taking Foucauldian approach to depict mastering and objectification of others – reject gaze as a form of wielding power. We can find a cinematic depiction of this formula in Black Venus’ (2010, Abdellatif Kechiche) opening scene where the body of an enslaved heroine is being objectified by scientifical (and, therefore, disciplinary) discourse. Another cinematic example is Yes (2004, Sally Potter) – a love affair between Irish-American biologist and Lebanese chef (medic doctor before imigration) is conflicted by stereotypical views and cultural prejudices. Their bodies „remember” uneven relations between centre and margin.

For this reason scholars like Marks and Marinkowa focus on the body. The issue of embodiment is not only an individual matter, but also a map of cultural differences and power relations. Moreover, a multisenory perspective enables disrupting dominant discourses and creates a new language entangled in the postcolonial discourse. As Marinkova writes, “the tangible (in reality and in representation) becomes an uneasy witness to the impossibility of narrating incommensurable languages and experiences.”[3] Tactile epistemology provides an alternative; it supports subversion.

 

Laura U. Marks: the skin of the other

 

In The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses Laura U. Marks writes about a “turn to the nonvisual senses [which] has been in part a response to the perceived imperialism of vision, the alignment of visual information with knowledge and control.”[4] American researcher finds a negotiating potential in haptic visuality – an embodied experience can be a very useful term for describing movies and their reception in the context of dispersion: “Haptic visuality implies making oneself vulnerable to the image, reversing the relation of mastery that characterizes optical viewing.”[5] Marks reckons that this type of visuality is connected with discrediting viewing habits, enabling different level of involvement, suggesting the shift of meaning, and even giving the impression of seeing someting for the first time. This perceptive renewal is not only a matter of aesthetics, but also ethics. The body might be a foundation for the redefinition of representational system. Based-on-body encounter with the other rejects a negative tendency to annex margins which is typical for the Western ocularcentrism. It emphasizes the incompatibility of some languages and experiences rather than the illusion of the possible identification.

In Touch. Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media Marks writes about the hapticity as founded not on touch itself, but on body – viewers should stay on the image’s surface, contemplate it texture, shape, colour, etc. and feel affective resonance through them.[6] Intercultural cinema is shaped by cultural memory, fingerprints left not by the disgraced, ideological and orientalistic eye but an ambivalent sense of touch, which recalls aggresion and enables emancipation through different bodily discourses. Marks seems to agree with Jennifer Fisher who contradicts Elizabeth Grosz’s statement that touch has no memory: “touch implicates what is most clearly the performative present of æsthetic experience.”[7] It invokes memory so “[t]o describe the effects of such video [or, in general, cinematic – M.S.] works  requires paying attention to the viewer’s body, specifically what happens when the video image dissolves out toward the viewer and invites the viewer to invest all his or her senses in the act of seeing.”[8] Viewers open themselves for the experience of the other.

Haptic visuality and sensuous aesthetics create counter-memory in spite of the discourse of “empowered eye.” Marks writes about the Western type of visuality which objectifies others, and separates and masters external and internal words.[9] One cannot trust visual information and traditional techniques used in postcolonial statements as they are made of oppressive material. In a spirit of Edward Said: eyes are tools of imperialistic inclinations. Do not believe what you see – it is only an ideological discourse. It is possible to gain knowledge through physical contact,[10] but one should remember that visceral, haptic or tactile epistemology can be used arbitrally. And this is the case of Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005) where Powatan Native American tribe’s communication – or tactile epistemology – is depicted as simpler and harmonious but primitive, unsufficient and limited. John teaches Pocahontas how to speak – through knowledge he reaffirms his authority as male and “civlised” (an already ideologically and eurocentrically inflicted term).

This example shows possible limitations of haptic poetics but simultaneously it legitimizes this aesthetics by underlining the cultural and political dimension of the sensorium. Returning to Marks, “[u]ltimately phenomenology can account for how the body encodes power relations somatically. It can acknowledge that embodiment is a matter of individual lifemaps as well as cultural difference. These matters are important for understanding intercultural experience, where traumas and more ordinary histories become encoded in the body. When intercultural films and videos appeal to the different power relations involved in looking and in touching, they remind us that these power relations are built into cultural organizations of perception.”[11] Therefore tactile epistemology enables dialogue between an image and its viewer – through his or her body. Marks makes a list of possible aesthetic means – for example blurred, grained image and decaying film.[12] Phenomenological intentionality and activisation of the viewer though, is what interests her most in subversive potential of haptic visuality. Marks states that “[t]he ideal relationship between viewer and image in optical visuality tends to be one of mastery, in which the viewer isolates and comprehends the objects of vision. The ideal relationship between viewer and image in haptic visuality is one of mutuality, in which the viewer is more likely to lose herself in the image, to lose her sense of proportion.”[13] Tactility is constructed around dialogue – oscillation between identificaton and immersion, dialectical movement between surface and depth. Interaction supersedes cinematic illusion, while making place for alternative narrations or simply for the story of the other.

Claire Denis’ oeuvre helps embody theoretical approaches to sensoria and the postcolonial. The French director narrates postcolonial relations using mostly multisensory aesthetic. Films such as Chocolate (1988) show how an embodied vision develops engaged spectatorship. Denis is known for rejecting classical film conventions, using static and extended shots without many dialogues, being sensitive to the form of an image, and creating poetic, sensual atmosphere. These distinctive traits place her in the middle of haptic cinema’s concepts. The director focuses on her characters’ bodies and their relations with space. Her trade marks converge with her autobiography and political views too – raised in West Africa in few French colonies, Denis shows engagement in postcolonial issues which is perfectly depicted in her debut film.

Chocolate tells a story of a young woman, France, who comes back to Cameroon where she lived as a child. She reminisces her childhood and her family’s houseboy, named Protée. Names of these characters are significant as they unveil power relations in French colony. As a girl, France was fascinated with him who seemed to be very different from her family and other employers and simultaneously she was humiliating him transferring her elders’ condescension. Nonetheless, their proximity was starting to dissolve borders between center and margins embodied in these characters. This is a work in progress, searching – or building – an intimate relations which was not easy. There is also a counterexample – France’s mother feeling sexual tension towards Protée and, after being rejected (because of her master attitude mostly), forcing her husband to post the houseboy to outdoor duties.

In one of the sequences the father explaines France what the horizon line is: a line which does not exist in physical sense but is still recognized by everyone. It is not only a symbol of racial boundaries – the definition shows how the figure of the other operates as an embodied entity as long as the horizon line is something that is embed in space. The hapticity of Denis’ film can be shown in three short scenes. First one represents the mutual fascination and blures seemingly natural lines. Protée, France and her mother visit Nansen, a fanatical missionary – an artificial dialogue between the priest and the young woman is being intersected with strange rite de passage: Protée and France watching dead, bitten house animals when the houseboy puts a crow’s tarsus near girl’s hand and smears her arm with the bird’s blood. The director emphasises skin and touch in a close-up. Hapticity is hightened through cross-cutting with a theatrical scene (in long shot) in which, main representatives of colonial power are involved. An oscillation between optical and haptical visuality confers a texture to moving image. Viscerality of this sequence shows that real dialogue is not necessary lingual and colour of skin can be hidden. Although the second mentioned sequence presents an over-exposure of the skin of the other. In his free time Protée was trying to have a shower when he was peeped by France and her mother coming back from a stroll. This event causes a breakdown – Protée starts crying as he feels abused  and objectified by the (white) gaze. His subjectivity and embodiment are limited to the level of the skin and its colour causing internalization of being not-a-norm. There is no balance between embodiment and image in the imperial eye paradigm.

The last scene I chose to explain tactility of power relations in Chocolate is near the movie’s finale:Denis shows her deliberate use of tactile epistemology and haptic aesthetics in her films since she believes in skin as a medium of cultural memory and traumatic encounters. During the night France comes to visit Protée who is now assigned to backyard worshop. They are staring at each other silently while he grabbes a pipe and suggests her to do so too, ignoring the fact that it was hot and could burn their palms. After that he leaves and disappears in the dark. It is another example of cancelling borders between races, but also of leaving a trace; the memory makes Protée France’s eternal companion but associates it with pain. This connotation reappears in Denis’ cinema. She came back to West Africa with White Material (2009) in which the interference of bodily boundaries is shown as a ferocious, but essential attempt to break the power relations. Rape is inflicted on viewers affectively: “[w]hen vision is like touch, the object’s touch back may be like a caress, though it may also be violent, as Steven Shaviro argues – a violence not toward the image but toward the viewer.”[14] Viewers are touched and forced to ethically driven reception, in spite of a pleasurable identification.

 

Milena Marinkova: micropolitical filming

 

Marks’ theses are very influential and not only among film studies scholars. Amongst her followers, Milena Marinkova, who is known rather for her research on the ground of Canadian literature, uses the term „haptic visuality” to describe postcolonial entanglement and transnational issues in her book Michael Ondaatje: Haptic Aesthetics and Micropolitical Writing she used “haptic visuality” to desribe postcolonial entanglement and transnational issues. She argues – after Marks and Merleau-Ponty – that touch cannot be reduced to skin, but it is rather connected with embodiment. We should not locate it in one organ; it is dispersed, permeable and not isolated from the rest of sensorium. So “embodied haptic acts of proximity” transverse “the personal by social and political structures,”[15] and blur boundaries between art and reality, representation and body. Furthermore the body, being under the influence of dominant regimes, can provide a ground for redefinition of these regimes with their discourses. Marinkova notices that the embodiment of Western gaze dislocates the main direction of perception process – viewers get their attention directed to their viewing practices. For Canadian scholar, it is a matter of style: multisensory, fluid and open to non-normative connections. “Such an aesthetic forges an intimately embodied and ethically responsible relationship among audience, author, and text”[16] and it has an empowering micropolitical potential. Haptic aesthetics and embodiment are individual and collective issues, subjective and social simultaneously. Personal is political. Bodies are political. Haptic cinema can rejoice “in the exploration of the intimate space of the bodily and the microsocial space of the interpersonal.”[17]

Marinkova reconsiders an identification referring to Dominick LaCapra’s concept:

He has argued that art should invite „empathic unsettlement” by relying on the reader’s/viewer’s affective response to another but also recognizing the differences between them. This formulation is premised on the intersubjective power of affect to move and be moved, and thus transcend the boundaries of the self and encounter difference. The encounter, however, is not followed by a return to sameness through crude identification — recognizing oneself in the other and thus sympathize with them — but by the ethical recognition of the opacity and unassimilability of alterity.[18]

Canadian scholar puts an emphasis on rejecting identification as a psychological relationship with characters. Being founded on gaze, it is not neutral, and the impression of being natural is strictly ideological. Eye, contemplation, perception – those are tools of knowledge which can be a form of aggression and wielding power. Gaze colonizes others and produces subalterns; its mechanisms and intents are obscured by film grammar. Therefore, cinema requires a new language. Marinkova thinks that there is a solution from cultural usurpation of the other – the ocularcentrism and its mastering inclinations can be relinquished. “Instead of supplementing the already available knowledge, however, the tangible (in reality and in representation) becomes an uneasy witness to the impossibility of narrating incommensurable languages and experiences, and an unsettling trace of proximity that disrupts dominant discourses.”[19]

The power–knowledge dynamics can be exposed by a subversive alternation from gaze to skin, from center to margin and from imperial discourse to “Philomela’s tapestry” – new ways of expressing stories of misery and experienced cruelty. Nude Area (2014, Urszula Antoniak) can be a cinematic example of these thesis. The film starts with a quotation from Roland Barthes’ Fragments d’un discours amoureux, yet the main topic is not love but rather seduction understood as a war. The main tool in this battle is the eye – it tracks, peeps, scans, leers, ogles, scrutinizes; it imposes conditions and demands mutuality. Moreover, gaze can be accepted or rejected by the body. Seducing is violent – people try to enforce their will upon each other. In Antoniak’s film the impression of fighting for dominant position is emphasized by different cultural and ethnic background of two lovers: European, rich, liberal Naomi and Arabic, working class, conservative Fama. Naomi provokes other girl, seduces her and gets control over her using both her gaze and language. Fama is more humble, submissive – she surrenders and protects only one intimate part: her hair.

The first sequence, in which we can see  body parts washed over under the shower, is a key to the aesthetics of the film. The skin is shown in close-ups, revealed in its very tactility, and the entire scene is suggestive, erotic and sensual. Next ones are, on the contrary, very static. First we see Fama’s face in a portrait-like close-up. It appears three times anticipating three movie parts. Next we can see Naomi in a tram or rather her reflection – she is an observer, maybe even a predator. She initiates their meeting and subordinates Fama initially. In the restaurant, where Muslim girl works as a waitress, Naomi humiliates her only to prepare a spectacle of apology later. After, she dresses up like her lover, putting a wig on her head even. Naomi is avid, voracious and simply fascinated by Fama’s sensual beauty and ethnically-founded mysteriousness. During her first visit in her lover’s room Naomi touches and smells everything. The scene resembles an act of appropriation in which girl’s gaze was only a prelude to total enthrallment. Fama surrenders and open up for Naomi’s sensuous insatiability, letting her touch and smell also her hair, a tactile proof of being the other. At some point roles are changing – Fama distances herself from Naomi. She gives her a handful of hair she cut in the process of emancipation from a colonizer. The other learns how to gain empowerment – through the reversal of gaze and the exploitation of touch.

As Nude Area shows, touch and hapticity can be very ambivalent, and Marinkova evokes skeptical voices in her monography. Claude Gandelman “points at the (ab)use of hapticity in ideological discourse”[20] – marxist critics reproach haptic paradigm as an aesthetisation of political discourse. Ernst Gombrich alerts to embracing hapticity “for compromised historicist discourses”[21] and Constantina Papoulias and Felicity Callard completely reject an emancipating potential of the affect. David Howes notices that affects, tactility and multisensory apparatus advocate the “sensual” logic of the late capitalism.[22] But it is Sara Ahmed who actually presents more balanced but still very productive theses.

 

Sara Ahmed: (e)strange(d) encounters

 

One of scholars Marinkova mentions as example of having a skeptical attitude to haptic cinema is Sara Ahmed. The author of Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality focuses on a subaltern treated as a stranger by many techniques of differentiation. Her book introduces an interesting approach to the other – being a stranger is not an ontological issue, but epistemological one. It is a matter of recognizing others and oneself in an environmental network. Ahmed – not especially interested in art works – creates a critical standpoint for “sensual postcolonialism.”

Ahmed writes that “there are some-bodies who simply are strangers, and who pose danger in their very co-presence in a given street,”[23] but she also points out at an opposing worldview, where we can find the illusion of an ultimate appropriation. Both stances develop “the fetishism of figures”[24] in which case a stranger becomes an abstraction deprived of political meaning and the particularity of an embodiment. He or she is needed only to finalize the process of an individuation. “The journey towards the stranger becomes a form of self-discovery, in which the stranger functions yet again to establish and define the ‘I’.”[25] This is not only the case of  “eye-to-eye” meetings, but also, “skin-to-skin” encounters. This “meeting is not between two subjects who are equal and in harmony; the meeting is antagonistic.”[26] Ahmed refers in the same way to colonialists’ discourse: it is “not only the territorial domination of one culture by another, but also forms of discursive appropriation: other cultures become appropriated into the imaginary globality of the colonizing nation.”[27] And thus the status of proximity – and tactility – appears ambivalent being entangled in “regimes of difference,”[28] and we should remember that “the strange encounter is played out on the body, and is played out with the emotions.”[29] To sum up, affective and sensuous apparatus may not always be a perfect method(ology), but it is essential for giving back the other his or her voice and body.

Ahmed emphasizes that viewer or reader has a “close” bond with the body of text which “demands a more responsible reading, a reading which admits to its limits, its partiality and its fragility.”[30] The impression of “being touched” reinforces not only aesthetic reactions, but also ethical ones. There is a shift of meanings and boundaries, bodily and subjective borders. As Elisabeth Grosz mentions, “It is in no sense a natural body, for it is as culturally, racially, sexually, possibly even as class distinctive, as it would be clothed”[31] – and although Ahmed writes about it as an example of a theory avoiding analysis, she agrees with the necessity of approaching bodies in their culturally inflicted matter, not only representations. It is not the surface, but the very “effect of the surface”[32] which interests her most. Skin can be a visual mark of difference and “a moment of undecidability”[33] – a gate or leakage, where the subject risks its interiority and its integrity. This thesis echoes Laura U. Marks’ statement about hapticity as a form of dissolving oneself in a contact with image. The difference is placed between antagonism and eroticism which, according to Marks, drives haptical and optical visuality, whereas for Ahmed it is all about conflict. Adding affects to haptic theories, she treats skin as a canvas “where the intensity of emotions such as shame are registered (…) the skin registers how bodies are touched by others.”[34] Touch, a “fleshy metonymym,”[35] expresses a tension between particular bodies and social space.

Although the main phenomenological reference for multisensory and haptic theories is Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Ahmed’s book correlates with Bernhard Waldenfels’ Phenomenology of the Alien.[36] German philosopher reconsiders alien-experience as a phenomenon that permeates our everyday experiences with immediate implications for the social, political, and ethical life. He draws boundaries between human beings in process of perception, bending xenological phenomenology with material one. We tend to identify ourselves through a separation from milieu – other things, people, places, etc. Our own boundaries are tantamount to the boundaries of the alien, so our relations with the other are a relation of proximity, embodied and haptic. Sara Ahmed’s writes that “to withdraw from a relation of physical proximity to bodies recognised as strange is precisely to be touched by those bodies, in such a way that the subject is moved from its place. In this sense, the stranger is always in proximity: a body that is out of place because it has come too close.”[37] The mechanism is a foundation for such semi-sociological, semi-cinematic structures as exclusion through inclusion. The concept was coined by Giorgio Agamben but Thomas Elsaesser implemented it in film studies describing one scene in Hidden (2005, Michael Haneke).[38] During dinner in Laurents’ house there is a black woman who is physically present but poignantly erased from the rest of company by her total silence. Her presence is ephasized by her skin colour as long as the film’s main topic deals with racial and postcolonial issues, and that is why she is exposed and marginalized at the same time. Her alienation is embodied and sensed by the viewers.

For Ahmed and other above mentioned scholars, thinking of skin as always exposed and touchable is paradigmatic – as in the example of Protée, Fama or Saartje. Sensuous, tactile aesthetics emphasizes the oppression of the eye as an organ of domination. Their bodies are colonized but they can find their subjectivity in the embodiment. It can have a therapeutic meaning for the previous “other,” shifts his or her cultural position, neutralizes stereotypes and creates a subversive language of transgression. It implicates a non-normative way of viewing engagement with an image – an identification is replaced by an interaction. This tactile epistemology forms a “sculpture” – an almost physical encounter. Haptic or multisensory cinema creates proximity that imposes new ways of contact with the other without usurpating rights to his or her identity.

 

References

Ahmed Sara, Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality, (London and New York: Routledge) (2000).

Elsaesser Thomas, „Performative Self-Contradictions. Michael Haneke’s Mind Games”, in A companion to Michael Haneke, ed. Roy Grundmann, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing) (2010).

Fisher Jennifer, Relational Sense: Towards A Haptic Æsthetics, http://www.david-howes.com/senses/Fisher.htm, date accessed 20 September 2016.

Grosz Elizabeth, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism, (Sydney: Allen & Unwin) (1994).

Higbee Will, „Beyond the (trans)national: toward a cinema of transvergence in postcolonial and diasporic francophone cinema(s)”, Studies in French Cinema 7:2 (2007).

Marinkova Milena, Michael Ondaatje: Haptic Aesthetics and Micropolitical Writing, (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group) (2011).

Marks Laura U., The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2004).

Marks Laura U., Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press) (2002).

Waldenfels Bernhard, Podstawowe motyy fenomenologii obcego, (Warszawa: Oficyna Naukowa) (2009).

 

[1] Higbee Will, „Beyond the (trans)national: toward a cinema of transvergence in postcolonial and diasporic francophone cinema(s)”, Studies in French Cinema, 7:2, p. 80.

[2] See: Marks Laura U., The Skin of Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2004).

[3] Marinkova Milena, Michael Ondaatje: Haptic Aesthetics and Micropolitical Writing, (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group) (2011), p. 17.

[4] Marks Laura U. (2004), p. 194.

[5] Marks Laura U. (2004), p. 185.

[6] Marks Laura U., Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press) (2002), p. 13.

[7] Fisher Jennifer, Relational Sense: Towards A Haptic Æsthetics, http://www.david-howes.com/senses/Fisher.htm, date accessed 20 September 2016.

[8] Marks Laura U. (2004), p. 189.

[9] Marks Laura U. (2004), p. 133.

[10] Marks Laura U. (2004), p. 138.

[11] Marks Laura U. (2004), pp. 152-153.

[12] See: Marks Laura U. (2004), pp. 171-176.

[13] Marks Laura U. (2004), p. 184.

[14] Marks Laura U. (2004), p. 184.

[15] Marinkova Milena, p. 4.

[16] Marinkova Milena, p. 4.

[17] Marinkova Milena, p. 4.

[18] Marinkova Milena, p. 16.

[19] Marinkova Milena, p. 17.

[20] Marinkova Milena, p. 21.

[21] Marinkova Milena, p. 21.

[22] Marinkova Milena, p. 21.

[23] Ahmed Sara, Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality, (London and New York: Routledge) (2000), p. 3.

[24] Ahmed Sara, p. 4.

[25] Ahmed Sara, p. 6.

[26] Ahmed Sara, p. 8.

[27] Ahmed Sara, p. 11.

[28] Ahmed Sara, p. 13.

[29] Ahmed Sara, p. 39.

[30] Ahmed Sara, p. 40.

[31] Grosz Elizabeth, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism, (Sydney: Allen & Unwin) (1994), p. 142.

[32] Ahmed Sara, pp. 42-43.

[33] Ahmed Sara, p. 45.

[34] Ahmed Sara, p. 45.

[35] Ahmed Sara, p. 49

[36] See: Waldenfels Bernhard, Podstawowe motyy fenomenologii obcego, (Warszawa: Oficyna Naukowa) (2009).

[37] Ahmed Sara, p. 49.

[38] Elsaesser Thomas, „Performative Self-Contradictions. Michael Haneke’s Mind Games”, in A companion to Michael Haneke, ed. Roy Grundmann, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing) (2010), p. 72.

Prayer Wheels for the Other: Haunted by the Images: the film works of Tian Zhuangzhuang book review

Maciej Stasiowski

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2018, vol.3, no. 1, pp. 89-93.

Maciej Stasiowski
Jagiellonian University

 

 

 

Prayer Wheels for the Other: Haunted by the Images: the film works of Tian Zhuangzhuang book review

 

There is a sequence in The Horse Thief (1986), in which an elderly Buddhist monk spins his prayer wheel, sitting in close proximity to a flock of Himalayan vultures feasting on a corpse. Seen separate at first, in the next shot both of these activities are filmed together. On the Tibetan plateau, balance is maintained – there is place for religious practice and for ravenous devouring. As another shot supersedes the scene, we take on Norbu’s perspective. Whether he beholds the spectacle from a distance is debatable. Is he really witnessing the non-event described above, or is he just blankly staring at the horizon, as he does so often? The director intends to keep his audience guessing, beguiling them into arranging images into a coherent narrative on their own and draw their own conclusions.

Tian Zhuangzhuang’s cinema inhabits a niche that has been quite difficult to share with him. For all the facts, contexts, even story developments he decides to leave out, it offers sublime beauty that had drawn the attention of audiences worldwide, despite undergoing incredible hardships in the process of reaching them. The Blue Kite (1993), smuggled to Cannes, earned him not only a Grand Prix at the Tokyo International Film Festival in 1993, but a ten-year ban on making films. Nonetheless, in toto, his filmography – oscillating between arthouse “chamber pieces” and purely commercial ventures – remains confusing for critics and audiences alike, ever since his first “proper” films, from the robustly idiosyncratic On the Hunting Ground (1984), to his latest brash with heroic fantasy genre in The Warrior and the Wolf (2009). Thus, the director’s output puts a difficult task in front of the prospected spectator, although in no way does it match the challenge set before an academic scholar who intends to locate the entry point to his ouvré. Assuredly, Alicja Helman’s Haunted by the Images: the film works of Tian Zhuangzhuang (2016) not only sheds light on the Fifth Generation’s most enigmatic representative, but – alongside her past excursions into Chinese cinematography, Shades of Red (2010) on Zhang Yimou and Paths of Lost Time (2012) on Chen Kaige – does so with a flare that instantly turns the book into a primer of aesthetics and filmmaking language. The language, which even the Han majority of Chinese viewers found incomprehensible.

Fifth Generation directors – the first class admitted to the Beijing Film Academy after the Cultural Revolution – moved away from portrayals in which the rise of People’s Republic of China brings about liberation and prosperity to various ethnic minorities living within its bounds, toward an appreciation of their diverse cultures. In equal measure it was a struggle for linguistic innovation and unprecedented visual style. “Like their predecessors, the fifth generation favored a non-dramatic structure and depoliticized narration, but they went farther with scant dialogue and music as well as abundant ambiguities in characterization and narration.”

 

[1] Such shifts were connected to the post-Maoist revisionism, while also emerging as a critical reaction to past decades’ overtly ideological and literary plots. However, as Helman notes, even against this background Zhuangzhuang’s cinematic project remains slightly removed from his contemporaries’ pursuits, intending to capture modernity’s spirit. Instead, his films are permeated with a sense of timelessness.

This may sound somewhat paradoxical, given the fact that both his early features On the Hunting Ground and The Horse Thief take place in almost archetypal settings, whose historicity came from censors’ interventions (the date 1923, which we see in The Horse Thief’s opening credits, was meant to explain Tibet’s rural look as not yet “peacefully liberated” from its primitive condition by People’s Liberation Army in 1950), rather than stemming from events represented on screen. Haunted by the Images places emphasis on is the fact that while the director’s approach to historical cinema and, by default, to minority genre (or “minority discourse”,[2] as Yingjin Zhang termed this tendency) remains quite lush, his films don’t subscribe to an exoticism of his colleagues and forefathers from the Fourth Generation. Tian’s cinema sidesteps even this category. Engulfed by his films, we are likely to be drawn into rituals, practices, customs, which are shown in great detail, yet being given no extended explanation or commentary to actual meanings behind them. Hence, the Mongolian language in On the Hunting Ground wasn’t even dubbed for the cinemas. It is the spectator who remains a foreigner and needs to “grasp this difficulty”. Unsurprisingly, alienation reverberated also in these films’ revenues – The Horse Thief sold in 7 copies in comparison to the standard of 100 copies. Nevertheless, a modest success, as for his previous effort was distributed in two.

While admitting to Zhuangzhuang’s strategic “indigestibility”, Helman’s third detour into landscapes left by the Fifth Generation creators serves as much more than a simple biographic insight into successive, though not always successful moviemaking efforts of the Beijing native. It is a comprehensive cross-examination of films and aspects of culture, history, religion, and philosophy that silently underlie these productions. Moreover, this meticulous study has been executed without disregarding entries that don’t necessarily reflect Zhuangzhuang’s artistic niche carved out for him by Western film critics.

Unlike his filmography, the resultant portrait is diversified, yet not shambolic. “Tian…”, Helman writes, “…was the most radical [in the Fifth Generation’s] attempt at transforming the appearance of Chinese cinema. Other than his colleagues, who prolifically engaged the experiences of theory and tradition of Western film thought, [Zhuangzhuang] tried to invent everything anew, guided by his researcher and discoverer’s zeal.”[3] This “Otherness” – located, at times, geographically (Mongolia [On the Hunting Ground], Tibet [The Horse Thief], Japan [The Go Master]), otherwise, on the basis of social strata (Street Players, Rock ‘n’ Roll Kids, Li Lianying: The Imperial Eunuch) – found in Tian’s treatment of his characters and the communities they belong to and are rejected by, become the focal point of Helman’s traverse.

What discerns his most personal projects (here, among films that comprise this category, are: On the Hunting Ground, The Horse Thief, The Blue Kite, Springtime in a Small Town, Delamu, The Go Master), is the way in which he “…position[s] himself in the role of the discoverer, a traveller looking at the strange land with his unprejudiced eye, without referring to the accepted system of beliefs, […] without constraining himself to the limits of a particular genre, or his audience’s expectations.”[4] Adding, further on, that the practice most “…characteristic of him is the accentuation of documentary factors, non-conclusive nature of the plots, narrative composition that resembles a suite of images.”[5] This probably came as the greatest obstacle in truly appreciating Zhuangzhuang’s works, as the audiences – just as much as critics themselves – complained about the lack of classical storytelling. This way, Tian’s intrinsically personal creations are like poetic ethnographic studies informed by (but not entirely congruent with) an outsider’s perspective, while history rushes in as “borrowed scenery”.

Aside from the insightful analyses and historical contextualization that define Haunted by the Images, the feature that gives off a nuanced flavour to Helman’s 200-page study is the amount of space devoted to expounding the aesthetics of the Far-Eastern cultural sphere. Such moments, far from rare, are especially enriching when the author links specific traits in Zhuangzhuang’s style to distinctly oriental aesthetic philosophies of xuǎn xiàng (suspended thought), or a unifying purpose of communicating a spiritual, highly subjective reading of reality (qì yùn), which is in stark contrast to Plato’s concept of mimesis that underlies Western thought. In this light, what might appear as narrative ellipsis is revealed as compositional strategy employed to subjugate screened images to a “continuous flow of emotions” of the film’s protagonist. This confirms Yuwen’s (Springtime in a Small Town) temporal back and forth account, that blends retrospections, futurospections, as well as events that unfold in the present. In the same manner it allows the viewer to share Norbu’s (The Horse Thief) outcast perspective of misfortunes leading up to his death. This way, the author also explains how experiential and painterly – rather than ones belonging to the realm of literature – Zhuangzhuang’s films are, providing a narrative that perfectly reflects not merely the protagonists’ point of view, as, e. g., could be inferred from the fragmentary character of Tietou’s childhood memories refracting historical events of the Great Leap Forward in The Blue Kite (1993). Moreover, what is suggested in Haunted by… is the presence of a subjective “institution” proposed by Albert Laffey, namely that of le grand imagier (master of images), responsible for the dynamics of spectatorial immersion into Zhuangzhuang’s outsider habitats. In this respect, Helman traces Tian’s ethnographic “igneous intrusions” in the documentary traditions of Alberto Cavalcanti and Jean Rouch.

Traditionally articulated when representations of minority groups are involved, the theme of exclusion – in Zhuangzhuang’s films – migrates into cinematographic and editing techniques and strategies, of which the author takes note in regards to the 1986 cult film. “The Horse Thief gives a viscerally strong sense of Otherness, so strong that the audience feels nearly excluded from the spectacle whose meaning constantly eludes them. In total, it doesn’t succumb to expectations that the viewers hold toward “exotic” cinematographies, mainly presenting the oddness already tamed, rather than serving it to them in crudo.”[6]

As previously stated, imitating Zhuangzhuang’s compositional strategy was obviously not the encompassing aim on author’s behalf. Logical chapter structure combined with a well-paced itinerary of the inquiry should appeal in equal measures to Chinese Cinema buffs and newcomers alike. Film critics and occidental enthusiasts may find themselves aligned in a queue to the nearest bookstore or generating web traffic on websites listed in the book’s references list. Tian Zhuangzhuang used to defend himself from harsh criticism saying that his kind of cinema evidently lies in wait for a 21st century audience. Haunted by the Images would convince him that the wait is over.

 

Alicja Helman, Nawiedzony przez obrazy: Twórczość filmowa Tiana Zhuangzhuanga, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego) (2016), 268 p.

The book reviewed here was funded by National Science Centre, decision number 012/05/B/HS2/04058

 

[1] Yingjin Zhang, Chinese National Cinema, (New York and London: Routledge) (2004), p. 236.

[2] Harry H. Kuoshu, “Cinema Exotica: Ethnic Minorities as the PRC’s “Internal Other””, in Celluloid China: Cinematic Encounters with Culture and Society, ed. Harry H. Kuoshu (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002), p. 169.

[3] Alicja Helman, Nawiedzony przez obrazy: Twórczość filmowa Tiana Zhuangzhuanga, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego) (2016), p. 4.

[4] Alicja Helman, p. 199.

[5] Alicja Helman, p. 201.

[6] Alicja Helman, p. 54.

Table of Contents 2017 vol.2 no.2

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2

 

Table of Contents  2017 vol.2 no.2

Game Studies at the crossroads

edited by Jan Argasiński (Jagiellonian University)

 

Feeling Good About Myself. Real-Time Hermeneutics and its Consequences 

Tomasz Z. Majkowski

The Language of Interaction 

Rafael Arrivabene

Feminist Worldbuilding: Intersectional Methodologies in Feminist SF Criticism and Feminist Game Studies 

Bianca Batti

Playing in fractal universes: Thinking with scalable patterns in interdisciplinary game studies 

Garfield Benjamin

Glitched perception: beyond the transparency and visibility of the video game object 

Justyna Janik

Warping Diegesis: The Evolving Role of the Sound-track in Virtual Reality Gaming 

Katherine Mancey

Intermediality and Digital Games: On Player-figures and Media Borders in Uncharted 4

Kristian Ahm

Pokémemory: Time-images, Transmedia, and Memory

Jayme D. Mallindine

Creation Myths, Community, and Collectanea: A Folk Group Case Study, or “Welcome to Dota, You Suck”

Ciara Smith

Political and Social Issues in French Digital Games, 1982–1993

Filip Jankowski

Varia

Different levels of game genre. A Review. 

Marcin Petrowicz

Feeling Good About Myself. Real-Time Hermeneutics and its Consequences

Tomasz Z. Majkowski

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 1-16.

 

Tomasz Z. Majkowski

Jagiellonian University

 

 

 

Feeling Good About Myself. Real-Time Hermeneutics and its Consequences

 

Abstract

Questions concerning the way in which digital games produce meaning and the possibility that their reconfigurability influences the process of interpretation have been debated since the very beginning of contemporary game studies. Based on general agreement between scholars, two areas of inquiry have been distinguished: the story produced by a game, and game mechanics, or rather all the information necessary to operate within them. The so-called “Game vs. Story division” has been analysed from multiple perspectives and theoretical standpoints[1]. Among the scholars adopting the hermeneutical angle, there seems to be a consensus regarding the two distinct interpretative processes that occur while a game is played, although they do not agree about which should be considered the primary one. Scholars arguing for the unique character of digital games tend to focus on the interpretation created while the game is played that relates to aspects of gameplay. They stress the importance of so-called “real-time hermeneutics”, as this is unprecedented in other media.[2] In turn, researchers questioning the specificity of games as a medium claim that a proper interpretation should concern itself with the stories produced through playing, rendering such interpretation similar to every other hermeneutical process. Therefore, the process of understanding a game could be explained within the existing hermeneutical framework without any need to introduce media-specific interventions[3].

In this paper, I will investigate the process of understanding video games, following the detailed, step-by-step description of interpretation provided by Paul Ricoeur in his American lectures[4]. In doing so, I will supplement the concept of “real life hermeneutics”[5] by narrowing the gap between interpreting game stories and gameplay situations. While such a perspective will bring me closer to a stance which denies any specificity to video games (at least regarding interpretation), I will also describe the key difference between understanding a video game and a traditional text, and briefly point towards its possible consequences, building upon Charles Taylor’s concept of ethics of authenticity[6].

Key words: hermeneutics, video games, Ricoeur

 

Ludo-hermeneutics, or How to Understand a Video Game

 

The difference between literary and game hermeneutics has been analysed by game scholars ever since Markku Eskelinen observed that “in art we might have to configure in order to be able to interpret whereas in games we have to interpret in order to be able to configure”[7]; this quote was later repeated in Espen Aarseth’s seminal paper on methodology of game studies[8]. In said paper, Aarseth introduced the concept of “real-time hermeneutics” based on the assumption that the key difference between the interpretation of a traditional text and that of a video game lies in the reflexivity of the former and the responsiveness of the latter. In other words, when confronted with a non-game textual object the reader perceives it as a whole and creates her interpretation at a pace that she, and only she, sets. The player needs to constantly adjust her interpretation, as the unstable environment of the game changes in response to her actions, undertaken as a result of said interpretation. Therefore, Aarseth claims that to play a game, the player needs to employ a skillset entirely different from the tools of the traditional textual interpretation. The process exposes the major dissimilarity between games and other media: “While the interpretation of a literary or filmic work will require certain analytical skills, the game requires analysis practiced as performance, with direct feedback from the system. This is a dynamic, real-time hermeneutics that lacks a corresponding structure in film or literature”.[9]

The difference described by Aarseth was subsequently recognized as one of the defining qualities of a video game as a cultural object. As Jonne Arjoranta claims[10], such a concept is crucial for both the proceduralist school of game analysis and for any scholarly attempt to create “game hermeneutics”. As far as the former is concerned, the interactive qualities of video games allow for a way of making arguments and expressing ideas with processes[11]. The latter needs to incorporate reconfigurative properties of games into the hermeneutical project. Arjoranta himself combines proceduralist arguments with a rich analysis of various temporal layers of the game, differentiating between the player’s made-on-the-fly interpretation and the understanding of the complete game as a cultural object[12]. The latter is always incomplete and indefinite, enriched by the passage of time, as it is governed by general rules of meaning-making as described by Hans-Georg Gadamer, and does not differentiate from any other interpretative effort. The former’s peculiar quality is the fact that it can be actively resisted by the game itself: “For example, if one interprets the Koopa Troopa turtles in Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo Creative Department 1985) as friendly and tries to hug them, it will probably result in the plumber-protagonist Mario losing his life. In this case, we can say that it is the wrong interpretation to make”.[13]

Velli-Matti Karhulahti’s “double hermeneutic circle” concept employs similar reasoning, using the Giddensian concept of double-hermeneutics as a point of departure[14]. Accordingly, to properly describe the process of meaning-making in video games, one needs to acknowledge this crucial fact: the very act of understanding leads to changes in the matter one is trying to interpret (as is true in social science analysis, according to Giddens). During play, there are two constant moves within two hermeneutic circles: the first is ludic-oriented, aiming to actively change the game in order to progress; the second is aesthetic and allows the game to be comprehended as a narrative, or, more broadly, as a text. The former is time-sensitive and sometimes resisted by the game, the latter is more reflexive and indefinite, as it is not rooted solemnly in the game system and is more open to traditional meaning-making procedures.

Olli Tapio Leino identifies two hermeneutical modes on the basis of game materiality. Every player produces her own idiosyncratic interpretation of aesthetical elements of the game world and story, and although such an interpretation is critical for an individual player’s enjoyment, in order to properly understand the character of the game object (dubbed “playable artefact” by Leino), it is necessary to distinguish between what is idiosyncratic and intersubjective, as “intersubjective interpretations are those that the materiality of the artefact forces upon its players, i.e., on those whose desire to play is strong enough to survive the resistance with which the game artefact counters the project of playing”.[15]

While Rafał Kochanowicz follows the practice of distinguishing between two hermeneutical practices in playing a game, his analysis is built upon Ricoeur’s distinction between hermeneutics of faith and hermeneutics of suspicion. He moves past the play–story divide, arguing that the game is perceived in its totality, and the player chooses whether she follows the rules and submits to the regime of the gameplay, thus showing faith in the game’s meanings, or if she tries to resist and defeat the game, especially when confronted with morally charged decisions. Although such a perspective seems to provide an alternative to the story–game divide, it also strongly suggests that game hermeneutics of suspicion are related to the player’s agency, and the hermeneutics of faith to the lack thereof, therefore actually contributing to the existing divide.[16]

The hermeneutical project developed by Michał Kłosiński, although framed as a polemic with Arjoranta and Karhulahti, is built on a very similar preconception of a division between the game and the story. Moreover, the Polish author agrees with Arjoranta that interpretations of game stories can and should be analysed with the existing hermeneutic tools. Yet, he rejects the idea of game-related meaning-making, arguing after Gadamer that the game is a phenomenon entirely independent of the player. Reconfigurable elements of the game contribute to the interpretation, as they belong to the narrative in a fashion similar to any interpretation, being a recombination of how reality is perceived and understood. As a result, Kłosiński shifts his interest from the way the game produces meaning and in which it can be understood to analysis of the game as a tool to understand the world and gain self-knowledge[17].

 

Interpretation of In-Game Obstacles

 

Despite their differences, all the aforementioned propositions share the same conviction: when interacting with the game, the player needs to understand her situation based on textual clues the game provides, kinaesthetic directions given by the interface, and her own understanding of the media and the genre. Her task is to come up with a suitable solution to the problem at hand and employ it, to overcome the obstacle and to progress with the game. Whether the described situation broadens or narrows the margin of freedom the player has, in contrast to the reader of traditional texts, or if said situation is related to the overall interpretation of the game as an aesthetic object and to the player’s self-knowledge, is subject to debate[18].

I shall illustrate this basic interpretative procedure with an example I have already analysed elsewhere in greater detail[19]. In the game Rise of the Argonauts (Liquid Entertainment 2008), a lesser-known, ugly cousin of Sony’s God of War (SCE Studios Santa Monica 2005), I, as the player, am taking on the role of Jason of Iolcos, captain of Argo, in his quest for the Golden Fleece. During the game, I can interact with the environment and talk to friendly NPCs, choosing dialogue lines, but my task is to battle hordes of enemies. During combat, I have to choose between three weapons to hurt the opponents most efficiently. To do so, I need to understand the relations between weaponry and various categories of enemies.

Luckily, beside the trial-and-error method, I have more tools in my interpretative toolbox. I can conjure classic tradition and relate the game’s usage of weaponry to the description of arms in the source material, namely Greek mythology. I also have my experience with the genre conventions of video games and, more broadly, general knowledge on how melee combat is usually portrayed in Western culture. All this, combined with my former experiences with the game itself, helps me understand that a sword is useless against a heavily armoured foe, and agile opponents can easily avoid my mighty mace. It does not matter whether my pre-knowledge originates from the duel between Menelaus and Paris in Book 3 of Iliad, years of playing Dungeons & Dragons, or the repetitiveness of the game itself. Based on clues given by the game, I have to formulate—sometimes very quickly—a hypothesis about the best course of action. Then, my reasoning is confronted with some resistance, and I can measure its validity on the basis of my performance. If my Jason has been slain, it is time to formulate a new interpretation. Again, it is irrelevant whether the failure originates in the enemy’s resistance to the chosen weapon or in my inability to deliver attacks: if I have died, it is time to figure out another course of action.

This example, even if crude, seems to confirm the previously described views on game hermeneutics. My experience playing Rise of the Argonauts confirms that the game resists an invalid interpretation, as described by Arjoranta, and there is constant interaction between the game system and the aesthetic background of the narrative, constituting Karhulahti’s double hermeneutic circle and contributing to Leino’s intersubjective interpretation. But there are still questions which remain unanswered: is the act of choosing a weapon somehow related to the overall interpretation of the game? Does the skillset required to understand my situation within the game differ from the one required in literary or film interpretation? And is this brief situation an interpretation at all, or just an element of the game performance, deprived of any deeper meaning that can be fished out during the hermeneutic process?[20]

Although the reader of a traditional book is very rarely confronted with a similar choice when she follows a linear narrative, on the very basic level of interpretation, there is no difference between the player and the reader: they both assume that “there is more”, and they need to overcome an obstacle to reveal a previously unknown part of the text. Despite all the differences in the very nature of said surplus and in the tools employed to overcome the obstacle, for both the reconfigurable and the static form the first interpretative move is quite similar: it begins with a guess.

 

Validation of Hypothesis

 

Such a situation of both the player and the reader seems to be in line with the earliest stages of interpretation, as understood by Paul Ricoeur[21]. In his detailed description of the hermeneutic process, Ricoeur opposed the concept that a text can only be interpreted once it has been read in its entirety—the notion that traditional textual hermeneutics was built upon. Instead, he describes acts of reading and interpreting as inseparable: the reader constantly makes guesses about the meaning of the part she just finished in light of her knowledge of the book, the literary genre, the general education, and so forth[22]. The most basic example of such a guess would be asking the question “what will happen next?” In fact, there are whole genres based on the audience’s ability to make interpretations on the fly: without it, the crime story would be impossible.

Such a stance matches the concept of “real time hermeneutics”, or the time-sensitive aspect of Karhulahti’s proposal. Although the act of playing differs from the act of reading, the meaning-making part seems quite similar. When moving through a literary text, several interpretative guesses can also only be made in a specific moment—this is especially true for popular narratives with high shock value. The pleasure of making such guesses seems to underline the very pervasive fear of obtaining important information about the plot ahead of time, from a source different than the text itself—a procedure appropriately called “spoiling”. My pleasure in battling various opponents in Rise of the Argonauts was very similar: only at certain points of the game could I make new hypotheses about the best course of combat and put them to test to see if my guess was right.

The second part of the process hinted at in the previous sentence describes the necessary component of making a proper interpretation, which according to Paul Ricoeur is the act of validation[23]. Through various means, the reader checks if her guess was correct. If she was mistaken, she can alter her hypothesis and proceed with reading. If she was correct, she can add another part to the growing understanding of the text. Here, another strong analogy emerges: in light of Ricouerian theory, Arjoranta’s claim that video games are the only texts capable of resisting interpretation seems untrue. When taking into consideration the basic form of meaning-making described above, detective fiction can render the reader’s guess invalid by proving beyond doubt that the character suspected of being the murderer is in fact innocent. In another famous example, the idea of Ned Stark being the protagonist of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy saga The Song of Fire and Ice[24]—a conviction very firmly rooted in genre conventions—is invalidated with the swing of the sword that takes off the character’s head at the end of the first novel. The sudden conclusion of Stark’s storyline has forced many readers to re-formulate their interpretations of said book saga.

In digital games, the described procedure of verifying an interpretative guess can be tied to the narrative unfolding as the player progresses. The narrative is usually presented in a linear manner, even if a story itself has many variants, and is depicted using cinematic or textual information; therefore, it is no different from watching a movie or reading a book, as Arjoranta and Kłosiński claim. This resistance that the games offer seems no different on a purely interpretative level[25]: in the cases of both games and literature, the player/reader needs to conjure her prior knowledge, add it to her ongoing interpretation made so far, and proceed accordingly. There is no difference in recognizing the antagonist within the story and on the level of gameplay: in both cases the projected course of the narrative includes either the protagonist’s triumph over the villain, or their defeat. This seems to be true for every game in which the category of an antagonist exists: even in the Civilization series (MPS Labs, 1991 and subsequent), one needs to build a strategy on the assumption that Ghandi is either a trustworthy ally or a nuke-obsessed warmonger.

Nonetheless, it is important to stress that the aforementioned similarities do not equate video games to literature or cinema: the way of engagement and interaction is quite different for all these forms, and all the reconfigurable qualities of games still differentiate them from other media. My claim concerns only the parallel in the act of understanding the situation, as the basis of game hermeneutics, and that claim seems to be—so far—quite defensible. The main difference is in quantity, not in quality, as games challenge players’ guesses more often. The very basic mechanism of sense-making seems to be quite similar in games and other narrative-driven media: it is based on validation of interpretative guesses—the dialectics described by Ricoeur as his version of the hermeneutic circle.[26] This, however, is also the point at which things get complicated: even if games and texts share the procedure of guessing, the validation seems to be different.

 

From Validation to Appropriation

 

To describe the other half of his circle, Ricoeur stresses the similarities between interpersonal and literary communication. In conversation, the process of validation can be done on the spot: if one participant is uncertain of the meaning, she can always ask her interlocutor to elaborate or explain. When words are put on paper, the reader has no such luxury, and if the text does not address her doubts directly—as in the case of crime fiction, a genre sometimes called “a game”[27]—she is at a loss. She can approximate the meaning by employing the validating techniques Ricoeur describes. But, in the end, she can never be certain, and this doubt opens up the very possibility of interpretation, understood as a search for non-literal, deeper meaning—the next part of the Ricouerian hermeneutic process. After the reading is done, the reader can explain the meaning of the text as a whole, based on her previously validated guesses. This interpretation can be therefore comprehended by establishing some relation between the text and the world: as Ricoeur expresses it, “discourse cannot fail to be about something.”[28] If the point of reference is made, the reader is assured in the validity of the interpretation, and she can start the last, and the most crucial, part of the process, which the French hermeneutist calls “appropriation”: here, the reader finds out how the meaning of the text relates directly to her. This act can lead to self-discovery and enrichment of the reader’s identity, and discovering oneself through texts is one of the ultimate goals of interpretation in Ricoeur’s philosophy[29].

Of course, not every literary text invokes such a long and complex process. The pre-condition is to leave the reader in doubt when the reading is finished. This is why between a poem and a popular novel that answers every question and plainly explains its references, the latter is less likely to transform the very identity of the reader—at least from the Ricoeurian perspective.

In the case of video games, the process of validation seems to lean towards a straightforward explanation, characteristic of live conversation. The interactivity, understood as the way in which the player and the game communicate with each other in order to force some kind of reaction[30], tends to turn the dialectics of guessing and validation into a series of yes-or-no questions. This used to be quite a spectacular aspect of playing the point and click adventure games of old: if at a loss, the player would try to click on every object and command at her disposal. This was, of course, an act of desperation, undertaken after exhausting all the options the player could come up with based on their interpretation thus far. For example, distracting the troll by throwing him a red herring in The Secret of Monkey Island (LucasFilm Games 1990) was beyond the scope of possible interpretations made by a teenager with limited knowledge of English idioms (such as myself at the time). Before I discovered the solution through trial and error, I had tried to attack the guardian with my cutlass, bribe him with alcohol, sneak around him—yet all the options I considered sound were rejected by the game.

The above example is extreme, but it illustrates three important characteristics of validating an interpretative guess in a video game. Firstly, there is a mechanism in place aimed at blocking some ideas, and sometimes rating the feasible ones as more or less correct by assigning them point value, differentiating the difficulty of employment, and so on. Secondly, the game forces the responsibility to progress the narrative on the player, while simultaneously refusing her the degree of control the reader usually has. Although sometimes the player can decide which way or in what order the story should progress, or she can even disregard the story entirely—the possibility Espen Aarseth identifies as the player’s freedom[31]—she cannot skip the uninteresting parts of the game to reach the juicy ones faster, or to metaphorically peek at the last page. Thirdly, despite the perceived freedom, authorial intent seems to be more important in games than in literature or cinema: it is significantly harder to create a functional interpretation which is not in accordance with it, as only choices perceived as valid are permitted by the authors. In my Secret of Monkey Island example, I had to abandon my reasoning completely to progress the game, just as Ron Gilbert, Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman intended.

The conclusion so far is that although the beginning of the meaning-making process is very similar in video games and traditional narratives—at least according to hermeneutics of Paul Ricoeur—the way of validating the interpretation shows several differences. In games it is more definitive, as it can deny the player progression and is much more frequent. This frequency is not without consequence: as Karhulahi observes,[32] it can lead to a very goal-oriented reading of a game in which the interpretative effort is subordinated to the need to overcome obstacles. Such an attitude results in fragmentation of the understanding: there is no need to produce a coherent interpretation of the game as it demands an immediate, local interpretation aimed at solving a puzzle at hand. As a result, difficulties may emerge with regard to following the details of the game story or connecting the transaction of the avatar’s achievements to the overall narrative.

The difference between games and other media is very clear when one compares a fragmented interpretation of a game with crime fiction, the most game-like genre. In both cases, there is a constant need to validate the interpretation in light of new facts and situations. Yet, in a detective story each revision adds to the overall understanding of the plot: if the prime suspect turns out to be innocent, the reader needs to go back and revise her understanding of the plot as a whole. In games, there is no such need as validation usually relates to a particular situation. When I discover a new way of dispatching enemies in the game I am playing, there is no need to go back and create a new interpretation in which the protagonist struggled with his combat inefficiencies until he discovered a new, better fighting technique. Such a move is replaced with a simple recognition: from now on, I, the player, know a better way to play my game. Of course, the aforementioned revision is entirely possible, though it is simply unnecessary to make sense of the game—the quality that leads to the separation of ludic and aesthetic hermeneutics in various theories[33]. However, my claim is that there is no separation in meaning-making procedures between the ludic and the aesthetic, and the perceived division comes from a very visible, present, and pleasurable validating mechanism. The reduced need for coherent interpretation is a result of hastened fulfilment: contrary to crime fiction, the player does not need to wait until the end to know if she understands the game correctly as it constantly delivers her ways to validate her skill in interpretation. From the hermeneutic point of view, a video game can be perceived as a machine to deliver recognition and reward for interpretative competence.

The preoccupation with validation and the definitive nature of the process lead to further dissimilarity between video games and literary hermeneutics, namely, a diminishing need for explanation and for undertaking the subsequent steps. As stated before, the work of an interpretation in Ricoeur’s theory is not done when the book is finished—there is always doubt if one has understood it correctly. As a result, no interpretation is definite and closed; it can always be compared to other interpretations, rooted in experiences, knowledge and needs of different readers. This purely reflexive part of interpretation somehow seems to be blocked by video game mechanisms—if the player successfully reaches the end, it means she understood everything correctly. The need to find a point of reference for the text is also diminished, as complex video games pride themselves on accurately simulating the world. In order to go further with the interpretation, one has to suppress the claim that the game’s validating mechanism is definitive. A coherent interpretation needs to be deprived of “gameness”, understood here as a fractured collection of local struggles with various obstacles. It is no coincidence that many game interpretations distance themselves from actual gameplay[34] and some games look for a way to reduce the pervasiveness of the validation process, for example by reducing the number of obstacles to overcome, as “walking simulators” fashioned after Dear Esther (Chinese Room, 2012) do. As Michał Kłosiński claims, to employ a game as a way to understand the world and enrich oneself, it is necessary to move from gameness to narrativity.[35]

 

Playing the Game My Way

 

Privileging validation over other parts of the interpretative process leads to yet another effect. In simple games, with gameplay either straightforward or reduced merely to a background for the narrative (as was the case of adventure games), the validation is based solely on authorial intent. The player needs to guess the correct order of conduct and execute it accordingly. I cannot alter the course of The Secret of Monkey Island by—let us say—focusing on honing the navigation skill of Guybrush Threepwood instead of his swordsmanship. The only way to measure skill is time: a skilled player can beat the game more quickly. But there are titles that offer more than a single way to accomplish tasks. After ruling out everything impossible, they let the player decide how to proceed, sometimes allowing for astonishing creativity, like the famous employment of a gravity gun to power up jumps in Half-Life 2 (Valve 2004). Even my Jason of Iolcos has a margin for freedom: he can ignore certain side quests, decide the order in which the four major parts of the plot are resolved, choose two out of four Argonauts as his companions during the adventure, and use different weapons in combat. Some of those choices are validated, other resisted. While playing, I was trying to simultaneously guess the best course of conduct as designed, and trim the game down to my personal taste, for example by reducing the amount of combat or helping out every miserable NPC on my way towards the Golden Fleece—searching for the balance between the idiosyncratic and the intersubjective.

This freedom to choose, described as one of the definitive qualities of video games, has been recognized by Arjoranta and Kochanowicz as an opportunity for self-reflection for players. As Arjoranta explains: “While all works of art have a chance to tell us something about ourselves, games, perhaps, excel in this. In order to play, the player must act, make choices, and see what kind of consequences those choices have, while the game evaluates some of those choices (…) Not all games support this equally, but again, ludonarrative games have the frameworks required to make ethical and existential questions meaningful”.[36]

I claim otherwise. By combining authorial intent with personal preference, the player seeks recognition for her hermeneutic skills: she wants to be recognized as both a good, obedient reader, keen to follow what the game narrative proposes, and as an innovator, bringing her unique style and ingenuity to the game. Simultaneously, the freedom to choose can be seen as a factor obscuring self-awareness, as the player is prone to repeating her choices in each and every game. For example, I always play as a good guy, trying to help the needy and seeking the best and most selfless solutions to moral dilemmas, regardless of the overall game aesthetics. Doing so, I am leaning towards the style Jaroslav Švelch called “honest moral gameplay”[37]. Given a choice, I actively avoid scenarios alien to my moral code; as a result, I dodge confrontation with disturbing situations which could lead me to better self-knowledge. To invoke moral impact, it is common for video games to limit their player’s choice—as Spec Ops: The Line (Yager Development 2012) does—or to obscure some elements of the narrative, diminishing the chance of proper interpretation, and therefore challenging the player’s ability to gain validation, which is the way of The Witcher (CD Projekt RED, 2007 and subsequent). Because of the focus on validation, video games preoccupy players with their own actions and their own hermeneutic skills, rather than creating a possibility for a meaningful interaction with text[38]. This seems to be a serious impediment on the road to a full Ricoeurian interpretation, a tool to transform oneself by interacting with the world of the text.

But it does not mean that games are of less worth compared to literature, or that they are simply a feel-good medium unless they are heavily-loaded with literary or cinematic elements to make them less gamey. In a way, they even seem similar to postmodern meta-fiction, which combines traditional interpretative possibilities with the pleasure of recognizing intertextual references. Therefore, to understand the game-specific hermeneutic process, it is only reasonable to ask why validation is so important, and where the hermeneutic circle of guess and validation present within video games can lead us. One possible answer can be found in the concept of consolation—the quality Umberto Eco found essential to popular narrative[39]. In video games, consolation comes from the game reassuring the player that she is good at interpretation by measuring her skill and validating her guesses. In fact, games do it better than literature or cinema because they simultaneously leave no room for doubt while assuring the player of her authenticity: after all, it is her guess that gets validated, and her interpretative stance, carried from game to game, that matters.

A description of a fairly similar process can be found in Charles Taylor’s analysis of sources for contemporary morality[40]. According to the Canadian philosopher, the main source of rejecting normative ethics in favour of a self-constructed morality lies in the interaction between the strong sense of self—understood as an independent and unique way of being human—and the horizon of values established by the community. The first component, rooted in the Romantic notion of individuality, drives a person towards freedom to pursue happiness any way she chooses. But, according to Taylor, it does not necessarily result in a crumbling society of narcissistic egomaniacs, as there is an important precondition to pursuing personal goals: if one recognizes such an endeavour as her supreme right, one needs to give other members of her community the same right. Also, even if that person is free to choose personal beliefs, she “couldn’t just decide that the most significant action is wiggling [her] toes in warm mud. Without a special explanation, this is not an intelligible claim[41] and she has to measure the choice against the general convictions held by the community. Consequently, the ethics of authenticity can be perceived as result of the tension between individualism and the shared pool of values. This tension serves as the basis for both an individual interpretation of the world and community-generated recognition. In the example analysed by Taylor (the society of the United States in the late 1980s) the common denominator was instrumental rationality: one was allowed to pursue different goals as long as they were profitable and possible to explain.

The analysis I summarize here very briefly and crudely seems strangely similar to the central mechanism of the video games I discussed earlier. The player is free to play however she likes, as long as it is in line with the game’s established set of values. Those are usually instrumental, as everything and everybody the protagonist encounters is useable, rational, and easily quantifiable. This remains true even for another human’s misery: every trouble of every NPC my Jason encountered on his path was an opportunity to gain some experience points and other rewards, as well as to get possible help in the main quest. Although seemingly noble and selfless, my protagonist always had one eye on the prize. The efficacy of a player’s interpretative guess is at least partially dependent on those values: for example, it is important to recognize a call for help as an opportunity to profit, and act accordingly. This way players’ effort can be validated, quantified, and rewarded, creating a common horizon of values for all users of the same game. Someone resisting this quantification, for reasons Sicart, Arjoranta and Švlech point out,[42] is therefore either a quirky loner or a member of the community sharing his resistance, thus using values of the game as a negative point of reference in their common horizon[43]. The important factor of playing a game would therefore be connected to the larger issue of authenticity, as Taylor understands it: certain players need to use all their skills to understand and execute the game in their own, particular way, which is measurable against efforts of different players, framed by overall moves permitted and considered meaningful by the game system. To put it more simply: to win, my Jason needs to eliminate hordes of enemies with either a sword, a spear, or a mace. And every Argonaut/player has the freedom to choose one of these tools, based on her understanding of the game mechanics, genre tradition, and knowledge of Apollonius of Rhodes or Robert Graves. Then, her efforts can be measured and compared with the efficiency of others. The one thing she cannot do is reject violence and search for a diplomatic solution: it is outside Rise of the Argonauts’ horizon of values.

The analogy between the process of meaning making in video games and Tayloran ethics of authenticity is of course quite crude and needs deeper, more inquisitive development, which I have already attempted elsewhere[44]. Here, I use it solely to point out three possible consequences of hermeneutics that privilege validation over explanation. Firstly, even if Taylor’s observation from the late 1980s is no longer valid, his book was created in the same cultural climate that made the rise of video games possible. The connection, even if presented here in a slightly superficial manner, might explain the increasing importance of video games as a cultural form: in a way, they have become a model for good life, according to the ethics of authenticity. Therefore, the important cultural function of video games could be explained in terms of Roger Caillois’ classic observation: “It is not absurd to try diagnosing a civilization in terms of the games that are especially popular there. In fact, if games are cultural factors and images, it follows that to a certain degree a civilization and its content may be characterized by its games”.[45]

Secondly, there is a severe difference between the ethics of Taylor and Ricoeur: the first scholar describes the relationship between the text and the self as an expression of the latter projected onto the former, based on an individual search for values. Ricoeur’s view is directly the opposite: there is no other way towards self-awareness but through searching for similarities within the text, and, in the presented case, by appropriating literature[46]. Video games as analysed here can serve as a case to support Taylor’s claim: confronted with an obstacle, the player uses her pre-established strategy of understanding, rooted in her confidence with skills and knowledge she already possesses. This way she reaffirms her strategy of being herself, instead of expanding her self-knowledge and transforming the self as a result of contact with the game text, as Ricoeur would postulate. This leads to the third conclusion: such a reassuring and culturally important way of experiencing narratives could possibly be of some importance to people playing video games. And, as it seems, it is. Self-professed hardcore gamers tend to distance themselves from games they believe too easy or not game-like enough, as such games do not provide enough validation for their hermeneutic competence, in the way in which children’s rhymes do not satisfy people with a taste for T. S. Eliot. They also tend to resist attempts made to interpret video games in a more traditional fashion, by explaining their meaning and comprehending it: sometimes they even show hostility towards people with different hermeneutic strategies[47]. Such interpretative shenanigans threaten their sense of self, as measured against a rational and efficient scale of being skilful at playing mainstream video games.

 

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Westerlaken, Michelle. “Self-Fashioning in Action: Zelda’s Breath of the Wild Vegan Run.” Proceedings of the Philosophy of Computer Games (2017), http://muep.mau.se/bitstream/handle/2043/23973/POCG17_Westerlaken_Self_Fashioning_in_Action.pdf?sequence=2

 

[1] See Kapell, Matthew Wilhelm (ed). The Play Versus Story Divide in Game Studies: Critical Essays. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland) (2015).

[2] Aarseth Espen, “Playing Research: Methodological Approaches to Game Analysis” in Proceedings of the Digital Arts and Culture Conference (2003), http://www.bendevane.com/VTA2012/herrstubbz/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/02.GameApproaches2.pdf. 2003, date accessed 23 September 2017;
Arjoranta Jonne, Real-Time Hermeneutics: Meaning-Making in Ludonarrative Digital Games. (Jyväskylä: University of Jyväskylä) (2015); Leino Olli Tapio, “Death loop as a feature” Game Studies 12:2 (2012); Karhulahti Veli-Matti, “Double Fine Adventure and the Double Hermeneutic Videogame” in Proceedings of the 4th International Conference on Fun and Games (2012).

[3] Kłosiński, Michał, „W stronę hermeneutyki gier komputerowych.” in Teksty Drugie 165:3 (2017), Kochanowicz, P.  „Cybernetyczne doświadczenia”–fabularyzowane gry komputerowe w perspektywie hermeneutyki.” in Homo Ludens 5:1 (2013).

[4] Ricoeur Paul, Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning (Fort Wort, TX: TCU Press) (1976).

[5] Aarseth 2003; Arjoranta 2015.

[6] Taylor Charles, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press) (1992).

[7] Eskelinen Markku, “The Gaming Situation”, Game Studies 1:1 (2001).

[8] Aarseth 2003.

[9] Aarseth 2003, p. 5.

[10] Arjoranta 2015.

[11] Bogost Ian, “Process vs. Procedure” in The Fourth International Conference of the Whitehead Research Project Metaphysics Things New Forms of Speculative Thought (2010) http://bogost.com/downloads/Bogost – Process vs. Procedure.pdf, date accessed 23 September 2017.

[12] Arjoranta 2015, p. 59–60.

[13] Arjoranta 2011, p. 6.

[14] Karhulahti 2012.

[15] Leino 2012.

[16] Kochanowicz 2013.

[17] Kłosiński 2017.

[18] Karhulahti 2012, p. 7.

[19] Majkowski, Tomasz Z, “Złote Runo. Gra Wideo Jako Doświadczenie Interpretacyjne.” in Olbrzym w Cieniu. Gry wideo w kulturze audiowizualnej, edited by Andrzej Pitrus, (Kraków: WUJ) (2012b).

[20] Kirkpatrick Graeme, Aesthetic Theory and the Video Game. (Manchester: Manchester University Press) (2011); Kłosiński 2017.

[21] Ricoeur 1976.

[22] Ricoeur 1976, p. 75–78.

[23] Ricoeur 1976, p. 78–80.

[24] Martin George R. R, A Game of Thrones (New York: Bantam Spectra) (1996) and subsequent.

[25] There is an additional level of resistance offered by obstacles presented by the game. But overcoming said obstacles is not always related to the process of interpretation and usually relies on the dexterity or perceptiveness of the player and therefore cannot be treated as parts of interpretation. To put it simply: as Jason, sometimes I lose fights because I do not understand how to defeat my enemy (which provides the resistance to the game interpretation), and other times I am just clumsy with the controller.

[26] Ricoeur 1976, p. 79.

[27] Caillois Roger, The Mystery Novel (Bronxville: Laughing Buddha Press) (1984).

[28] Ricoeur 1976, p. 36.

[29] Ricoeur Paul, From Text to Action (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press) (2007).

[30] Arjoranta Jonne, “Do We Need Real-Time Hermeneutics? Structures of Meaning in Games.” in DiGRA 2011: Think Design Play (2011), http://www.digra.org/wp-content/uploads/digital-library/11310.17396.pdf, date accessed 23 September 2017.

[31] Aarseth 2003.

[32] Karhulahti 2012.

[33] see Arjoranta 2015.

[34] Leino 2012; Möring Sebastian, “Freedom in Games–Between Fear and Boredom.” Proceedings of the Philosophy of Computer Games (2013a), http://gamephilosophy2014.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Sebastian-Moering-2014.-Freedom-in-Games_1st-draft.-PCG2014.pdf, date accessed 23 September 2017.

[35] Kłosiński 2017, p. 67.

[36] Arjoranta 2015, p. 61.

[37] Švelch Jaroslav, “The Good, the Bad, and the Player: The Challenges to Moral Engagement in Single-Player Avatar-Based Video Games.” in Ethics and Game Design, edited by Karen Schrier and David Gibson (New York: Hershey) (2010).

[38] Ricoeur 2007.

[39] Eco, Umberto, Il Superuomo Di Massa: Retorica E Ideologia Nel Romanzo Popolare (Rome: Bompiani) (2012).

[40] Taylor 1992.

[41] Taylor 1992, p. 36.

[42] Sicart Miguel, The Ethics of Computer Games (Cambridge MA: MIT Press) (2009); Arjoranta 2015; Švelch 2010.

[43] Westerlaken, Michelle. “Self-Fashioning in Action: Zelda’s Breath of the Wild Vegan Run.” Proceedings of the Philosophy of Computer Games (2017), http://muep.mau.se/bitstream/handle/2043/23973/POCG17_Westerlaken_Self_Fashioning_in_Action.pdf?sequence=2.

[44] Majkowski, Tomasz Z. “Gry wideo i kultura autentyczności.” in Homo Ludens 3:1 (2011); Majkowski Tomasz Z. „Gra wideo jako model dobrego życia” in Kultura Zabawy edited by Paleczny Tadeusz, Kantor Ryszard, Banaszkiewicz Magdalena (Kraków: Wydawnictwo UJ) (2012a).

[45] Caillois Roger, Man, Play, Games (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press) (1961), p. 83.

[46] Laitinen Arto, “Charles Taylor and Paul Ricoeur on Self-Interpretations and Narrative Identity.” in Narrative Research: Voices of Teachers and Philosophers, edited by Rauno Huttunen, Hannu Heikkinen, and Leena Syrjälä (Jyväskylä: SoPhi) (2002).

[47] Mortensen Torill Elvira, “Anger, Fear, and Games: The Long Event of #GamerGate.” Games and Culture Online First (2016).

The Language of Interaction

Rafael Arrivabene

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 17-29.

 

Rafael Arrivabene

Game Designer

 

 

The Language of Interaction

 

Abstract

Actions, reactions, conditions, and restrictions form the basis of any game. The rules designed to conduct participation and behaviours of players and objects can be understood as a particular language. In an attempt to elucidate an expressive potential that may have been underestimated by game developers and researchers, this paper presents an approximation of game rules to linguistic concepts.

 

Key words: interaction, games studies, ludology, linguistics

 

Thinking games as interactive texts

 

Interaction is the most inherent aspect of the game phenomenon. Not every interactive system is a game, but every instance of a game, be it a digital game, a physical sport, or a verbal riddle, has some degree of interactivity. This word means mutual or reciprocal actions and influence. In a broad sense, an action is a process that induces alteration in something else[1]. Interaction is, therefore, the reciprocal dynamic between systems in an action-reaction, cause-effect or call and response fashion. Players interact with each other and with the game system itself. They interact with its physical components and rules, always changing the game’s state. Games are artefacts or events in which interactions are not just random or spontaneous, rather they are designed to achieve some purpose. In games, interactions are a way, a medium, to communicate ideas and create experiences.

In order to situate the understanding of interaction in games, it is useful to analyse it according to Schell’s Elemental Tetrad (Fig. 1), which states that any given game can be analysed in terms of four aspects: Aesthetics, Narrative, Technology and Mechanics[2]. The Aesthetics, one of the most visible aspects, is responsible for much of the sensory stimuli of the game and its nonverbal messages. Another explicit aspect is Narrative. This comprises the lore and the symbolic verbal communication of the game. In abstract games or sports, the Narrative aspect comprises the events that emerge from play. Technology is one of the two implicit aspects; it is what supports the very existence of the game. In a board game it would be paper cards, game boards, plastic tokens, and dice. In a digital game it would be the hardware and system specifications. Finally, Mechanics is the other implicit aspect. It stands for the rules of the game and the behaviour of its components and its objectives. Players engage with every one of these aspects and each of their elements foster some level of interactivity. But it is the Mechanical aspect and its elements—the rules—that account for most of the interaction in a game.

 

Figure 1. Elemental Tetrad of any game.

obraz 1

Source: made by the author, based on Schell (2008).

 

One can say that when Espen Aarseth defined cybertexts and ergodic literature, he shed light on the less visible aspects that are also found in other forms of texts. Aarseth was interested in the performance of the text, its material nature and the rules that bind the reader/user. Using Schell’s terminology with Aarseth’s perspective, one can say that judging only from the Technological aspect, a printed book would be less linear than a hypertext, since all pages and content are accessible to the reader in any given time. The material technology of paper-sheets glued or sewed together does not induce linear reading nor prevent page skipping, as a digital text might. From the mechanical aspect, however, a regular book is generally linear. The linearity of the printed text media comes from a socially established rule of reading, not from the attributes of the media itself. For Aarseth, a cybertext is one that promotes non-trivial interaction with the reader. The author gives examples of books that work under different reading mechanics, like the Chinese divination book, the I-Ching, or Ian Livingstone’s choose your adventure books. Although still physically incapable of directing the reader’s path through the text, these books require a non-trivial effort to be read properly[3].While traditional books’ mechanics only require eye-movement and sequential reading of words and turning of pages, these examples prescribe a set of actions that the reader must perform and a set of conditional reactions that also must be followed by the reader, as in a game of solitaire. It creates an interaction between the reader/player and the rules system of that particular text.

In these nonlinear books and tabletop games, both actions and reactions need to be performed by the users. Sports rely partially on the laws of physics which rule the movements of bodies in space and combine them with made-up rules that must be observed by players or referees. But in digital games, the very medium that supports the game can update the system state. The players do not need to know all the rules, neither do they have access to all its content and possible states. Instead, they are free to experiment within the designed possibilities and can learn the game rules from the designed consequences they face. In Janet Murray’s words this kind of participant is called an Interactor[4]. She perceives that it is a different kind of audience because participant involvement is central to the development of the piece. Also, she notes that authorship of interactive texts requires different knowledge and planning than linear narratives. The procedural authorship, as she calls it, comprehends the definition of a rule-based world that must enable and respond to the interactor’s performance. Acknowledging this difference from traditional participation and writing raises questions of how this affects the semiotic processes in this medium. In other words, what is the role of interaction in the meaning of games?

Pioneers of Play studies, Johan Huizinga and Eugene Fink, addressed meaning in games and play, noting that during these events objects, places, people, and actions are resignified. For a child, a wood plank may represent a doll, while a doll, in turn, may be become a person[5]. When puppies play, biting can be part of the playful enactment of a fight. But sometimes it can also suspend such a game by breaking its implicit rules[6]. In play and games, a symbolic dimension overlaps reality, bringing new and temporary meanings to normal signs. For Huizinga and Fink, games and play are forms of representing and understanding the world through the symbolic dimension. Later, when Gonzalo Frasca proposed ludology as a field of study, he claimed that due to their interactivity, games not only represent, but rather simulate the behaviours of objects and systems through mechanical rules[7].

Closed forms of representation such as paintings or movies can only describe the properties of something in a given time, but interactive and open-ended forms of representation like games and simulators model such properties and behaviours, making it possible for the user to experience a range of situations. As with any kind of representation, simulation is always partial and biased. Frasca affirms that a “simulation is the act of modelling a system A by a less complex system B, which retains some of A’s original behaviour”[8]. It is impossible for a simulation to retain all aspects of a given system because if it did, it would be equal to the original system and would therefore no longer be just a simulation. Thus, the modelling of a system is bound by the objectives of the simulation, by its feasibility and by the knowledge its authors have about the original system itself[9]. Like choosing the best angle for a photograph, selecting which properties and behaviours from the source system will be retained is a form of conveying meaning in a simulation.

It must be acknowledged that to understand meaning in games, one needs to understand them as multimedia. Multimedia conveys meaning through a combination of signs from various media or languages. The signs of each language must be appreciated together to be fully understood. In games, as in an opera, verbal language, body language, sonic language and visual language must all join forces to achieve maximum expressiveness. But, as stated, games bring yet another language into play: the language of interaction. Many game researchers are therefore trying to understand the expressive potential of this particular language and how it works.

Ian Bogost discusses how game designers transmit ideologies through the rules of their games[10]. He develops the concept of procedural literacy and rhetoric, which in his words is “the art of persuasion through rule-based representations and interactions”[11]. Building on Bogost’s work, Joris Dormans applies the Peircean triad “sign-object-interpreter” to simulations. He shows that the way game designers define the rules through which they represent objects or events in their games can have iconic, indexical, or symbolic characteristics[12]. James Paul Gee argues that the meaning of signs in games is related to their function and purpose. He states that game designers construct grammars made of rules in an effort to conduct player interpretation of objects and actions. He also notes that the semantics of games will always be a negotiation between the functions that players attribute to objects, the goals they accept for themselves, and those defined by the author in the game rules[13]. Coming from Greimasian semiology, Óliver Pérez Latorre proposes an analysis method by which game rules are divided into three major categories of representation:

(1) the representation of the protagonist or player

(2) the representation of the world or environment

(3) the representation of activities.

With this division, Latorre shows how games can be organized as a rule-based discourse. The next section of this paper will try to build upon these ideas by sketching what could be the basic grammar and semantics of the language of interaction.

 

Thinking interaction as a language

 

First it must be declared that the purpose of this perspective is to suggest where and how meaning-making and poetics can occur in interactive pieces. The scheme presented next will borrow terms from logical languages and linguistics, but with some license to adaptation. To demonstrate how Interaction can be seen as a meaningful language, it will be compared to Verbal/Spoken language and Visual language. I will begin by looking for the very nature of the language, and then develop it into more structured elements. Each element will be explained and exemplified when possible. The table below starts this exercise by searching for the building blocks and main structure of these languages.

 

Table 1. Comparison between basic elements of the languages

Verbal/Spoken Visual Interaction
Physical Source Sound Light Time / Change
Fundamental Contrast Phonemes Values and Colours Causes and Effects
Meaningful Unit Words Shapes Rules and Actions
Syntactic Categories Nouns, Verbs, Adjectives, Prepositions, etc. Lines, Plain Shapes, Volumetric Shapes, etc. Inputs, Outputs, Restrictions and Conditions.
Composition structure Linear Spatial Branched, multilinear

Source: made by the author

 

The atomic element of a spoken language would be the units of sound—as studied by phonetics and phonology—that by contrast are understood as phonemes that can be combined into words. In a visual language, the source would be just light, which by contrast becomes values of light and dark and hues of colours that are responsible for the perception of shapes and volume. Both are physical signals that affect the receiver, who in return (de)codifies them. The relative signal for Interaction language should be time as it promotes the ability to perceive change. By contrasting moments in time, we perceive changes in configurations. This enables us to understand that something happened and thus to infer cause and effect relationships. By acting in a given system, these causal relationships then inform us about general rules or laws that govern reactions in that system. As with words and shapes, so rules and actions should fall into some main categories that distinguish them by their syntactic functions or characteristics. Inputs are actions that the interactor performs or triggers. Outputs are the results of said actions. They are reactions from elements other than the interactor. Restrictions are rules that prevent actions. Conditions are contextual rules that, when met, enable, modify, or trigger other actions. An interaction piece is then constructed by creating conditional cases for each input and output that unfold into many possible scenarios. This minimal set of elements should be observable in many systems in which humans interact with designed Technologies and Mechanics.

It is worth pointing out that inputs, outputs, restrictions, and conditions can be physical rules or arbitrary rules. Taking as an example a child learning to play basketball, any move she makes would be a physical input in the game system. The movements of the ball would be then physical reactions or physical outputs. Physical restrictions would be natural forces and bodily limitations that prevent her from doing some actions. Weather is a physical condition that can modify the parameters of the game, making it easier or harder for her to play. Arbitrary inputs would be those actions in which she relies on some level of communication and agreement, like asking for time. Arbitrary outputs would be scores and penalty shots because they are events triggered by other actions. She will also learn from other players, referees or coaches that an arbitrary restriction prevents her from running while holding the ball and that there are some arbitrary conditions that change the amount of points given for a successful throw, based on the context.

She would soon appreciate the values to each rule. Dropping the ball unintentionally, for instance, can be contextually understood as a negative input, since its output would be the loss of control. Whenever she learns that by applying the right force, the ball will bounce right back to her hand, she may understand it as a positive action, because it brings different feelings and utility. According to Gee, if actions are signs, then their functions inform their meaning. The composition of a game is always open-ended or at least undetermined between the possible outcomes. The possibility space of a game like this is infinite. At each moment of play there is a current state of points, positions of players and ball, and the available actions that each player can chose to do next. Each decision branches the play to another configuration until an ending condition such as a time limit is met.

To show how interactivity can foster aesthetic expression, we can frame the design of games and other interactive pieces as a speech act using John Austin’s concepts of locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary acts from verbal/spoken language[14]. The first concept, locutionary, refers to the spoken sentence—the actual words used by the speaker. In interaction language, it would be the material objects that support the interaction, the Technology in Schell’s Tetrad. The second term, illocutionary, is the intention of the speaker—the goal behind the message. It would be the design of such interactive objects—their behaviours and functions. The last speech act, perlocutionary, refers to the reaction produced on the listener by the sentence. These acts help to show how the intention of the speaker or designer may guide the composition of their texts. Serious messages may ask for more formality to avoid misinterpretation, while flexible structures may serve aesthetic purposes. The table below tries to demonstrate simple samples of messages in each language, split according to the formalism of their structures.

 

Table 2. Simple messages in order of formality

Verbal/Spoken Visual Interaction
Less formal Proverb Doodle Kaleidoscope
More Formal Warning Scheme Hand crank

Source: made by the author.

 

Note that a hand crank on an industrial machine was probably not designed to bring emotions to those who spin it, but a hand crank on a music box certainly does. Fink stated that tools are “meaning that has been impressed” onto materials, but for him these objects do not inhabit the same symbolic dimension of toys. Tools are objects that only have the dimensions of real life[15]. Nonetheless, it is easy to imagine that one could subvert the function of a tool and start using it as a toy. In the language of interaction, as in other languages, the meaning of signs is constructed by the context and other signals. Gee argues that the meaning of signs is always situational, given on the go by the participants of the communication. Signifiers are not really attached to a specific idea. Their meaning is constructed by contextually inferring the objective of the communication. In his example, the idea of coffee in a sentence is changed by the presence of the words “mop” or “broom”. These other signs are responsible for resignifying “coffee” by making us imagine it as liquid or solid. For him, the meaning of a sign in a game “is what players can do with it, how they can use it in the game”[16].

The presence of other media in games enhances the meaning of the interaction. Actions in a game, especially in video games, are often not just pure movements but symbolic representations of other actions or events which are completed by narrative or aesthetic aspects. Using a hammer to build something is different from using it to break something[17]. When a chess observer declares that the black horse was sacrificed to save the queen, he is naming actions according to the visual symbolism of the pieces. When the cartoonish character Mario smashes a turtle with his hammer, it produces dissimilar feelings than a hammer homicide in the game Manhunt (2003, RenderWare). Dormans would say that the difference between the horse and the hammer examples is that the first is symbolic while the latter is iconic. An icon is a sign that produces the idea of its object by sharing some of its physical attributes or qualities. When developers model a system to produce human-looking objects, aggressive-looking movements, and bone-crushing sounds, they are increasing the iconic properties of the actions. On the other hand, even if the pieces of a chess set were crafted in a detailed way, the action of killing the knight does not share any similarity with the real event. It is only understood as such by cultural convention; it is a symbolic simulation that is found in many board games.

A simulator, on the other hand, is expected to be a high-fidelity rule-based representation of a system. Simulators should be based on an adequate model—an abstraction—of complex real-world situations, with the goal of providing users with a better understanding of reality[18]. But while the purpose of a simulator is to be useful and educative, the purpose of a game is to be entertaining and fun. Dormans compares this difference with the one between a technical drawing and a painting[19]. But games such as Goat Simulator (2014, Coffee Stain) play with such a distinction. Despite its title and realistic three-dimensional looks, in this game you take control of a goat that can destroy anything in its way, perform amazing jumps, and other uncanny actions. This is not a case of a bad simulation; it is a game based on ironic, silly rules. Similar to Cortazar’s Instructions on How to Climb a Staircase or Carelman’s Catalogue of Fantastic Things, this game plays with the expected structure of this form of communication. It is possible to make intentional stylistic choices for interactive pieces.

If the meaning of an action is constructed by its contextual function and by its contextual symbology, it should be possible to devise semantic categories for actions, just as homonyms, synonyms and antonyms are categories of words. Words fill these categories not according to their syntactic function, but according to what they mean in relation to other words. This is a subjective interpretation of signs that can happen in other languages as well. The dove and the white flag are different images that both mean peace in western culture. A big black dog can be seen as the visual antonym of a little white cat. Homonyms, however, are dependent on the context. While a skull in a yellow triangle may be read as a warning, a skull in a black flag specifies the idea of pirates.

Synonyms in an interactive piece would be actions or rules that produce the same functional outcome. Their function is the same, but their symbolism is different. This kind of rule is uncommon for it can be seen as unnecessary redundancy. Nevertheless, presenting these synonyms in a game can be meaningful. In Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver (1999, Crystal Dynamics), health is restored by absorbing the souls of killed enemies. It is a ranged move that attracts nearby floating souls to the protagonist’s mouth. Another way to restore health is to suck blood from the necks of human bystanders. This is a close-range move, non-lethal for humans but a less effective way of gaining health. These rules encourage players to take more risks and fight more[20] because enemy souls restore more health than human blood. But it also adds a symbolic element. Raziel, the protagonist, used to be a vampire, so this action is there more to make this connection than to be useful from a gameplay perspective.

Antonyms would be actions or rules that have opposing functions. Basic examples are, to buy and to sell in economic simulations, or to punch and to block in a fighting game. The first inflicts damage on an opponent, while the second prevents damage to the player. In other example, Undertale (2015, Toby Fox), players can choose to fight or spare their opponents, and this opposition is central to the game’s lore and innovative gameplay.

Homonyms would be cases in which one action serves two or more purposes. Due to technical limitations, early video games had to make the most out of a few buttons and commands. In Super Mario Bros (1985, Nintendo), a simple jump has combat, movement, destruction, and activation functions. Recent games have a much wider set of actions. A contemporary game like Battlefield 1 (2016, DICE), has commands for jump, crunch, dodge, aim, shoot, reload, change weapon, change secondary weapon, drive, etc. Maybe by pursuing that iconic simulation Dormans criticizes, some developers have ignored the possibilities of games with fewer but symbolic actions. As a counterexample, Journey (2012, That Game Company) allows players to only walk, jump, and sing. Singing serves to gather items nearby, to activate mechanisms, to communicate with and to energize fellow pilgrims. However, it also draws the attention of dangerous enemies. It is an action that has both the positive function of recovery and the negative rule of increased danger. Journey is poetic not only in its visual and narrative aspects, but also in its mechanics. Players can open doors by singing and avoid danger by staying quiet.

 

Table 3. Examples of possible semantic categories in each language.

Verbal/Spoken Visual Interaction
Synonyms Different words,
same semantical meaning
Different images,
same symbolic meaning
Different actions,
same practical function
Antonyms Different words,

opposite semantical meaning

Different images,

opposite symbolic meaning

Different actions,

opposite practical function

Homonyms Same word,

different semantical meaning

Same image,

different symbolic meaning

Same action,

different practical function

Source: made by the author

 

By combining function with contextual signs, actions can hold strong meanings that can be played with by the authors of interactive pieces and games. As in poetry and visual arts, beauty comes when words or shapes are used in clever ways which explore their characteristics. The expressive potential of this language is related to the creative use of these possibilities. Procedural authors must know when to simulate events as they are and when to subvert their behaviour. They have to decide which actions need more detail and when to make them abstract and symbolic. They need to know how to play with the expected functions of inputs, outputs, restrictions, and conditions. By creatively playing with these choices, some patterns of composition must emerge. Just as with the rule of the thirds for photography, or redondillas in poetry, there should be characteristic stylistic elements for interaction. These will not be covered by this paper as this theory is still in an early stage, but it presents a goal for future research.

 

Conclusion

 

In search of how meaning is constructed in games, researchers have found that interactivity is a strong element of this media. Game studies should, therefore, pay attention to this element and its communicative properties. Games cannot be taken as just another representational media because interactivity brings at least two particularities: actions do not always represent something but meaning will still emerge from interpretations of how such actions function in a cultural system. Moreover, when actions are there to represent something else, they do this by simulating that something. Especially in this last case, actions become signs that reference ideas or concepts outside the game. They mediate the dialogue between the ideas of the creators and their interpretations by the players. They can be iconic, trying to be similar to the actions and behaviours they represent, or they can be symbolic, indicating events more by consensus than by accuracy. Choices concerning how to simulate these real or imaginary systems are rhetorical since the exclusions and adaptations made by authors are biased towards their intentions and knowledge. The final rules of an interactive piece—especially ludic pieces such as games—form an ergodic cybertext or cyberdiscourse that is materialized in a language of its own. In striving to understand such a language it has been loosely compared to other well-known languages in an attempt to discover useful similarities or differences. It seems that actions and rules can be positively thought of in linguistic terms. The development of this thought may lead to advantages in the analysis of video games and interactive art, and hopefully serve to improve the design of such works. Maybe in the future a basic grammar of interaction will help procedural authors to craft even more meaningful interactive multimedia discourses.

 

 

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Latorre Óliver Pérez, „From Chess to StarCraft. A Comparative Analysis of Traditional Games and Videogames”. Comunicar, 58:19 (2012), pp.121-128

Latorre Óliver Pérez, „The Social Discourse of Video Games Analysis Model and Case Study: GTA IV”, Games and Culture 10:5 (2015)

Murray Janet, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The future of narrative in cyberspace. (New York: The Free Press) (1997)

Robinson Stewart, „A Tutorial on Conceptual Modeling for Simulation”. Proceedings of the 2015 Winter Simulation Conference, ed. L. Yilmaz, W. K. V. Chan, I. Moon, T. M. K. Roeder, C. Macal, and M. D. Rossetti. (Piscataway: IEEE Press) (2015).

Sauvé Louise, Renaud Lise, Kaufman David and Marquis Jean-Simon, „Distinguishing between games and simulations: a systematic review”. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 10:3 (2007)

Schell Jesse, The Art of Game Design: a book of lenses, (Burlington: Morgan Kaufmann) (2008)

 

 

 

[1] Merriam-Webster’s dictionary includes other common definitions and uses of the word action, but the interest here lies on the approximation with processes and alteration.

[2] Jesse Schell, The Art of Game Design: a book of lenses, (Burlington: Morgan Kaufmann) (2008), p.41.

[3] Espen Aarseth, Cybertext: perspectives on ergodic literature, (Baltimore/London: The John Hopkins University Press) (1997), p.9.

[4] For more on this see Janet Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The future of narrative in cyberspace. (New York: The Free Press) (1997), p.149.

[5] Eugen Fink, Play as Symbol of the World: and other writings. Ian Alexander Moore and Christopher Turner (trad.). (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (2016), p.36.

[6] Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: a study of the play-element in culture. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul) (1949), p.1.

[7] See Gonzalo Frasca, „Ludology Meets Narratology: Similitude and differences between (video)games and narrative”, Ludology.org (1999) http://ludology.org/articles/ludology.htm, date accessed 12 June 2017.

[8] Gonzalo Frasca, „SIMULATION 101: Simulation versus Representation” Ludology.org (2001), http://www.ludology.org/articles/sim1/simulation101.html date accessed 12 June 2017.

[9] Stewart Robinson has a series of papers on modeling systems for simulations. See for example Stewart Robinson, „A Tutorial on Conceptual Modeling for Simulation”. in Proceedings of the 2015 Winter Simulation Conference, ed. L. Yilmaz, W. K. V. Chan, I. Moon, T. M. K. Roeder, C. Macal, and M. D. Rossetti. (Piscataway: IEEE Press, 2015), pp. 1820-1834.

[10] Ian Bogost, „The Rhetoric of Video Games”. in The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning, ed. Katie Salen. (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2008), pp. 117–140.

[11] Ian Bogost, Persuasive Games: the expressive power of videogames. (London: The MIT Press) (2007), p. IX.

[12] Joris Dormans, „Beyond Iconic Simulation”, Simulation & Gaming, 42:5 (2011), pp. 610-631.

[13] James Paul Gee, „Proactive design theories of sign use: Reflections on Gunther Kress”, in Multimodality and Social Semiosis: Communication, Meaning-Making, and Learning in the Work of Gunther Kress, ed Margit Böck and Norbert Pachler. (New York: Routledge) (2013).

[14] John L. Austin, How to do Things with Words. (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (1980).

[15] Eugen Fink, pp.35.

[16] James Paul Gee, pp.45-46.

[17] Óliver Pérez Latorre, „From Chess to StarCraft. A Comparative Analysis of Traditional Games and Videogames”. Comunicar, 58:19 (2012), pp.121-128.

[18] For more on the differences between games and simulations, see Margareth Gredler, „Games and Simulations and their Relationship to Learning”, in Handbook of research for educational communications and technology, ed. David H. Jonassen and Marcy P. Driscoll (New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2014) pp. 571–581, and Louise Sauvé et. al., „Distinguishing between games and simulations: a systematic review”. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 10:3 (2007), pp.244-256.

[19] Joris Dormans, p.612.

[20] Another example of rule-inducted behaviour can be seen in Game Maker’s Toolkit: How Games do Health [YouTube Video] Mark Brown, 1 August 2016, and in Óliver Pérez Latorre, „The Social Discourse of Video Games Analysis Model and Case Study: GTA IV”, Games and Culture 10:5 (2015), pp. 415-437.

Feminist Worldbuilding: Intersectional Methodologies in Feminist SF Criticism and Feminist Game Studies

Bianca Batti

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 30-46.

 

Bianca Batti

Purdue University

 

 

Feminist Worldbuilding: Intersectional Methodologies in Feminist SF Criticism and Feminist Game Studies

 

Abstract

The emerging field of feminist game studies is one that requires more extensive discussion regarding its methodological approaches in order to consider the methods that can be used to leverage the field’s position in game studies, the gaming industry, and the gaming community. As such, this paper will consider the ways feminist game studies can implement intersectional feminist methodologies and methodological pluralism in order to disrupt hegemonic structures in the gaming community. To do so, this paper will interrogate the conversation between feminist science fiction criticism and feminist game studies because such an interrogation will allow for a fuller understanding of the methodological strategies implemented in feminist SF criticism and the ways these strategies can be extended to the field of feminist game studies. This paper will explore the methodological worldbuilding of feminist SF criticism and will argue that this worldbuilding can be used by feminist game studies to disrupt the epistemological borders drawn around the gaming community. Through such disruptive intersectional methods, feminist game studies works to unsettle hierarchical and hegemonic structures of power in the gaming community and imagine alternate intersectional models that allow for worlds and futurities based on inclusion, fluidity, movement, and change.

Key Words: worldbuilding, intersectionality, feminist science fiction, feminist SF criticism, feminist game studies

 

Introduction: Imagining Feminist Alternatives through Intersectional Methods

 

While the field of game studies has worked to establish itself as an independent field, one autonomously bounded off from other fields of study[1] [2], the conversation occurring between game studies and other fields (such as the field of literary studies) requires additional consideration, especially regarding the implications such blurred, interdisciplinary conversations have for methodological approaches to the analysis of games. The field of feminist game studies, specifically, encourages intersectional methodologies in the study of games and looks toward feminist studies at large[3] in order to consider how and why such approaches might be utilized in feminist game studies scholarship[4] [5].

Nina Lykke argues that feminist studies requires “theoretical diversity and methodological pluralism” and encourages readers to think of feminist studies as “a field of knowledge production characterized by diversity, fluctuation, fluidity and change”.[6] This paper will work to enact such pluralistic knowledge production through the interrogation of intersectional feminist praxis in game studies and literary spaces in order to explore the intersections of criticism, production, and community. I will specifically interrogate the interdisciplinary conversation between feminist game studies criticism and feminist SF criticism in order to consider the ways both fields imagine alternatives to patriarchal structures. I will also examine the ways both fields’ methodologies work to legitimize their epistemological claims in academic spaces that view such criticism as peripheral. In doing so, I will assess the implications this conversation has for the implementation of intersectional feminist methodologies across academic spaces; as such, my goal is to assess the ways in which intersectional feminist methodologies can help to dismantle boundaries, claim space[7], and make room for criticism and production that centralizes the importance of inclusivity and intersectional positionalities and methodologies. Ultimately, I argue that these methodological efforts to imagine alternative configurations is a form of feminist worldbuilding because these efforts allow feminist work to disrupt and dismantle patriarchal structures through the (re)imagining of feminist alternatives—that is, through the building of feminist worlds. As such, I contend that feminist game studies can look to feminist SF criticism’s use of intersectional feminist worldbuilding in order to consider the ways in which feminist game studies can also implement such worldbuilding as a methodological tool.

 

Fluid Frameworks, Multiple Lenses: Defining Intersectional Feminist Methodologies

 

This analysis of intersectional methodologies and feminist worldbuilding is motivated by the manner in which feminist research works to establish interpretive frameworks. Nina Lykke argues that these interpretive frameworks result in a multiplicity of feminist methods, and she contends that the discussion of feminist methodologies is needed because “discussions of methodologies and methods have not occupied the same spectacular space in the limelight of feminist theorizing as have debates on epistemologies”.[8] And while conversations regarding epistemologies, methodologies, and methods often intersect, Lykke explains that it is important to note the differences between these terms:

A common distinction between epistemology and methodology is that the former deals with criteria for what constitutes scientific and scholarly knowledge, while the latter focuses on rules, principles and procedures for the production of knowledge. Distinct from methodology, methods relates to the concrete approaches chosen to carry out a particular piece of research. Since the process and the product of research—and issues concerning choice of approaches, methodological underpinnings of this choice and criteria for how a desirable outcome of the research can be reached—are so closely related, these issues are often discussed together.[9]

Thus, while these issues are often discussed together, methods and methodologies, as Lykke says, are often not the focal points of these conversations; and so, they require additional feminist theorizing so that we can better interrogate the approaches and procedures we can engage in for the production of knowledge. Lykke also argues that feminist epistemologies, methodologies, and methods all require pluralism—because “it is more or less self-evident that this entails a great deal of diversity when methods are to be chosen”[10] in any feminist work. As such, feminist methods and methodologies—feminist approaches and procedures—rely on and result in pluralistic approaches to knowledge production, and intersectional feminist methodologies, specifically, result in such epistemological pluralism.

It is important to stress, here, that intersectional feminist theorizing and praxis arise from the work of women of colour, and Kimberle Crenshaw first introduced the term intersectionality in 1989. Crenshaw argues that the “intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism”[11], and thus feminist and antiracist work needs to interrogate racism, sexism, and patriarchy because the “praxis of both should be centred on the life chances and life situations of people who should be cared about without regard to the source of their difficulties”.[12] Crenshaw also argues that praxis that centres on the life situations of people works off the “view that the social power in delineating difference need not be the power of domination; it can instead be the source of social empowerment and reconstruction”.[13] Thus, intersectional feminism “highlights the need to account for multiple grounds of identity when considering how the social world is constructed”[14], and intersectional feminist theorizing “argues that racial and sexual subordination are mutually reinforcing…and that a political response to each form of subordination must at the same time be a political response to both”.[15] And, as Crenshaw contends, “Through an awareness of intersectionality, we can better acknowledge and ground the differences among us and negotiate the means by which these differences will find expression in constructing group politics.”[16]

Methodologies that emerge from this intersectional theorizing, as Lykke contends, require feminist innovation that “emerges out of untraditional, non-authoritarian…approaches to existing theories, thinking technologies and tools”.[17] Thus, intersectional feminist methodologies “take an anti-canonical stance” and emphasize methodological diversity and pluralism in order to “break up stereotypes and ideas about sameness”.[18] Something that can break up these homogenizing ideas is the method of writing “from a non-innocent somewhere” during which “the author has an obligation to make herself accountable for her location in it”.[19] This methodological approach is inspired by Donna Haraway’s epistemology of situated knowledges and partial perspectives, in which Haraway argues for a “doctrine of embodied objectivity that accommodates paradoxical and critical feminist science projects”.[20] These situated knowledges, Haraway contends, allow “us to become answerable for what we learn how to see”.[21] In short, intersectional feminist methodologies require this understanding of situated knowledge because methodological pluralism implements “politics and epistemologies of location, positioning, and situating, where partiality and not universality is the condition of being heard to make rational knowledge claims. These are claims on people’s lives”.[22] Intersectional methodologies, then, incorporate and invoke “the view from a body, always a complex, contradictory, structuring, and structured body, versus the view from above, from nowhere, from simplicity”.[23]

In short, my goal in unpacking intersectional methodologies by tracing the methodological conversation between feminist SF criticism and feminist game studies—goals that are themselves rooted in intersectional feminist praxis—is to guide readers through the implementation of a multiplicity of methods, processes, and perspectives and through the interrogation of the ways intersectionality’s methodological pluralism can allow the emerging field of feminist game studies to construct itself as a space based on inclusivity, solidarity, and the building of coalitions that acknowledge and respect different positionalities. This construction of inclusive space means that intersectional feminist methodologies are a mode of worldbuilding—a way to build feminist coalitions that imagine alternative modes of existence—because the pluralism and inclusivity of intersectional feminist methodologies allows feminist writers to build anti-canonical, anti-racist, patriarchy-disrupting worlds that instead construct alternative spaces that centre intersectional feminist coalitions and futurities.

 

Patterning, Anchoring, Launching: Building Worlds in Feminist SF Criticism

 

When interrogating intersectional feminist methodologies and unpacking their potential for feminist worldbuilding, it seems only fitting to discuss research that examines feminist science fiction as an example of such work. As Haraway notes, the genre of science fiction has been “such a rich writing practice in recent feminist theory. I like to see feminist theory as a reinvented coyote discourse obligated to its sources in many heterogeneous accounts of the world”.[24] For Haraway, then, feminist SF is a particular exemplar of this “reinvented coyote discourse” because of its ability to implement “heterogeneous accounts of the world” and to use these accounts as a form of feminist worldbuilding. Alexis Lothian, in working to define and frame feminist science fiction’s futurism—its reinvented coyote discourse—argues that the genre “is a world of imagination, but it is also just around the corner, always and almost already here”.[25] Debra Benita Shaw contends that feminist science fiction has historically worked to challenge and disrupt epistemological claims in both scientific and literary knowledge production because such fiction has “a socially or politically critical purpose”[26], a purpose that Marleen Barr says allows feminist SF to present “blueprints for social structures that allow women’s words to counter patriarchal myths”.[27]

Patricia Melzer similarly discusses the “socially and politically critical purpose” of feminist science fiction, and she discusses the feminist value of this “particular narrative mode”.[28] Melzer explains, “Two textual aspects that define science fiction are the structures and/or narrative devices that constitute its mode, on one hand, and themes and approaches on the other.”[29] Some of the narrative devices that Melzer identifies are “the element of estrangement, or the confrontation of normative systems/perspectives, and the implication of new sets of norms that result in the factual reporting of fiction”.[30] Melzer explains that these narrative elements, then, “shape the reading process”[31] and “create ‘blueprints’ of social theories. Only within genres of the fantastic is it possible to imagine completely new social orders and ways of being that differ radically from human existence as we know it”.[32]

Melzer explains that the reason science fiction is a genre ripe for the feminist theorizing and imagining of “social and political change” is because of the “combination of strangeness and familiarity that make up the particularities of the genre. This tension between the ‘known’ and the ‘unknown’ is at the heart of science fiction. It creates a reading process based on estrangement, which places familiar issues into strange territory…This estrangement also creates spaces of abstraction for theorizing”.[33] Yet, this space for theorizing does not solely rely on estrangement, but, rather, it also requires identification because, in science fiction, “we grow to know the protagonists and their world intimately…As in other types of fiction, the ‘realness’ of science fiction narratives enables individuals (and groups) to relate to and recognize the debates as relevant to their own lives”.[34]

Thus, the science fictional strategies of estrangement and identification are the methods that allow the genre of feminist science fiction, in particular, to be utilized as a crucial tool for examining issues of gendered and race-based power and oppression, and Melzer argues that an understanding of feminist SF’s thematic concerns, structural and methodological strategies, and goals of resistance reveals that “[d]iscussing science fiction’s relationship to feminist thought recognizes popular culture’s role in creating meaning through representation, and it acknowledges the spaces of agency located within the process of consuming and producing cultural texts”.[35] Thus, Melzer contends that reading and researching feminist SF in this way and interrogating its efforts to enact social and political change “does not diminish the pleasure aspect of consuming (and producing) cultural texts; instead, it understands imagination, narrative, and desire as part of feminist theorizing”.[36]

Raffaella Baccolini argues that, as far as the popular-cultural feminist theorizing in “science fiction is concerned, the intersection of gender and genre has generated new, subversive literary forms”.[37] And one of the subversive contributions of feminist SF writers has been the questioning and disruption of “masculinist discourses of traditional science fiction…Themes such as the representation of women and their bodies, reproduction and sexuality, and language and its relation to identity, have all been tackled, explored, and reappropriated by these writers”.[38] Such thematic disruption and resistance is also mirrored by feminist SF’s disruption of genre conventions:

The attack, in recent years, against universalist assumptions, fixity, and singularity, and pure, neutral, and objective knowledge in favor of the recognition of differences, multiplicity, and complexity, partial and situated knowledges, as well as hybridity and fluidity has contributed, among other things, to the deconstruction of genre purity…It is the very notion of an impure science fiction genre, with permeable borders that allow contamination from other genres, that represents resistance to hegemonic ideology and renovates the resisting nature of science fiction and makes the new science fiction genre also multi-oppositional.[39]

In short, these are some of the ways that feminist SF builds worlds—that is, this worldbuilding works to construct a “new science fiction genre” that is fluid, “impure”, permeable, and hybrid, and this impure genre builds these new worlds in order to oppose patriarchal, hegemonic power structures within science fiction.

Melzer describes this feminist worldbuilding in science fiction as the creation of “systems of representation that create the freedom to voice assumptions otherwise restricted by a realist narrative frame, and the geographic displacement of identity formations”.[40] To be sure, feminist science fiction often makes use of such systems of representation—such worlds—in order to imagine possibilities for transformation. Feminist science fiction specifically conceives of such transformations through a lens that seeks to imagine a feminist future while, at the same time, recognizing the obstacles and challenges in the path toward such a future. In other words, many works of feminist science fiction engage in worldbuilding in order to conceive of different ways of experiencing gender; such worldbuilding critiques intersections of race and gender and the manner in which the oppression that occurs at such intersections might be transgressed and dismantled.

Just as feminist SF seeks to dismantle hegemonic knowledge production in science fiction, so too does feminist SF criticism seek to disrupt epistemic hierarchies, especially since the field functions in anti-canonical ways. Such efforts are emblematic of the fact that one of the things that feminist literary scholarship, more broadly, consistently interrogates is the idea of the literary canon—that is, what comes to count as legitimized knowledge in literary studies and who comes to count as legitimate researchers of such knowledge. The feminist interrogation of canon formation typically works to problematize the manner in which canonical hierarchies often come to be rendered on lines based on issues like race, gender, sexuality, and ability. But more than that, feminist literary scholarship works to disrupt the epistemological claims and implications of the canon—it works to destabilize the normative privileging of who gets to be a knower and what gets to be known in the academic field of literary studies. The field of feminist science fiction criticism exemplifies such goals, because, as Marleen Barr notes, it is a field that, when it first emerged, had to reconcile with the need to legitimize its epistemological claims in a space in which such claims were often deemed illegitimate as a result of it not only exploring women’s writing but also doing so within the popular-cultural genre of science fiction; indeed, Barr, in seeking to explain why she “chose to be a feminist critic who focuses on feminist science fiction” asks, “Why would I, a person who cares about professional success, embrace a twice marginalized field, a double whammy in relation to career advancement?”[41]

It would seem that those who, like Barr, embark on feminist SF scholarship do so not only to unsettle the marginalization of the field but also because this “twice marginalized field” is a space that allows for the imagining of other potentialities and futurities. Melzer argues that science fiction is a valuable genre for feminist interrogation because, even though it “has the reputation of being a male-dominated genre, it has always included women writers, and as a narrative style it is open to feminist appropriation”.[42] But more than this, feminist science fiction and feminist criticism and “readings of science fiction have challenged existing gender relations and have explored theoretical and political debates of the time”.[43] Melzer argues that such challenges work to reveal that “[w]omen’s increased involvement in science fiction has proven to be crucial both for the development of the subgenre of feminist science fiction and for feminist theorizing outside the science fiction community”.[44] Thus, Melzer believes that the interrogation of “science fiction’s relationship to feminist thought recognizes popular culture’s role in creating meaning through representation” and “does not diminish the pleasure aspect of consuming (and producing) cultural texts; instead, it understands imagination, narrative, and desire as part of feminist theorizing”.[45] Baccolini, too, discusses the role of popular culture and explains, “Traditionally, science fiction belongs to the category of popular literature, or paraliterature. Its position, in regard to so-called high literature, is one of marginality (at best) or inferiority (at worst). Several critics, however, rescue paraliterature from its associations with inferiority and have pointed to its subversive potential”.[46] The subversive potential of feminist SF and of the “twice-marginalized field” of feminist SF criticism is what makes the world of feminist SF ripe for feminist theorizing.

Joan Haran and Katie King also discuss the feminist theorizing that occurs in science fictional spaces, and they believe that the feminisms that occur during our science fictional times allow for collaborative, collective feminist projects that work toward interventions for the present in order to improve “the condition of our continuing”; that is, science fiction feminism is one that brings us together because “SF is multiply…[it is] variously contested and in coalition”.[47] As Haran and King contend, this multiplicitous SF means feminist science fiction allows us to consider such things in more productive ways than feminist theory alone can due to the many ways SF asks us to confront ourselves by generating “simultaneous selves, rework processes for play and for practicing hope, and arouse and resituate what counts as ‘us’ and ‘them.’”[48] This generating of multiple selves—and this reworking of processes and hopeful practices—is what constitutes the methodological worldbuilding of feminist SF criticism.

This worldbuilding is something that informs Donna Haraway’s scholarly practices, for it mirrors the ways she thinks of her own scholarship; indeed, Haraway argues, “My multispecies story telling is inflected through SF in all the fibres of the string figures that I try to pattern and to relay.”[49] Thus, for Haraway, scholarship mirrors and is indebted to the structure and patterns—the fibres and string figures—of the forms under study. And for Haraway, since SF is a polyglot, polymorphic form, so too is her writing and research of it. Since SF is about worlding, about building worlds, so too is her feminist scholarship—because the question of how one might be “response-able is the consequential question in SF worlding. String figure games are practices of scholarship, relaying, thinking with, becoming with in material-semiotic makings. Like SF, cat’s cradle is a game of relaying patterns…Scholarship is like that too; it is passing on in twists and skeins that require passion and action, holding still and moving, anchoring and launching.”[50] Haraway’s conception of such patternings in scholarship, influenced by her embeddedness and interest in science fiction and feminist thought, reveals the ways feminist worldbuilding does not solely occur in fictional settings but, rather, can be implemented within feminist scholarship as well. In other words, feminist scholarship also manifests such methodological patternings, for academic worldbuilding and feminist methodologies make use of twists and skeins, knots, and webs, worlding and transmediality, which requires a similarly patterned methodological approach.

 

Seeking Material Change: Building Worlds and Disrupting Rule Structures in Feminist Game Studies

 

The disruptive methodologies conceptualized by feminist SF criticism have implications for the position of feminist game studies criticism, too. Joan Haran and Katie King discuss the ways feminist science fiction intersects with the world of video games, for they interrogate the idea of the screen as the space of confrontation in transmedia storytelling and explain that gaming “has become an icon, as well as a material practice and apparatus of learning and of risky uncertainties, with economic, technological, and metric significance for seeking sustainabilities of many sorts today”.[51] As such, games—as material practices, as apparatuses of risk, as metrics for sustainabilities—converse with science fiction because “[g]ames and media play upon our neurological and cognitive ‘screens’ with commercial and hobby practices that SF cares about and with”.[52] These cognitive screens, these practices that occur within both games and SF, are perhaps the point of linkage at which the two intersect—an important intersection for feminist game studies to explore—for these screens are the location through which we engage with video games and science fiction and the screens at which we must orient our feminist practices in order to interrogate and confront the worlds that these screens convey. Thus, I argue that the disruptive methodological worldbuilding of feminist SF criticism can similarly be utilized by feminist game studies in order to make use of intersectional methodologies to dismantle hegemonic thought in the field of game studies.

Something that opens up and complicates the ways feminist game studies scholars might critique video games is by understanding games as Alexander Galloway does—that is, to conceive of video games as actions, and he also argues that we are now located within “an interesting upheaval in the area of mass culture” that is the result of the recent emergence of a new medium “whose foundation is not in looking and reading but in the instigation of material change through action”.[53] Thus, if video games are actions, then feminist critiques of games are also actions. And if, as Galloway contends, such action is oriented toward “material change”, then such an orientation is also the goal of feminist game studies—because this action, this orientation, is what encompasses the worldbuilding that facilitates the goals and methodological frameworks for feminist game studies, which seeks to enact change in the gaming community through active methodological disruption. Feminist game studies is thus methodologically disruptive in the ways it troubles boundaries and manipulates the rule structures of the dominant social order.

The concept of play, too, has methodological significance for feminist game studies. In Play Matters, Miguel Sicart argues, “Through play we experience the world, we construct it and we destroy it, and we explore who we are and what we can say.”[54] Significantly, Sicart notes that while all “contexts of play have rules of some type”[55], play can actually be a method for manipulating and challenging these rule systems: “A key ingredient of playing is thinking, manipulating, changing, and adapting rules. Rules, servant to the context, evolve while we play to address the necessities of particular play situations”.[56] Thus, play’s ability to manipulate rules means that play can “disruptively reveal our conventions, assumptions, biases, and dislikes. In disrupting the normal state of affairs by being playful, we can go beyond fun when we appropriate a context with the intention of playing with and within it. And in that move, we reveal the inner workings of the context that we inhabit”.[57] Thus, the intersectional methodologies of feminist game studies make use of this concept of play in that feminist game studies, as a discipline, engages in play’s efforts to unsettle the rule structures and normative systems in which we are situated. Feminist game studies—playfully, disruptively—reveals the inner workings of gaming culture and gaming narratives, thereby challenging the hegemonic conventions and patriarchal biases underpinning gaming spaces. In doing so, the disruptive play of feminist game studies establishes (to return to Sicart’s phrasing) a space for freedom.[58]

But what does feminist game studies look like? And what is at stake in its space for freedom? Mia Consalvo argues that such a lens “can help to give us a firm foundation on which to stand in order to shed light on the persistence of particular issues, point to historical solutions for overcoming similar difficulties, and thereby push for a more welcoming kind of game culture for everyone”.[59] Adrienne Shaw argues that a lens like feminist game studies offers “an approach to video games that can focus more attention on the lived experiences of those who engage with these games outside the dominant audience construction…and make an argument for representation that takes seriously those perspectives”.[60] This is where the disruptive lens of feminist game studies matters, for it allows us to explore how other lives (the lives of those outside the dominant audience construction) are lived in the gaming community and how other futures can be made possible in game studies.

We can look to Alex Layne and Samantha Blackmon’s “Self-Saving Princess: Feminism and Post-Play Narrative Modding” as an example of how feminist game studies’ disruptive methods can be put into practice, in their call for the emerging creative strategies “used by critics, academics, players, and others to critique, analyse, and change the video game community”.[61] Layne and Blackmon refer to these creative methods as post-play narrative modding, which reveals “some of the productive ways that feminists and those concerned about women in the gaming community can modify gaming narrative, protagonists, and the community in a positive way”.[62] Thus, post-play narrative modding is “a type of creative resistance” that works “by both disrupting what exists and insisting upon choice that acknowledges a diversity of viewpoints”.[63] Thus, Layne and Blackmon provide an example of the ways feminist game studies can enact creative resistance. They provide us with a framework for a methodology of disruption.

This is the kind of work undertaken by feminist game studies, and intersectional feminist thought, then, helps construct the methodologies used in the field of feminist game studies. Indeed, Nina Huntemann says that feminist game studies specifically works to “confront toxic gamer culture” by “documenting, archiving, analysing, and responding to sexism, racism, ageism, and homophobia in games and game spaces”.[64] But she also addresses the challenges and resistance that scholars in feminist game studies face when engaging in this kind of disruptive work:

In a space where sexism and homophobia are performed and reproduced as if it is part of the digital code, feminist attention to video games and game culture is threatening. Those who wield gender, race, class, sexuality, ability and other forms of social power in order to intimidate, silence, and oppress others will fiercely reject a feminist lens focused on the cultural products that serve as platforms for that oppression. The mere suggestion that these cultural products are not the domains of white, heterosexual men unleashes a torrent of vicious border policing.[65]

Jennifer Malkowski and Treaandrea M. Russworm importantly point out that this border-policing occurs not only in the larger culture of video games but in the ways games are studied as well. Indeed, the discipline of game studies itself privileges certain forms of knowledge production in the field, and while the “discipline itself has grown rapidly…for most of game studies’ history, conversations about identity have only ever happened on the margins”.[66] Thus, game studies has systemically marginalized analyses that consider identity, representation, and embodiment—in other words, the kind of analyses in which feminist game studies scholars, for example, often engage—because “representational analysis becomes the less rigorous, less medium-specific way to approach video games, compared to a focus on ‘hard-core’ elements”[67] like rule systems, coding, game mechanics, and software. But the disciplinary and epistemological privileging that occurs in game studies, Malkowski and Russworm argue, “misunderstand both the nature and importance of representation in the medium. It is both possible and essential to study representation productively in video games, even as this pursuit might initially seem poorly aligned with the ontology of video games (built as they are on processes and actions) or with disciplinary trends toward areas like code and platform studies”.[68]

Thus, Malkowski and Russworm argue that the importance of this mode of analysis is due to the need to counter the ways representational analysis has been deemed peripheral in game studies “with the implicit justification that the discipline should focus instead on the richer objects of code and of game platforms as complex systems—not audio-visual surfaces. Yet… representation and identity are similarly complex systems that are always relevant to the ways in which games, codes, platforms—indeed, all technologies—are constructed”.[69] In short, Malkowski and Russworm display the need for intersectional feminist methodologies in the study of games because such methods allow feminist game studies scholars to disrupt the epistemological privileging and hegemonic knowledge production that occur in game studies; Malkowski and Russworm display the need, then, for feminist game studies scholarship that centralizes representational analysis because “[r]epresentation in game studies must be viewed as a system that functions as akin to—rather than as a distraction from—the discipline’s more celebrated, hard-core objects of study”.[70]

This, then, is where feminist game studies becomes helpful as a field that explores the complexity of intersecting systems. Feminist game studies can allow us to problematize video game culture, challenge its definitions of who gets to be a gamer and what gets to be a game, and disrupt game studies’ definitions of who gets to be a scholar and what gets to be studied. These methods and goals, too, parallel those implemented in feminist SF criticism—a field that has been similarly marginalized and delegitimized in literary spaces—for, like feminist SF criticism, feminist game studies makes use of active, playful, heterogeneous feminist worldbuilding to claim space in game studies. And if we think of feminist game studies as a field that works to dismantle and disrupt the power structures that exist within video game culture, game studies, and the gaming community, disrupting hegemonically constructed gaming epistemologies and positionalities seem like good places to start, which is something that Adrienne Shaw also argues in her assertion “that critical perspectives, such as feminist and queer theory, offer an approach to video games that can focus more attention on the lived experiences of those who engage with these games outside the dominant audience construction—indeed outside of identifying as gamers—and make an argument for representation that takes seriously those perspectives”.[71] Kishonna Gray, like Shaw, calls for and works to enact analysis that takes seriously those perspectives, and she explains that by “examining video game content through the eyes of the marginalized, by highlighting the virtual gaming experiences of minorities, and by interrogating possible solutions to intersecting oppressions”, the analysis of representation, race, gender, and intersecting oppressions in gaming spaces is “a much needed addition to the theoretical examination of video games”.[72] To be sure, such analysis is much needed in the field of game studies, and while many challenges to this kind of work still exist, feminist and critical race scholars like Shaw, Gray, and others are already providing inroads into centralizing such methodologies in game studies.

 

Conclusion

 

These, then, are the intersectional and interdisciplinary methodologies needed in feminist game studies—methods that are the extension of those already implemented in feminist SF criticism. Such methods will allow feminist game studies to enact disruption by problematizing the controlling images[73] within video game narratives and imagining new worlds and alternate possibilities for representation. Feminist game studies’ methods also work to establish intersectional coalitions based on feminist solidarity in order to dismantle and disrupt the epistemological borders drawn around who gets to be a knower and what gets to be known in the gaming community. Through such disruptive intersectional methods, feminist game studies work to unsettle hierarchical, sexist, racist, homophobic, and colonialist structures of power in the gaming community and imagine models that allow for worlds and futurities based on inclusion, fluidity, movement, and change. Such worldbuilding allows feminist game studies to create a space within the world of video games, the gaming industry, and the field of game studies. That is, feminist game studies is a space that imagines new worlds, new possibilities for representation, and new models of existence and futurity in the gaming community.

Thus, feminist research on games works to claim space not only in game studies, but also in video game culture and the gaming industry at large. It does so by being enacted, methodologically, in a multiplicity of ways—both intersectionally and interdisciplinarily—in order to seek change and in order to create “a safe environment for women”, for people of colour, for LGBTQI members of “the larger video gaming community”.[74] In short, feminist game studies, like feminist SF criticism, makes use of feminist worldbuilding as an intersectional methodology in order to transgress and dismantle the network of oppression that marginalized groups systemically face in gaming spaces, communities, and research. And because feminist game studies is an emerging field, its intersectional methods and praxis will continue to shift and grow—and will continue to learn from and incorporate approaches from other feminist spaces in order to do so—so that the field can better serve the marginalized communities feminist game studies seeks to centre.

 

References

 

Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books) (1987).

Raffaella Baccolini, “Gender and Genre in the Feminist Critical Dystopias of Katharine

Burdekin, Margaret Atwood, and Octavia Butler”, in Future Females, the Next Generation: New Voices and Velocities in Feminist Science Fiction Criticism, ed. Marleen S. Barr, (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield) (2000).

Marleen Barr, Lost in Space: Probing Feminist Science Fiction and Beyond, (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P) (1993).

Ian Bogost, Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, (Cambridge: MIT) (2007).

Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of

Empowerment, (New York: Routledge) (2000).

Mia Consalvo, “Confronting Toxic Gamer Culture: A Challenge for Feminist Game Studies

Scholars.” Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology 1:1 (2012).

Kimberle Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics”, University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989:1 (1989).

Kimberle Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identify Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color”, Stanford Law Review, 43:6 (1991).

Gonzalo Frasca, http://www.ludology.org/articles/ludology.htm, date accessed 17 Jun. 2016.

Alexander R Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota) (2006).

Kishonna Gray, Race, Gender, and Deviance in Xbox Live: Theoretical Perspectives from the

Virtual Margins, (London: Routledge) (2014).

Joan Haran and Katie King, “Science Fiction Feminisms, Feminist Science Fictions & Feminist Sustainability”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 3 (2013).

Donna Haraway, “SF: Science Fiction, Speculative Fabulation, String Figures, So Far”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 3 (2013).

Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, (New York: Routledge) (1991).

Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective”, Feminist Studies, 14:3 (1988).

Nina Huntemann, “Introduction: Feminist Discourses in Games/Game Studies”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 2 (2013).

Alex Layne and Samantha Blackmon, “Self-Saving Princess: Feminism and Post-Play Narrative Modding”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 2 (2013).

Alexis Lothian, “Introduction: Science Fiction and the Feminist Present”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 3 (2013).

Nina Lykke, Feminist Studies: A Guide to Intersectional Theory, Methodology and Writing,

(New York: Routledge) (2010).

Jennifer Malkowski and Treaandrea Russworm, “Introduction: Identity, Representation, and

Video Game Studies Beyond the Politics of the Image”, Gaming Representation: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Video Games, (Bloomington: Indiana UP) (2017).

Patricia Melzer, Alien Constructions: Science Fiction and Feminist Thought, (Austin: U of Texas P) (2006).

Adrienne Shaw, Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture,

(Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P) (2014).

Adrienne Shaw, “On Not Becoming Gamers: Moving Beyond the Constructed Audience”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 2 (2013).

Debra Benita Shaw, Women, Science and Fiction: The Frankenstein Inheritance, (New York: Palgrave) (2000).

Miguel Sicart, Play Matters, (Cambridge: MIT) (2014).

 

 

[1] Ian Bogost, Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, (Cambridge: MIT) (2007).

[2] Gonzalo Frasca, http://www.ludology.org/articles/ludology.htm, date accessed 17 Jun. 2016.

[3] Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, (New York: Routledge) (1991).

[4] Mia Consalvo, “Confronting Toxic Gamer Culture: A Challenge for Feminist Game Studies

Scholars.” Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology 1:1 (2012).

[5] Adrienne Shaw, Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture,

(Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P) (2014).

[6] Nina Lykke, Feminist Studies: A Guide to Intersectional Theory, Methodology and Writing,

(New York: Routledge) (2010), p. 3.

[7] Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books) (1987).

[8] Lykke, pp. 145.

[9] Lykke, pp. 144.

[10] Lykke, pp. 160.

[11] Kimberle Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics”, University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989:1 (1989), p. 140.

[12] Crenshaw, pp. 166.

[13] Kimberle Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identify Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color”, Stanford Law Review, 43:6 (1991), p. 1242.

[14] Crenshaw, pp. 1245.

[15] Crenshaw, pp. 1283.

[16] Crenshaw, pp. 1299.

[17] Lykke, pp. 161.

[18] Lykke, pp. 3.

[19] Lykke, pp. 4.

[20] Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective”, Feminist Studies, 14:3 (1988), p. 581.

[21] Haraway, pp. 582.

[22] Haraway, pp. 589.

[23] Haraway, pp. 589.

[24] Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective”, pp. 594.

[25] Alexis Lothian, “Introduction: Science Fiction and the Feminist Present”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 3 (2013).

[26] Debra Benita Shaw, Women, Science and Fiction: The Frankenstein Inheritance, (New York: Palgrave) (2000), p. 2.

[27] Marleen Barr, Lost in Space: Probing Feminist Science Fiction and Beyond, (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P) (1993), p. 7.

[28] Patricia Melzer, Alien Constructions: Science Fiction and Feminist Thought, (Austin: U of Texas P) (2006), p. 1.

[29] Melzer, pp. 1.

[30] Melzer, pp. 1.

[31] Melzer, pp. 2.

[32] Melzer, pp. 2.

[33] Melzer, pp. 3.

[34] Melzer, pp. 3.

[35] Melzer, pp. 34.

[36] Melzer, pp. 34.

[37] Raffaella Baccolini, “Gender and Genre in the Feminist Critical Dystopias of Katharine

Burdekin, Margaret Atwood, and Octavia Butler”, in Future Females, the Next Generation: New Voices and Velocities in Feminist Science Fiction Criticism, ed. Marleen S. Barr, (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield) (2000), p. 15.

[38] Baccolini, pp. 16.

[39] Baccolini, pp. 18.

[40] Melzer, pp. 1.

[41] Barr, pp. 2.

[42] Melzer, pp. 7.

[43] Melzer, pp. 9.

[44] Melzer, pp. 9.

[45] Melzer, pp. 34.

[46] Baccolini, pp. 15.

[47] Joan Haran and Katie King, “Science Fiction Feminisms, Feminist Science Fictions & Feminist Sustainability”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 3 (2013).

[48] Haran and King.

[49] Donna Haraway, “SF: Science Fiction, Speculative Fabulation, String Figures, So Far”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 3 (2013).

[50] Haraway.

[51] Haran and King.

[52] Haran and King.

[53] Alexander R Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota) (2006), p. 3.

[54] Miguel Sicart, Play Matters, (Cambridge: MIT) (2014), p. 5.

[55] Sicart, pp. 8.

[56] Sicart, pp. 8.

[57] Sicart, pp. 14.

[58] Sicart, pp. 18.

[59] Consalvo.

[60] Adrienne Shaw, “On Not Becoming Gamers: Moving Beyond the Constructed Audience”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 2 (2013).

[61] Alex Layne and Samantha Blackmon, “Self-Saving Princess: Feminism and Post-Play Narrative Modding”,  Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 2 (2013).

[62] Layne and Blackmon.

[63] Layne and Blackmon.

[64] Nina Huntemann, “Introduction: Feminist Discourses in Games/Game Studies”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 2 (2013).

[65] Huntemann.

[66] Jennifer Malkowski and Treaandrea Russworm, “Introduction: Identity, Representation, and

Video Game Studies Beyond the Politics of the Image”, Gaming Representation: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Video Games, (Bloomington: Indiana UP) (2017).

[67] Malkowski and Russworm.

[68] Malkowski and Russworm

[69] Malkowski and Russworm.

[70] Malkowski and Russworm.

[71] Adrienne Shaw, “On Not Becoming Gamers: Moving Beyond the Constructed Audience”, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 2 (2013).

[72] Kishonna Gray, Race, Gender, and Deviance in Xbox Live: Theoretical Perspectives from the

Virtual Margins, (London: Routledge) (2014).

[73] Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of

Empowerment, (New York: Routledge) (2000).

[74] Layne and Blackmon.

Playing in fractal universes: Thinking with scalable patterns in interdisciplinary game studies

Garfield Benjamin

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 47-64.

 

Garfield Benjamin

University of Birmingham

 

 

Playing in fractal universes: Thinking with scalable patterns in interdisciplinary game studies

 

Abstract

Games offer a scaled and scalable experience of technologically mediated human action and interaction. The study of games therefore holds the potential to offer a far wider analysis of our technical and social structures than might be first apparent. Yet this scaling of behaviours and frameworks is applicable not only beyond simply an increase in degree, but also across different types of meaning, society, reality, and our understanding of them. Thus, to assess the expansion of games beyond conventional dimensionality, we can identify in games and game studies a fractal metaphor to guide our analysis. Drawing on concepts of iteration, self-similarity, recursion, complexity, and scalability, this article examines key games that embody a fractal dimension to their in-game universe, the player’s experience, the game’s development, and games as a field of study. The fractal analysis of a game will thereby be revealed as also an analysis of the metagame and its situatedness in broader concerns of technoculture and its academic study. The model offered will be applied to specific games and the existing literature through which game studies is formed as an interdisciplinary fractal conceptual space of its own.

 

Key words: fractal, game studies, games, No Man’s Sky, Everything, EVE Online

 

 

Introduction

 

The playing of a particular game generates iterative and often functionally self-similar experiences for players based on the ludic and narrative constructs that constitute the game itself. Yet these experiences are increasingly interdisciplinary in their relation to human activity, creating ever more total works of media that engage with simulations and representations of our social and technological realities and fictions. This necessitates an inherent and increasing interdisciplinarity to the study of games that expand the player’s interaction from the quantum to the cosmological, from the individual to the collective, and from the fictional to the real. This article offers a new mode of viewing games as both a mode of interaction and a field of study: the fractal mediation of humanity by technology.

Firstly, we will construct a fractal metaphorical framework through close analysis of examples that directly address such mediation of humans at different levels of reality. The highly anticipated, controversial, and often much maligned game No Man’s Sky creates a procedurally generated reality that expands algorithmically to produce a fractal game on the ontological level. Everything takes the fractal experience to an extreme by offering the player the opportunity to interact with the universe by ‘being’ everything, scaled from cellular to stellar levels. Consideration will also be given to similar games that involve such fractal realities even in their construction, generating a relation with players during the design stage through user-created content and responsive beta testing. Worlds Adrift creates an environment filled with floating islands created by users during alpha testing, expanding fractal interaction between players and with the environment according to a functional mediated logic developed further through beta testing. We Happy Few takes this beta testing further with extensive player involvement that has initiated major changes in the game’s aesthetic and the relation between which ludic and narrative aspects players would prefer to see emphasized. Finally, the long-running EVE Online demonstrates fractal human organization with its emergent and expansive economies and politics from the individual to the guild up to the entire player base and game world. Across these examples, a fractal expression of representation, reality, and relationality can be elucidated in the ludic structures and open narratives. Beyond the restrictions of closed objectives that define clear methods of interaction, the ludic mediation and human engagement still results in self-similar or iterative experiences of fractal play.

We will then address the fractal study of games across disciplines – the similarly situatedness of gaming in broader social reality, and the recursive relationship between games and our own world. Focusing on the extensive literature of EVE Online and applying these findings to newer games, the discussion will explore the necessary links between different fields in game studies. In the analysis of games, particularly those with MMO, procedural, or social aspects, there is an inherent need to take into account mathematics, computer science, psychology, economics, philosophy, art, literature, media, and many other fields. Yet the mediation of the ludic experience unveils scalable and self-similar features between these fields, already embedded within the construction of game studies as a distinct discipline. Indeed, it is notable that game design itself straddles the arts and sciences, employing programmers, writers and artists (to name a few) to construct a full experience across traditional disciplines. Amidst the myriad future paths of game studies, therefore, the article will posit the need for fractal modes of thinking about play and narrative in the persistent mediation of humans by their ludic creations, as well as the broader mediation of our society and experience by technology.

 

Fractal Games

 

Fractals – a concept with a long history in science, mathematics, and culture, but given voice as a coherent theory by Benoit Mandelbrot in the 1970s – has perhaps most poetically been defined as a way of seeing infinity in the mind’s eye.[1] Indeed, fractals appear to have had almost limitless applications and have contributed to the understanding of chaos and of conceptual and actual spaces beyond the conventional three dimensions of Euclidean geometry. The term fractal has its roots in fragmentation, with the aim of breaking down the infinite complexity of nature into human-readable patterns. Yet for all their mathematical precision, it is important to remember that “there are no true fractals in nature”[2]. Fractals only ever offer an approximation of natural phenomena, an abstraction of patterns far beyond human understanding. The use of fractals should therefore always be combined with an acknowledgment of their position as an artificial framework of thought. Fractal analyses to some degree therefore always create the precise pattern they are analysing. Indeed, as an abstract human construct, the development of fractals was inherently bound to that of computers, another quantized reality that builds worlds through rigid codes not possible in the physical world. Not only did Mandelbrot work as a researcher for IBM at the time he developed fractal geometry, but it was the increasing access to and power of computers that enabled Mandelbrot and others to calculate fractals and construct the abstract shapes they produce. The artificial forms of fractals, while offering a way of abstracting and understanding nature, tend to exist “entirely inside a computer’s memory”[3]. They thus provide a constructive analogy and conceptual framework for understanding the abstract and computational dimensions of computer games. Not only that – and moving beyond the simple use of fractals as actual graphic constructions in the style of computer-generated landscapes or trees used in many films or games – but the application of fractals to diverse fields of natural and human activities lends itself to an exploration of the social aspects of games and the broader facets of game studies.

Yet fractals persist as an elusive concept, with definitions relying more on a series of typical characteristics.[4] For the present discussion, therefore, a few key concepts will suffice as a starting point to develop a fractal framework for thinking about games. Firstly, fractals are iterative, simple to define and often recursive. They produce the same patterns at arbitrary locations and use the same functioning – the same code – to create evolving and scaling structures. They are also often self-similar, spreading this symmetry and iteration across scales. These characteristics combine to form the “pattern inside of a pattern”[5] whereby the part matches both other parts and the whole. While this is not necessarily an essential part of all fractals,[6] it defines simpler linear fractals and appears in some form (for example, quasi- or statistically self-similar) in most practical definitions of the concept. Thus, self-similarity allows us to view patterns between arbitrary facets that may indeed have chaotic or emergent properties, or which obfuscate simple comprehension via high complexity. Another key concept is the notion of scale. Fractals allow us to view symmetry not only between parts of equal size, but also across scales. The recursive quality of fractals enables a shift in perspective between large and small levels of difference and irregularity, thus offering a mode of viewing functional rules in even the most chaotic data. In computer games, this shifting in perspective can occur at the technical or social level, between systems, renderings, and servers or between players, economies and conceptual spaces. This scaling goes beyond an increase in conventional dimensionality into partial and even abstract dimensions that cut across individual human perspectives and thereby reveal, at the level of the metagame, a hidden order in chaos and functional consistency between apparently disparate parts of a complex whole. Between these various parts and scales is revealed the complexity of fractals, which cannot be expressed through simple geometry. Indeed, the emergence of games as a distinct field of study highlights the additional experiential intricacies compared to traditional art, film, or other media. From complexity stems the notion of a fractal dimension, itself open to variable definition but always signalling a dimensionality greater than its topology. At a basic level, this can be expressed in the link between the concrete world presented on the screen and the vast array of code beneath it. Using procedural generation and non-linear structures, across player narratives and experiences it forms the ‘greater than the sum of its parts’ quality that generates the ‘replay value’ of games. Procedural generation, originally developed in ‘roguelike’ games of the late 1970s and early 1980s, is a process of compressing the game world. This was exemplified in the space exploration game Elite, which sought to create a huge world using only 22k of memory.[7] By reducing the internal reality of the game from a detailed description to a functional algorithm, a much greater space can be unfolded from comparatively minimal code. Finally, fractal dimensionality can be seen in the multiple fields that games straddle and the implied relation to our own world that games can address, stage, and critique, expanding our metaphor to situate games in their broader context. We will now elaborate this conception of games through examples that address gaming reality, gaming experience, and game design.

 

No Man’s Sky: a fractal gaming reality

 

Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky is a vast procedurally generated universe of unprecedented size, containing 264 (18,446,744,073,709,551,616) planets. While this 64-bit algorithmically-created galaxy falls far short of the unknown limits of our own physical universe, the scale in relation to human perception achieves the same relative infinitude. Even at the impossible rate of one planet per second, it would take over five billion years to explore every single planet in the game – longer than the lifespan of our own sun.[8] Fractals, as a way of converting limitless complexity into scales perceivable by humans, offer a convenient method of understanding the construction of this game reality. Much like the mathematical functions of fractals, No Man’s Sky creates its reality according to strict deterministic calculations that can nevertheless generate a far larger universe than any single human could ever hope to experience. Yet it is not only the construction of No Man’s Sky at the planetary scale that takes on a fractal quality, the analogy scales too. Rather than loading a new environment when a player hopes to explore a given planet, the game’s procedural generation scales down to render landscapes, mineral deposits, environmental factors such as weather, and a rich population of fauna and flora. Yet this functionally limitless expanse returns to haunt us in its endless iteration. The looping nature of the gameplay extends beyond an identical algorithmic mediation of one player and another. The algorithmic construction of similar planets initially offers wonderment and variety, but after visits to multiple planets the appearance of the same kinds of worlds exposes the underlying iteration and an evolving self-similarity through time. This limit of the aesthetics of the game reality applies also to the gameplay. The open exploration, the often repetitive (particularly in the initial release before the streamlining aspects of later updates) nature of gathering resources needed for survival and travel, and the scaling of achievements (in terms of both in-game economic attainment and the convention of ludic ‘achievement’ rewards) can end with the player seeing through the complexity and reaching a level of predictability to the game over longer timescales through fractal understanding. Thus, the kaleidoscopic non-novelty highlights the creative limitations of self-similarity and the ontological limitations of the No Man’s Sky reality, as after a certain number of iterated experiences everything looks the same (much like many fractal images), creating a scalar shift in perception whereby the detail becomes flattened. Here we can attempt to behold the entirety of the complexity at work, and the processes of mediation reveal themselves within the literal frame of the screen and the conceptual framing of the universe held within the computer and within the game.

However, the narratological aspects of No Man’s Sky further this relation to iteration and scalability in constructing a reflexive ontology that loops into itself. What sparse storyline there is to find across the vast emptiness of space reveals a universe that embraces its algorithmic functionality and challenges its relation to the player. The main ‘goal’ –  although this is entirely optional and only one path of achievement a player can explore – of No Man’s Sky is to follow the instructions of a being called Atlas to reach the centre of the galaxy. Along this path the play encounters two recurring NPCs, Nada and Polo, who describe themselves as errors within the simulation. They are counterposed to the Sentinels, a variety of robotic entities that enforce the rule-based system of the Universe’s will by attacking players who rapidly interfere with the landscape by mining for resources or killing fauna. The player is part of a universe-wide experiment to break free of these rules and discover the source of the Sentinel’s power,[9] and it is the ultimate quest of the player to become an anomalous entity by achieving self-awareness of the rules and systems of the universe. The ending of the game, the big reveal at the centre of the galaxy, takes on a tragic tone that embraces the full despair of mediation and control by technology. The universe is revealed to be a simulation, nothing more than an absolute deterministic causal structure – a game – and while the character (the ‘traveller’) becomes self-aware, the player is returned as a new traveller on a new starting planet at the edge of the galaxy to begin the cycle anew. As the player learns more and more information, gaining greater and greater detail as they move closer to the centre of the reality, they end up being thrust outwards to the broadest scale. The player’s perspective, and their causal relations with the game, go beyond even a fractal towards a strange loop, “a paradoxical level-crossing feedback loop”.[10] Even in a supposed critique of the medium itself, the recursive element exposes the iterative repetition of game playing and the rigid and ultimately deterministic causality of apparent complexity and chaos in both fractals and gaming structures. Perhaps this is why Mandelbrot himself focused on consequences over causes,[11] working backwards from human-readable problems to create gradually more detail from the chaos of recursive complexity. Cast into a universe and expected to find not only our own meaning but to discover for ourselves the limits of the simulation, the monstrous character of fractals unfold in No Man’s Sky as a ludic and narrative experience beyond rational scientific or philosophical explanation.

 

Everything: a fractal gaming experience

 

A game that embodies fractals in the experience of the player is Everything by David OReilly. Described as “a magical playpen of being, rather than doing”,[12] and – with an eleven-minute trailer that made it the first video game to qualify for an Oscar – Everything displays the fractal experience of being-in-the-world. Players interact with the universe through being anything and ‘everything’. Starting as a mammal, players can shift from item to item and ascend/descend scales to play as approximately three thousand different objects. These items fall into a variety of categories and include natural objects such as animals as well as man-made objects as well as more abstract entities. Examples include a shoe [attire], cigarette butt [trash], warped ruins [space junk], scale manipulator [tool], recursive house [home], convex stellated polyhedron [3d], and Planck length [1d]. This selection in particular highlights a focus on scale and a relation to fractal perspectives and experience. The objects themselves and the perspectives the player encounters create a fractal reality whereby we are offered the self-similar experience of simply ‘being’ across all scales of matter. Like No Man’s Sky, this universe is procedurally generated, but it is also connected and persistent, remembering the state of a previous scale when you next return. However, the map at each scale is not particularly large, enacting spatial loops where necessary that are visible upon zooming out but not ascending to the next scale. But a fractal universe does not need to be large (and even if it is, as with No Man’s Sky, there is fundamentally no difference between ‘more’ space and ‘more of the same’ space). The expansive environment here comes from the fractal dimension, moving beyond three dimensions to folded spaces of experience and new perspectives of scale.

Initially, however, the player can simply move around (and even that is somewhat stilted as the movement animation for mammals is a rather ignominious and awkward four-frame roll). As one early-encountered NPC (a mammoth) remarks, “you can’t control Everything//not yet anyway”.[13] Indeed, the game often plays with the double meaning of its own title and the objects it contains, applying the different levels of parts and the whole within its very construction. The ability to move around as objects (no matter how improbable their independent locomotion might be in our universe) is gradually augmented through talking to (or ‘thinking as’) other objects. Increased abilities include being able to join with other entities of the same kind or category, moving around as a collective being and even dancing together in order to create new objects. The player also obtains the ability to ‘ascend’ and ‘descend’, moving up and down in scale. Manipulation of the environment here stems directly from expanded notions of being in greater dimensions beyond human perception, a philosophical and even spiritual sentiment reinforced by the inclusion of recordings of a lecture by Zen philosopher Alan Watts concerning nature, patterns across scale, and being. This grows in Everything with the player’s expanding experience. For example, once you have ‘become’ a particular item, you can become it again at any time via the encyclopaedia, but it will then be scaled to the current perspective, offering a self-similar and scale invariant quality to even objects usually experienced at a single given scale. Further, if one is to keep ascending or descending far enough, the game universe loops round between galaxy clusters and atoms via a ‘feedback sphere’ at the one-dimensional Planck scale. This embodies Hofstadter’s ‘strange loop’ in terms of space-time, a sentiment echoed in Max Tegmark’s loop between cosmology and quantum mechanics via a multiverse of mathematical structures.[14] It also embodies recursion in terms of human consciousness as a feedback loop that intensifies over time.[15] In Everything these two feedback loops are one and the same, for our consciousness of the game expands fractally alongside our experience of being at different scales, or even simply perceiving/thinking as the game autoplays if left to its own devices.

The fractal strange loop of causality and the gaming medium that we saw in the ending of No Man’s Sky returns once more to haunt us at the ending of Everything. As another game with sandbox-like and experiential open play, the term ‘end’ must be used loosely, but open reaching a certain level (having achieved ‘being’ a certain number of objects) the player may descend into the ‘Golden Gate’. Here an abstract space of random objects awaits in a collision of different scales. Among these, surrounded by pieces of skeletons, is a computer which duplicates the player’s screen on its own monitor. After a lengthy but vague monologue lamenting the frustration of Everything in this place, the player is instructed to ‘empty your mind’ in order to escape this world. The player is finally allowed to ascend the Gate, triggering an ending cut scene of a glowing particle flying through different scales before returning the player once more to a starting position (with new abilities such as instantly bonding with objects or a documentary mode). There is no escape from a fractal game, as with all games. The fundamental mediation of a game system is to keep playing, returning always once more to a reality of rules which deterministically controls not only itself but our own actions. Whether we play as an abstract concept or a piece of shit, we experience the same mediated play in a simulated universe, beholden to the whims of the game developers.

 

Fractal game development and its problems

 

If fractals can be used to analyse the in-game ontologies and the experiences of the players, they can be applied also to the existence of the game throughout its development. No Man’s Sky received much positive attention prior to its release, so much so that the developers received death threats after announcing a delay to the release date. And when the final release of the game failed to meet certain advertised promises, the backlash was again significant. These issues span creative, cultural, and legal concerns in the feedback loop of perception and expectation. The spiral of hype that led to death threats, as part of the often vitriolic cultural sphere of gaming,[16] was echoed in the spiral of disappointment that led to a (cleared) advertising standards investigation. This latter issue, whereby key features such as multiplayer, ship design and others were missing from the initial release, sparked a fractality to the development of the game itself. While DLC add-ons to games is becoming increasingly common, and updates or patches are standard practice, the free updates to No Man’s Sky instigated major changes to the way the game plays. The development of the game after its release thus constructed a temporal fractal zoom, adding greater and greater detail to the game with each iteration. Each upgrade made visual improvements, refined the interface, and provided more content in various categories. The first (1.1 Foundation) update added the freighters and base building that were originally missing; the second (1.2 Path Finder) added exocraft, online base sharing, multiple ship ownership and ship specialization; and the third (1.3 Atlas Rises) added missions, increased story mode, portal travel and (crude) multiplayer. This last development was a major change, and one that was high on the list of missing features. While communication between players outside the game made it possible relatively easily, the original idea with No Man’s Sky was that it would essentially be single-player in a multi-player universe, for the odds of randomly encountering another player were astronomically low. Yet this feature was only added later, transforming the game fractally by adding greater levels of interaction and expanding the experience not only in level but also in kind, creating new dimensions of play. As an indie developer trying to create an AAA title, Hello Games had given themselves an unenviable task. Yet the later additions have not simply added what was originally promised. Rather, they have evolved in an emergent manner in light of the game being released in the world. The interaction between players and developers creates new perspectives and functions that otherwise may not have been thought up.

In the wake of the release disaster of No Man’s Sky, other games appear to be learning from their mistakes. While open beta and early release testing is now commonplace via platforms such as Steam, Worlds Adrift by Bossa Studios involved players before even the alpha release in order to create a user-generated world. Functionally quite similar to No Man’s Sky, Worlds Adrift is an open environment for exploration and resource gathering. However, it has several key differences. The game is highly multiplayer, indeed for many activities collaborative play is nearly essential, and it is highly creative, being based on players/groups designing and building their own ships with which to travel between floating islands in a limitless sky. Thus, while the expansive universe of areas is much reduced, there are greater dimensions of interaction. Not only that, but the islands themselves are procedurally generated content as well as user-created content, embedding players in the pre-alpha stage via a separate, free, Worlds Adrift Island Creator game. Thus, throughout and before the extensive closed and open beta phases, players were able to work with Bossa Studios to collaboratively create a game that itself opens up opportunities for free interaction between players, building on core functionality before adding visual detail in a fractal development of form and content. Beyond the initial release, Bossa set up mechanisms to continually include players in the game’s ongoing development. The Sky Crier, a weekly news summary of stories from players, highlights the importance of player experience in the history of the game, while further developments to the Island Creator have been aimed at turning players into game designers by producing new levels and new experiences for other players.

The desire to integrate this degree of player involvement is also echoed in Compulsion’s We Happy Few, which, in strong contrast to Hello Games’ closed development and the misinformation of No Man’s Sky, focuses on transparency and inclusion.[17] As another small studio thrust into creating a higher profile game than they had intended, Compulsion sought to make regular public announcements about the process. This helped guide their relationship with players through an extended, delayed, and not unproblematic development. But it was not only communication that aided them, for they made several key changes to the game in response to early player comments. As the developers describe, “What the public and the press were telling us they loved about our game wasn’t anything like the procedural, story-light, rogue-like survival game we were creating at all”.[18] As a result, they switched their focus to develop in greater detail the story, the world, and the mechanics in response to what players wanted. The move to Kickstarter also emphasized a literal investment by players, drawing them into the game world not only through the experiential suspension of disbelief for this psychedelic drug-fuelled horror game, but also as co-creators and co-owners, bringing all perspectives into the discussion across different scales and types of engagement. This extended to further types of gameplay based on five drug-specific modes, as well as a suspension of the gaming framework with the addition of a non-violent ‘Birdwatcher’ mode in which players could simply explore the environment and, much like Everything, enjoy ‘being’ in the game. After the shift in expectation towards an ‘AAA’ level game by partnering with Gearbox Software, however, the communication and inclusion broke down somewhat. The sudden doubling in price and further delays angered many fans, although the level of engagement already established did allow for some mitigation of these problems. Bonus content was promised to early backers, and the financial support from the larger studio enabled a fourfold scaling of Compulsion’s team. This reminds us that the business side of gaming cannot be forgotten, for while the reactive nature of the development that increased in size to handle the increased expectation does itself embody a certain fractal quality, the problem of shifting scales highlights the competing forces at work in game development. In We Happy Few, we can at least see the creative intent towards creating a fractal experience that extends between layers of in-game perspective, modes of gameplay, and involvement in the design process.

The fractal model at the level of the metagame is thus achieved by enabling players to engage at multiple scales, creating their own local perspective through the emergent differences between iterations. Far from being a rigid abstract reduction, the conceptual ‘geometry’ of such games could only be mapped in multidimensional relations between the designers, the manifold facets of the game, and its many players. The feedback loop of a fractal game extends spatially, temporally, and conceptually back into itself as an evolving experience for all involved.

 

Fractal Game Studies

 

We have explored how fractals might be used to view games, but what of game studies as a discipline? Fractals can be considered one of three major revolutions in twentieth century science[19] and, perhaps even more so than the other two (relativity and quantum mechanics), have far-reaching interdisciplinary applications not only within the sciences but across social science and the arts. Mandelbrot’s initial work on fractals, coalescing a collection of vaguely similar approaches in mathematics spread sporadically across several centuries, was driven by a combination of geography (the problem of measuring an infinite coastline at high enough resolution) and economics (the need to balance sudden dramatic fluctuations with periods of stability). But his own work and the work of others quickly spread the fractal concept across a wide range of disciplines, and today there is a rich yet often unconnected literature that applies fractals to diverse fields. Indeed, perhaps the fractal as a field of study is itself fractal in its iterative self-similarity and possible application at various scales and in various locations. However, it must be remembered that fractals only ever offer an approximate representation of reality, an abstraction and reduction of complexity into human frameworks of thinking. The broader application of fractals therefore takes on an inherently aesthetic quality within scientific thought, a mathematical description of a topic rather than a rigid methodological framework. Examples abound of this fractal interpretation of our universe and society: in physics, fractals have been used to understand the two other key developments of modern science (quantum physics[20] and relativity[21]) as well as cosmology[22]; in economics they have been applied not only by Mandelbrot but also to financial crises[23]; in organization theory they are useful for assessing interdependence and multi-dimensional folding in networks[24], as well as management[25] and organization design[26]; in biology, furthering Mandelbrot’s focus on analysing nature, they are relevant in, for example, the organization of cell nuclei[27]; in psychiatry to movement and depression[28]; and in applied computing it can assist in understanding IT needs for complex organizations.[29] Fractals can be useful to understand any natural, human and artificial systems at scale, and the field itself therefore takes on its own implicit metafractal quality in its interdisciplinary application.

In a more explicitly and intentionally interdisciplinary manner, games as a field of study also acts as a fractal description of human culture and its mediated constructions of reality. There is a microcosmic quality to many games, particularly those that display MMO, exploration, or social characteristics. Indeed, the field of serious and educational games demonstrates the usefulness of games as a scaled-down staging of wider society or reality, especially when speculating on complex behaviours in exceptional environments or circumstances. From individual experiences to inter-human relations and up to the overarching societal structures, games offer a sandbox arena for experimentation (for designers and players) and analysis (for scholars). However, we must remember that games are never an accurate or neutral microcosm for concrete experiments. Rather, they are a hyperreal, mediated representation. It is this quality that expresses the fractal nature of the field, amplifying characteristics of reality with their dimensional reduction to the scale, logic, and experience of a game. A game can thus act as a more extreme expression of diverse problems in diverse fields, iterating broader concerns in specific implementations and intensified at a smaller scale. Some aspects will always be lost (otherwise the game would simply be reality), but this in turn generates the non-integer dimensionality of games as a fractal simulation of reality. The chimerical nature of games as a discipline is applicable in inspiring an engaged and experiential response to many issues, from the grand questions of reality down to the specific problems of individuals in an unequal world. The complexity of these issues drawn into the sandbox experiment of the game universe and mediated framework reveals an increased dimensionality of the impact of games in their necessary analysis through the lens of other fields. These various perspectives combine to generate a much broader view that expands into the spaces between disciplines and between the game and reality. We will now turn our fractal metaphor to the context of games within their field of study, taking the exemplary case of EVE Online.

 

EVE Online: a fractal metaverse of game studies

 

EVE Online is a ‘sandbox’ reality, not quite a game and not quite a virtual world but displaying characteristics of both. This space exploration and conquest environment combines the vast open universe and free economy of virtual worlds with the player-versus-player space combat one might expect from a game. There are a number of key aspects of its design, however, that differentiate it from other such games or worlds and emphasize its fractal quality as an object of game studies. Firstly, EVE Online goes beyond the iterative environments of many MMORPGs (such as World of Warcraft) in that, rather than placing players on different servers to deal with population overload and different rulesets, EVE takes place in a single universe on a single server with scalable architecture and adaptive workload management. While there is also a free to play version with much reduced player violence, this is more like a demo than a separate game environment. The main EVE platform is therefore not only a marvel of scalable technological achievement but in making the entire universe open to players, what is usually a series of parts becomes a whole system and the simulated reality becomes itself a closer iteration of our own physical environment. The similarity with the material world is emphasized through EVE’s second distinctive feature, the lack of constraints. Other than active cheating, almost anything is permitted in EVE, including mass player on player violence, scamming and other such nefarious activities. Like a Wild West in space, EVE reflects humanity’s best and worst relations, bringing together conflict and collaboration as large-scale guilds are formed for mutual protection and economic or political attainment. As one player review comments, “imagine if every chat troll had guns, and were in the same room as you. That’s EVE in a nutshell”.[30] The characteristic behaviours of humans playing games is amplified in a social feedback loop that allows us to zoom in on radical social interactions at a much faster pace and greater scale than is often the case (in either a game or the real world), and the actual financial value of assets that might be lost or stolen only further emphasizes the social intensity of EVE.

The universe of EVE takes on a further fractal character through its persistence – a temporal scaling of experience that has, running since 2003, outlasted many other continuous game worlds. This historicity, to an even greater extent than what Worlds Adrift is attempting to achieve, forms a feedback loop of the game’s internal truth, reality, and identity, between the players, the technology and the designers. Aside from any fictional narrative, the history of EVE Online is now that of its players, its guilds, its own pivotal moments, all of which express the shift from narrative to ludic history that Neal Stephenson later detailed as the battle not between arbitrary good and evil of writers but between player-chosen colour palettes in his novel Reamde.[31] EVE now includes player activities in its own lore, embedding the human interactions within the game structure in a fractal narrative with a higher degree of ‘reality’. This history and player experience scales even beyond the singular game itself, with a tie-in first-person shooter game Dust 514 expanding the universe onto the planet’s surface. More than a game set in the same fictional universe, Dust offered a fractal experience in the same game universe, connected in real time with the events of EVE, to the extent that players on the surface in Dust could signal for orbital bombardment from their guild’s battleships in EVE, and the players in EVE could benefit from resources won in Dust. The universe of EVE Online is thus constantly expanding in a fractal level of detail in space and time, with new experiences contributing to the constant increase in the game’s multidimensional size and impact. This impact extends also into the real world, with Project Discovery turning minigames with in-world rewards to the cause of actual space discovery, using players’ enthusiasm for astronomy to sort through telescope data to find new exoplanets. The fractal metagame thus expands outwards from itself, iterating through our own reality in social and epistemic detail.

In academia, the scale of the game’s impact is such that there is even an EVE Online reader,[32] establishing the singular game/platform as a worthy field of study on its own. And, much like fractals themselves, EVE Online has acted as a lightning rod for various disciplines as a scaled study of many aspects of human behaviour, society, and technological mediation. This includes (again, offering only a representative sample) applications in: law, for an assessment of property[33] and normative behaviours;[34] history, as collective memory;[35] politics, for the study of online propaganda[36] and political economy;[37] social sciences more broadly for issues in identity,[38] gender[39] and ethnography;[40] business, for studying the links between supply chains and skills development;[41] technology and networking, for issues of workload and player behaviour,[42] scaling,[43] and EVE Online’s unique novel approach to server architecture to overcome these challenges;[44] and mathematics, in relation to science fiction and reality.[45] Of particular note is the importance of scaling in both the technology and the socio-political structures. Scalability is a challenge in system design whether it be of the order of CPUs or legal frameworks, echoing human society in general in the complexities across scales of material and social dilemmas. The fractal nature of games reiterates the fractal character that appears in all technology, its design and mediation of human life. The importance of technology studies as an interdisciplinary confrontation with our mediated society reflects the necessity of game studies as a fractal field of its own – a scale model of the relation between humanity and technology that can provide valuable insights into the fundamental processes of mediation that increasingly define our digitized world.

 

Conclusion

 

We have demonstrated the application of fractals as a metaphor for the construction and analysis of games as objects, as a medium and as a field of study. The scalability of gaming experiences offers not only an application of the fractal model but also a model with which to view the interdisciplinary relations inherent to technologically mediated human society. Through the analysis of feedback loops, self-similarity across iterative player experiences in different parts of the same game, and the scaling of experiences to the game world as a whole and the metagame of development and expansion, we have viewed No Man’s Sky, Everything, Worlds Adrift, and We Happy Few as models of fractal games, and EVE Online as a model of fractal game studies. A fractal mode of approaching games allows us to view multiple aspects of ludic and narrative experience alongside external facets of the game in its context. Thus, the fractal metaphor becomes a metafractal analysis whereby the model is itself fractal in nature, self-similar across the various scales and objects of its intellectual gaze, and iterative across disciplines. Games and game studies stand currently at a multidimensional crossroads, having transcended the ludo-narrative dissonance of the field itself, while integrating and spreading across multiple traditional disciplines. It will be essential to find new ways of understanding the intersecting topics and interactions across the ever-expanding dimensions of gaming as a medium.

 

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[1] James Gleick, Chaos, (London: Vintage) (1998), p. 98.

[2] Kenneth Falconer, Fractal Geometry: Mathematical FOundations and Applications (3rd ed.), (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons) (2014), xxix.

[3] Benoit Mandelbrot, A Fractal Geometry of Nature, (New York: W.H. Freeman and Co) (1983), p. 10.

[4] Kenneth Falconer, Fractal Geometry: Mathematical FOundations and Applications (3rd ed.), (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons) (2014), xxviii.

[5] Gleick, p. 103.

[6] Mandelbrot, p. 166.

[7] David Braben in Emma Boyes, “Q&A: David Braben–from Elite to today,” Gamespot, https://www.gamespot.com/articles/qanda-david-braben-from-elite-to-today/1100-6162140/ date accessed 27 February 2018.

[8] Chris Higgins, “No Man’s Sky would take 5 billion years to explore,” Wired, http://www.wired.co.uk/article/no-mans-sky-planets date accessed 1 September 2017.

[9] See from 10:00 – Wanderbot, “Let’s Play No Man’s Sky Update 1.3: Atlas Rises – PC Gameplay Part 1 – All Sorts Of New Stuff!” Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bITSv0TXJ7k date accessed 1 September 2017.

[10] Douglas Hofstadter, I Am a Strange Loop, (New York: Basic Books) (2007), p. 102.

[11] Mandelbrot, p. 423.

[12] Colin Campbell, “Everything review”, Polygon, https://www.polygon.com/2017/3/21/14991494/everything-review-ps4-PC date accessed 1 September 2017.

[13] See from 9:16 – JackSepticEye, “BLOW YOUR MIND | Everything #1”, Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GeJvh212pEQ date accessed 1 September 2017.

[14] Max Tegmark, Our Mathematical Universe, (London: Penguin) (2015), p. 358.

[15] Hofstadter, pp. 19-23.

[16] Such as gamergate, an example of mass abuse by collections of gamers against (in this case female) games developers.

[17] Jessica Conditt, “How ‘We Happy Few’ plans to avoid the pitfalls of ‘No Man’s Sky’”, Engadget, https://www.engadget.com/2017/08/17/we-happy-few-fans-feedback-release-date-gearbox-compulsion-interview/ date accessed 1 September 2017.

[18] Quoted in Conditt.

[19] Gleick, p. 6.

[20] Arkadiusz Jadczyk, Quantum Fractals from Heisenberg’s Uncertainty to Barnsley’s Fractality, (Singapore: World Scientific) (2014).

[21] Laurent Nottale, Scale Relativity and Fractal Space-time: A New Approach to Unifying Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, (London: Imperial College Press) (2011).

[22] Jonathan Dickau, “Fractal cosmology” Chaos, Solitons and Fractals 41 (2009), pp. 2103-2105.

[23] Jay Sorkin, Shera Buyer, “Using fractal geometry in a financial crisis” Futures 31:10 (2002), p. 48.

[24] Kathryn Pavlovich, “A Fractal Approach to Sustainable Networks” E:CO 11:3 (2009), pp. 49-60.

[25] Ikujiro Nonaka, Mitsuru Kodama, Ayano Hirose, Florian Kohlbacher, “Dynamic fractal organizations for promoting knowledge-based transformation – A new paradigm for organizational theory” European Management Journal 32 (2014), pp. 137-146.

[26] S.M. Saad, A. M. Lassila, “Layout design in fractal organizations” International Journal of Production Research 42:17 (2004), pp. 3529-3550.

[27] Aurélien Bancaud, Christophe Lavelle, Sébastien Huet, and Jan Ellenberg, “A fractal model for nuclear organization: current evidence and biological implications” Nucleic Acids Research 40:18 (2012), pp. 8783-8792.

[28] Selma Aybek, Anisoara Ionescu, Alexandre Berney, Oury Chocron, Kamiar Aminian, Francois Joseph Godfried Vingerhoets, “Fractal temporal organisation of motricity is altered in major depression” Psychiatry Research 200 (2012), pp. 288-293.

[29] Rajiv Ramnath, David Landsbergen, “IT-enabled sense-and-respond strategies in complex public organizations” Communications of the ACM 48:5 (2005), p. 58-64.

[30] Styxies, [Steam comment – 5 May 2017], Steam http://store.steampowered.com/app/8500/EVE_Online/ accessed 24 May 2017.

[31] Neal Stephenson, Reamde (London: Atlantic Books) (2012).

[32] Marcus Carter, Kelly Bergstrom, Darryl Woodford (eds), Internet Spaceships Are Serious Business: An EVE Online Reader, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) (2016).

[33] Bobby Glushko, “Tales of the (Virtual) City: Governing Property Disputes in Virtual Worlds” Berkeley technology law journal 22:1 (2007), pp. 507-532.

[34] Nicolas Suzor, Darryl Woodford, “Evaluating Consent and Legitimacy amongst Shifting Community Norms: an EVE Online Case Study” Journal of Virtual Worlds Research 6:3 (2013), 16p.

[35] Nicholas Webber, “EVE Online’s War Correspondents: player journalism as history”, in Fans and Videogames: Histories, Fandom, Archives, ed. Melanie Swalwell, Angela Ndalianis and Helen Stuckey (New York: Taylor and Francis) (2017), pp. 93-110.

[36] Marcus Carter, “Emitexts and Paratexts: Propaganda in EVE Online” Games and Culture 10:4 (2015), 311-342.

[37] Nicholas Taylor, Kelly Bergstrom, Jennifer Jenson and Suzanne de Castell, “Alienated Playbour: Relations of Production in EVE Online” Games and Culture 10:4 (2015), pp. 365-388.

[38] Marcus Carter, Martin Gibbs, Michael Arnold, “Avatars, Characters, Players and Users: Multiple Identities at/in Play” OZCHI’12 (2012), pp. 68-71.

[39] Kelly Bergstrom, “Virtual inequality: a woman’s place in cyberspace” FDG’12 (2012), pp. 267-269.

[40] Oskar Milik, “Virtual Warlords: An Ethnomethodological View of Group Identity and Leadership in EVE Online” Games and Culture (2015), p. 1-22.

[41] Michael Hugos. Essentials of Supply Chain Management, (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons) (2011), p. 219.

[42] Wu-chang Feng, “A Long-term Study of a Popular MMORPG” ACM SIGCOMM NetGames ‘07 (2007), pp. 19-24.

[43] David Brandt, “Scaling EVE Online, under the hood of the network layer” NetGames ‘05 (2005).

Daniel Horn, Ewen Cheslack-Postava, Tahir Azim, Michael J. Freedman, Philip Levis, “Scaling Virtual Worlds with a Physical Metaphor” Pervasive Computing Jul-Sept (2009), pp. 50-54.

[44] Halldor Fannar Guðjónsson, “The server technology of EVE Online: How to cope with 300,000 players on one server” Proc. Austin GDC (2008).

[45] Darren Jorgensen, “The Numerical Verisimilitude of Science Fiction and EVE-Online” Extrapolation 51:1 (2010), pp. 134-147.

Glitched perception: beyond the transparency and visibility of the video game object

Justyna Janik

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 65-82.

 

Justyna Janik

Jagiellonian University

 

 

Glitched perception: beyond the transparency and visibility of the video game object 

 

Abstract

The video game world is a complex structure combining different kinds of elements, from objects with a physical representation in the environment, through the game engine, to the interface. Some of them can be further decomposed into even more basic parts, so subtle that the player, being too absorbed in gameplay, does not recognize them. However, all these elements perform an equally important role in building a successful simulation of a vivid reality. This can easily be observed in video games with three-dimensional expanded environments that are carefully crafted to reinforce and enrich the player’s immersive experience of the game world. It is possible because of the phenomenological character of this relation, simultaneously despite and because of its mediatized nature. The player builds her perception of a game’s reality by exploring its environment (Vella, 2013). With every step and every interaction with the in-game objects, the player broadens her knowledge of the surrounding world. Thus, by learning how to communicate with the video game environment, the player deepens her presence in the game’s world. As a result of this process, the medium of the video game object is becoming more transparent, which results in the player’s subjective perception of an illusion of a vivid world rather than just a mediated digital space.

However, this situation is not a stable one and a lot of different factors can disturb this kind of connection between the player and the game’s world. One of these factors, which will be the main subject of this paper, is glitches. When a glitch occurs, the player becomes very much aware of the presence of the object. The illusion is broken, and the game is no longer “ready-to-hand” (the Heideggerian idea of zuhanden). The intrusive nature of a glitch is a reminder that the video game is a resistant object that no one can truly master. Moreover, the error in the system highlights how (re)mediatized the game experience really is. For a moment, the video game object loses its transparency and reminds the player about its digital nature.

The analysis will focus on how the moment of glitch, as a manifestation of the pure agency of the video game, influences not only the relation between the player and the game but also the player’s perception of the video game object. What is especially interesting from this perspective is how the non-anthropocentric nature of this relation is revealed by the moment of a glitch. Due to this phenomenon, the game gains an advantage over the player, who is forced to change her perception of the game environment. As a result of a glitch, dormant affordances resurface from the video game environment. Even if they have not been designed by the developers, they still produce new content that the player may give meaning to. This process will be illustrated by a case analysis of specific glitches that concur to break the illusion of a life-like digital world but at the same time do not significantly influence the main game systems, such as the mechanics. Among the analysed cases, there will be such examples as Manimals (Red Dead Redemption), The Suicidal Photographer (Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas), MissingNo. (Pokémon Red and Blue) and others that are related to the animated or human-like in-game objects.

Key words: video games, glitch, game object, Heidegger, bio-object

 

Introduction

 

The possibility that, at any time while playing, a glitch might occur, is an essential part of the video game medium. As much as it might be irritating and unwanted, it is still an important element that contributes to the uniqueness of video games. Even if glitches are not restricted only to this medium and can manifest in other digital creations, their disruptive nature, combined with the interactivity and narrative potential of the video game medium, not only results in the production of new meanings, but also actively influences player behaviour. As Rosa Menkman, relying on Paul Virilio’s works about the significant role of accident in human culture, argues, a glitch “shows a system in a state of entropy and so aids towards an understanding of the ultimate functioning of a system”.[1] In her analysis—as seems to be a popular approach in media studies[2]—she focuses on glitch art and aesthetics as the right path for acquiring knowledge about digital media. I agree that it is important to explore this subject further by analysing the glitch phenomenon not only as a possible work of art, but also as something that can happen to the user of technology on an everyday basis. Only this way will we be able to understand better the technology itself and its influence on our life. Therefore, this article will focus on video game glitches; not functional ones that are used to exploit the game mechanisms, however, but those that relate to practices of a common player and are more visual in nature.

Glitches are a well-discussed subject in the field of game studies; however, the majority of this work focuses on how a glitch is used by players and on how it exists in the community consciousness: Mia Consalvo[3] and Alan F. Meades[4] write about how glitches are used in counterplay, Thomas Apperley[5] analyses glitches in games in the context of aesthetics and digital art, Jaroslav Švelch[6] focuses on glitch-related humour, whereas Jan Švelch[7] analyses the exploitation of glitches with regards to microtransactions. In this paper, instead, I will explore this subject mainly from the perspective of the ontology of the video game object. I believe that by analysing glitches in this way, we will be able to deepen our knowledge about the nature of the player–game relationship from the perspective of the non-human agency of the digital object.

To better explore this subject from this angle, I will base my argument on the Heideggerian idea of “presence-at-hand” and explain how the manifestation of the glitch emphasises the objectivity of the digital game artefact. This will lead me to the central problem of the paper: what happens in the moment of the glitch, and what are the consequences of the erratic behaviour of the game software? More precisely, the paper will focus on how glitches change the player’s perception of the video game object, and on her attempts at understanding and explaining glitches, which, in the end, lead to the embracing of this phenomenon and its incorporation into the lore of the community. This process is based not only on communication within the gaming community, but also between the player and the game itself. The game actively influences our gameplay experience and can or should be perceived as our partner in play. In this context, the glitch seems to be the manifestation of the game’s agency, and, hence, the game’s assertion of itself as an agent over and against the player. Therefore, to deepen the analysis of this phenomenon, I will use the concept of the bio-object created by Tadeusz Kantor, which will allow me to approach this subject from a posthuman perspective, that is close to Latourian critical thinking. This way, I will be able to show how the sudden appearance of a glitch can resolve itself in the creation of new meanings, with the game object as equal to human co-creator of senses.

 

Definitional problems with glitch

 

A glitch is rather ephemeral in its nature. Its sudden appearance can be very brief, but it can also be permanent. When we look at the general, technological definition, a glitch is presented as being related to procedural flow disturbances, and as resulting in minor and major system dysfunctions. While some are recognized, recorded in a typical bug report, and fixed, others become forgotten or/and dormant for so long that they turn into an object of discursive practices[8]. The vagueness of the definition of ‘glitch’ causes a lot of problems and results in the misuse of this term, especially in popular discourse[9]. This mechanism is especially visible in gaming culture, where glitches can be interpreted as “audio-visual imperfections (graphics drawing incorrectly or audio breaking up), gameplay anomalies (the ability to get stuck in certain looping sequences), or even narrative inconsistencies (continuity errors either within titles or across series)”[10]. This definitional vagueness creates a very interesting tension whereby a glitch would be a behaviour of a game object that does not fit the player’s (or even the designer’s) expectations. It does not have to be connected to a system malfunction, but, rather, is something that could be perceived as a misbehaviour of the game – even if the game just follows the lines of code that the designer wrote.

Interesting examples that illustrate this kind of misuse could be often found in glitch compilation videos posted on YouTube[11]. While a lot of glitches that follow the technological definition can be found in these productions, there are also some exceptions. For example, a few videos that bracket together glitches that can be perceived as “weird” or “scary” include the depictions of Doctor Watson from Sherlock Holmes Versus Arsène Lupin (2007, Frogwares), released also as Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis. In this instalment of the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series, the developers did not animate Doctor Watson walking from spot to spot. His character seems to appear right behind the player’s back (the game is viewed from a first-person perspective) every time the camera loses sight of him. This can be perceived as erratic behaviour on the part of the software, but it is clearly a design flaw, not a system failure or a glitch. One can argue that this kind of terminological misuse distorts the true meaning of the concept of a glitch and causes chaos in academic nomenclature. However, the interpretations of glitch that can be found in popular discourse put this technological concept in a broader critical perspective. Such a perspective allows for an analysis of glitches not as bugs, but, rather, as phenomena that carry the key to better understanding the video game medium. As Menkman wrote: “failure is a phenomenon to overcome, while a glitch is incorporated further into technological or interpretive processes”[12]. Therefore, in this article, I follow the popular understanding of a glitch, because I believe it will cast a new light on how players interpret the game object’s agency as a disturbing error that should be explained afresh and rationalised in the gaming community.

 

Glitches and the philosophy of Martin Heidegger

 

In this moment, we should answer the question of what is so special about glitches and why they can influence the player’s perception of the video game object. In the first place, we need to determine the status of a glitch in relation to the player and the video game object. I believe the answer to that problem can be developed in relation to the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, especially the ideas of zuhanden and vorhanden. The former concept, that can be translated as “ready-to-hand”, describes the state of being of a thing (Zeug, “something-in-order-to”, an equipment or a tool) when we use it automatically. Even with the simplest thing, the connection always consists of multiple different elements[13]. A good example is riding a car: there is a driver with her abilities and senses, a car which is constructed with many smaller elements, and the situation of traffic, which also has a lot of components[14]. In order to achieve a state of harmonious cooperation, an object has to retreat and disappear from our conscious thoughts. It needs to be nonintrusive in its presence to preserve that balance. Only then can we use it as a tool in everyday life. If that harmony is disturbed, the object becomes vorhanden, “present-at-hand”. We start to be aware of its presence, because its being has changed to an intrusive one. This can happen when an object is not working properly, like a shattered mug or lost keys[15]. However, as annoying as this state of being can be, its importance is crucial. Only objects that are “present-at-hand” can become objects of our critical thinking. This is the very moment when, in the case of video games, the glitch suddenly appears.

When a game is used as expected, without any disturbances, it is “ready-to-hand”. Such is the case when a player is fully involved with the gameplay. As Gordon Calleja points out, the player’s involvement with the game is the result of the player’s contact with the video game medium itself across multiple dimensions: starting from a kinaesthetic sensation of moving inside a new environment, through to the sharing of the experience of play with other players or to thinking about new strategies of play, among others[16]. While the player is thus involved in the process of play, the game object disappears from her conscious awareness, becoming “ready-to-hand”. Even if a game is a hypermediated one (such as, for example, Her Story [2015, Sam Barlow])[17], the technical side of the medium experience is still transparent. The player does not think about the complex technology behind the game software as long as everything works perfectly fine and she is familiar with her gaming device. She deepens her experience through the (re)mediated contact with a game environment.

This situation changes in the moment of the glitch manifestation: with the suddenness of the glitch occurrence, the video game object becomes present right before the player’s eyes and in her conscious thoughts. The content of the game (gameworld, mechanics, aesthetic etc.) starts to be perceived as background noise and the player can focus on the technological aspects of the game. I believe that, in this context, the glitch is beyond the scope of the issue of the transparency or visibility of the video game medium. It is also different from what Piotr Kubiński understands as an “emersive effect”[18], because it is not simply a shift from being immersed in the game world to being “emersed” out of it, even if the glitch phenomenon exposes the fact that our contact with a video game is only the impression of a direct encounter[19]. I believe it is something more, something different. The sudden appearance of a glitch makes the player’s game experience change from mediated contact with the content of the video game to contact with an object of the video game itself.

 

Materiality of the video game object

 

While it is relatively easy to observe how the player can exert her agency to change the state of the game, it is essential to remember that the video game object also has the power of agency, in a way that is different from any other category of games. It can actively defy us not only by presenting us with a hard-to-beat difficulty level, but also by exhibiting unexpected, erratic behaviour – like a glitch. Therefore, to truly understand the glitch phenomenon, we should think about the digital game more as an artefact that evaluates performance,[20] or, in other words, as a playable artefact[21].

As Olli Tapio Leino[22] argues, the true distinction between video games and traditional games is hidden in the approach to the materiality of the game and its process. When we look closer at board games, such as Monopoly, the player has to internalize the rules in order to play the game – she has to agree to follow them. Without that process, the material side of the game object is just cardboard and a few pawns that are deprived of their intended functionality. However, in video games, this situation looks different: “aspects of computer games exist in complete disregard of the player’s thoughts, motivations and intentions”[23]. The materiality is closely braided with the process. It does not matter if the player wants to act differently towards a non-player character (NPC) than is programmed – she just cannot. Moreover, her actions in the game are not only limited by the behaviour of the game software, but even imposed by it. With this realization, the game can be perceived as a complex object that is filled with agency.

At this point in the traversing of this argument, it does not seem hard to see that the relationship that is being defined between the player and the video game object is not an anthropocentric one, but is more posthuman in its nature. The human being, in this case the player, is not in the centre of the creation, in this case the gameplay. She is one of the elements that create game experience and not the only one with agency. In this context, the glitch seems not only to point to the objectivity of the video game artefact – thus re-establishing the visibility of the technological nature of the game – but also emphasizes its agency to the point where we start perceiving the game as the Other that we have to face.

To better explore this phenomenon, I will make use of the critical thinking of Tadeusz Kantor, the Polish artist and theatre director. Even if it was not his primary intention to articulate such a theory, his views about the role of objects in reality can be perceived as non-anthropocentric and close to Bruno Latour’s ones[24]. His ideas, especially his concept of the bio-object[25], can be used as a valuable tool for the analysis of the bond that is created between the player and the video game in the moment of gameplay, because they show how the agency of a physical object, in this case the glitch phenomenon, influences the meaning creation process.

 

The idea of the bio-object

 

The idea of the bio-object emerged from Kantor’s aesthetical explorations concerning the nature of objects, their meaning, and their place in the surrounding reality. Kantor coined the notion of the bio-object to describe the special relation between the actor and the stage object that is established during the performance of the play. The object defines the moves and motives of the actor and they are both the main conduit of the play’s meaning: “the substance of the performance was created by the “inner life” of the OBJECT, by its properties, destiny and imaginative scope”[26]. However, the actor not only animates the object, but in fact becomes a living part of it, “becomes its living organs, linked to it as if genetically”[27]. Actor and object are both equal in this qualitative new unity. Moreover, without each other, they become useless in the context of the performance. The actor can abandon the stage object, which would then be no more than an empty shell at that moment, but, at the same time, she would also lose the purpose of her being on stage.

Regardless, even if they appear as one, the bond between actor and object is not exactly stable. It is based on constant rivalry: either the actor dominates the object and uses it as she wishes, or the object exposes its agency over the human and confines her movements. One can, often easily, manipulate the mannequin, but the clumsy and ragged material properties of a puppet can also make us trip over the lifeless limbs. However, this inner struggle is not the unwanted outcome of this connection – it is essentially responsible for producing new meanings[28].

This dualistic nature of the bio-object seems to reflect the power struggle between the player and the game that emerges in gameplay. In this very moment, the bond between the player and the video game object is created, and, simultaneously, a space of multiple possibilities is produced. The idea of the bio-object in the video game medium can manifest in various ways, although the ephemerality of the gameplay phenomenon often makes it hard to discern in visible forms. It is especially visible through all the traces that the player leaves inside the game environment, like looted crates or bloodstains after a battle. These are evidence of symbiotic cooperation between the game object and the player. However, the rivalry side of this relationship is revealed in simple gameplay action as well; for example, when the player gains an advantage by modifying (or in some cases even taming) the game environment during her activities (by choosing the narrative path or changing the primary state of the game object by playing with mods). By comparison, the game object gains an advantage when the difficulty level of a game is too high to beat, or even every time the player realizes she has been playing ‘wrong’ and is forced to change her behaviour in order to progress. Of course, another example of this mechanism are glitches, which are something unplanned and unexpected that can interfere with the player’s involvement with a game because of its suddenness. They not only interrupt her game session, but more often than not, force the player to change her strategy of play (for example, when a glitch makes it impossible to finish a quest the way she wants by blocking certain choices).

This is in tone with Menkman’s critical thinking, where “[T]he glitch makes the computer itself suddenly appear conventionally deep, in contrast to the more banal, predictable surface-level behaviours of ‘normal’ machines and systems. In this way, glitches announce a crazy and dangerous kind of moment(um) instantiated and dictated by the machine itself”[29]. The computer, in this case the video game object, lights itself up through the glitch manifestation. This phenomenon forces the player to think not only about the object or content of the game, but also about how it relates to other objects and the player herself[30]. By defying its designed purpose, the video game object is exposing its agency, the agency that was not intentionally programmed beforehand by a designer. It is something unexpected that does not fit the player’s perception of what the game object should do. It emerges from the game’s technological materiality; thus, I dare to call it ‘pure’ agency, because it was not primarily imposed by a human. This is also a perfect example of a video game being perceived and behaving as the Other[31]. The glitch occurrence reminds us that playing a video game is an act of communication[32], being one of the video game’s responses to the player’s actions.

In some radical cases, this response can result in the shutdown of the game. The power is taken from the player and she is forced to regain her own position by learning more about and eventually overcoming the technology behind the game. In other, less extreme cases, the video game object demonstrates its agency by, as has already been discussed, breaking the illusion of a coherent gameworld. Even if a graphical glitch, for example, does not usually stop the game, it is still very disruptive to the player’s experience. When such a glitch appears, the player is knocked out from the flow of playing and can only stare in wonder, as in the case of a glitch in Red Dead Redemption (2010, Rockstar San Diego) referred to as “Manimals” by the player community, in which the game misplaces some of the textures, causing animals to look like humans and making it possible for the player to find human–animal hybrids during exploration of the wilderness. The glitch is now patched, but traces of it still linger in the memories of the community of players and are incorporated into the fandom’s consciousness. Even if the “Manimals” glitch did not really influence the flow of the gameplay process, it still made the player pause to consider the game’s technological materiality.

For Kantor, one of the most important things was to focus on the materiality of the theatre medium because its realness can only be approached in this way. For this reason, he always incorporated a very special kind of object into his plays – abandoned, garbage-like, stripped of the functionality that was imposed on them by a human[33]. They were just “poor objects”. However, this transition draws them closer to the reality of the lowest rank, which shows the object as it is – with no strings attached. From then on, the poor object is autonomous and can, for example, become a work of art[34], being perceived in itself and for its own sake rather than disappearing in view of its function. By using abandoned and garbage-like items, Kantor opened a door to reality where art and life do not transcend each other, but rather render one another[35]. This is possible because poor objects have lost their original functionality, and therefore “the familiarized object that is tamed by the utility of the life suddenly uncovers its independent, alien existence”[36]. The “poor objects” stop being transparent and become visible. Even when they were later an element of a bigger installation and, in the end, a non-human part of a bio-object, they never went back into the shadow. Their worn-out materiality emphasised their presence and agency on stage. As a result, the spectator was always in a state of being awake from the illusion[37].

In the context of video games, this approach seems to describe the moment of the glitch. The player is suddenly awakened from her involvement with the gameplay process and has to face the materiality of the game object that loses (even if only for a moment) its designed function. As a result of this, the player is no longer playing inside the video game environment, but rather with the digital object itself.

This approach is directly related to a posthuman perspective on agency. Kantor’s critical thought emphasized the specific status of the object[38], which is not defined by its given, human functionality, but also has the capacity to itself define – and, as a result, transform – human beings when they are using it. This is similar to the situation in a relational network, as Latour[39] theorizes it. Actants operating inside such networks are constantly in the process of being translated. In other words, when actants are connected to each other inside this network, they influence and change each other. The difference between this and the bio-object, is that, for Kantor, the bond between actor and object on stage is aesthetic in nature. Likewise, while the player and the game are still functioning inside a bigger relational network because of the designed character of the game artefact and the specificity of the play action, the connection between them has different properties. Moreover, the aforementioned power struggle inside the bio-object produces new aesthetic meanings.

While this idea is somewhat similar to what Peter-Paul Verbeek calls cyborg intentionality[40] – it is a new entity that is being co-shaped by a human being and a technological artefact of a game[41] – there are some distinctions. First of all, the bio-object is not a phenomenological relation that changes the player’s perception of the world. Here, two independent, equal actants – human and non-human – create the new entity, but remain separate inside it (hence, the power struggle between them). The human being does not transcend her human condition and the poor object does not stop being poor (in the Kantorian sense). Only in this way can a fruitful, meaning-generative tension be produced. New meanings are the effects of the mediation process between the player and the game object – both the partner in play and the platform – for this dialogue to happen. In this context, the glitch is the manifestation of the game’s agency, and the player has to answer to it to regain the dominant position in this relation – even if it lasted only a moment until the game “wins” again.

Therefore, while the suddenness of the glitch occurrence can be interpreted as a game gaining an advantage (especially in the context of the bio-object), we cannot forget about the player’s behaviour and strategy when she tries to cope with this phenomenon. Therefore, even if this text aims its attention squarely upon the game object, it is crucial to see how players react to glitches in order to regain a dominant position inside the bio-object. For this reason, I want to briefly explore this subject further in the last section of this paper.

 

Glitches in collective consciousness

 

A player’s reaction to glitches usually depends on the type of glitch she encounters in the game environment. In addition to glitches like “Manimals”, which do not alter the gameplay experience on anything other than an audio-visual level, there are also so-called functional glitches[42]. They not only actively influence the game mechanics but could also be used by players to change the gameplay experience[43]. In some cases, they are exploited by players that want to gain an additional advantage in a game, like speedrunners, cheats or trolls[44].

However, glitching is a more complicated phenomenon in the gaming community than simply the exploitation of a design flaw. In his research, Alan F. Meades emphasises the fact that searching for a glitch is, in fact, a manifestation of a deep understanding of a game’s structure, and even can be perceived as an act of devotion or love to the given production[45]. This kind of glitch hunting is a fine example that glitches do not have to be perceived as an obstacle while playing video games. They are even sometimes considered to be a part of game mythology or folklore[46], like “MISSINGNO”. from Pokémon Red and Blue (Game Freak, 1996) or “Minus World” in Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo, 1985)[47]. However, these are both older games that can no longer be officially patched, meaning that these glitches have naturally become a permanent part of them and of gaming culture in general.

Interestingly enough, in newer productions – at a time when games can be easily fixed even after release – some developers actively decide to keep some glitches in the game code as a part of the gameplay experience. In Minecraft (2011, Mojang) – one of the most popular games of recent years – we can find a hostile creature (or a hostile mob/mobile) known as the “Creeper”[48]. The creeper started out as a simple glitch, when one of the creators made a mistake in entering the dimensions of a pig mob into the game environment. Its deformed and disturbing looks were inspiring enough to be introduced to the game as a new, “creepy” creature[49]. This case is interesting for at least two reasons. As Apperley notes, only some glitches are tolerated enough to be aestheticized by the gaming community[50]. This aestheticization process leads to a mechanism of taming the manifestation of the game object agency (as a glitch occurrence clearly is) by granting it new meaning and functionality. The Creeper is an example of how a glitch can be translated from an erratic software behaviour to a feature. If we translate it to the context of a bio-object, it becomes an example of one of the ways in which the player can regain power over the game object after the glitch occurrence.

Another interesting example of this kind of approach – when the player community tries to explain strange phenomena that they encounter inside the game world – is the so-called “Suicidal Photographer” from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004, Rockstar North). “Suicidal Photographer” is a randomly spawned pedestrian that sometimes appears at Los Santos Inlet. S/he would probably would not even be noticed if it was not for his/her strange behaviour. The player meets the mysterious photographer right next to a riverbank where s/he takes a photo of the horizon and then walks straight to the water and drowns. On a fan-made Wiki[51] dealing with myths in the Grand Theft Auto series, we can find a possible explanation for the aforementioned character’s strange behaviour: namely, that it is nothing more than a path glitch. Probably, in the early stage of development, the place was enriched with more architectural elements, such as an extended plateau or a little footbridge. The game’s designers might have deleted these features in the transition to a newer version but forgot about changing the walking path for the pedestrian. In technical terms, this is not a system failure but a design flaw, but, in popular discourse, it is perceived as a glitch.

The “Suicidal Photographer” is a very specific kind of glitch. It does not interfere directly with a player’s style of play. The game environment and mechanics remain as they are meant to be. The player cannot use it to her advantage. In fact, she cannot do anything with this glitch, not even play with it. All that can be done is just to be a witness to the unexplained death of a random character. This moment is even more confusing when we realise that, at first, the player is probably not sure if it is a glitch or a legitimate game event, especially because of the sandbox character of the game. Therefore, she is looking for an answer, or, rather, a solution to this particular riddle. In this way, the whole mythology around the game is being created. By creating the whole mythology around this “glitch”, players try to take away the agency from the game and replace it with theirs. I believe that this kind of behaviour can be interpreted as a defence mechanism against the uncanny feeling that accompanies the manifestation of the video game object’s presence. In this case, the tension that is created between the player and the video game object results in new interpretations that were neither planted nor expected by designers. This meaningful situation was created because of the interaction of human and non-human actors. Without breaking the illusion of the immediate experience of the video game world, all of these meanings would remain dormant.

 

Conclusion

 

Glitches in video games, especially when we consider the popular understanding of them, usually describe phenomena that are related to unexplained and strange encounters inside the game environment. The players rather tend to blame a video game for all things that do not work within the designed logic of a game. This is the case even when a glitch is not exactly a glitch, but a design flaw, as in the examples of the “Suicidal Photographer” from GTA: San Andreas and Doctor Watson’s teleportation in Sherlock Holmes Versus Arsène Lupin. All the visible signs of the game’s agency are interpreted as an error, a system failure: in other words, as something out of order, and, therefore, wrong. In the context of the bio-object, this behaviour is a good example of the rivalry between human and non-human actors, because, with the glitch occurrence, the game object reminds the player that she is not playing alone.

First off, there is the tension created by a manifestation of the materiality of the game object. Because of this display of agency, the video game gains an advantage over the player. In the case of the aforementioned examples, the only thing that a typical player can do is to become imaginative and tame the video game with her creations, like compilation videos, funny mash-ups, or simply a new interpretation of the given situation. This kind of behaviour is also an example of the fact that the bond between a player and a video game can transition to outside the digital medium. However, in the case of more functional glitches, the player can actively use these manifestations of the game’s agency to either beat the game or play against the logic of its design, which would result in an overpowering of the game object.

Therefore, I believe that the question of the glitch is beyond the scope of the issues of the transparency or visibility of the video game medium. The connection between the player and the video game object transforms from an undisturbed to a disturbed one but, at the same time, remains unbroken. To use the Heideggerian nomenclature, it has to become “present-at-hand” to break away from being transparent, “ready-to-hand”. By making the video game object visible, glitches also make it more powerful. The content of the game becomes transparent and its position shifts from being a purpose to being a context for the interpretation of a new behaviour of a game object. In the very moment of the glitch’s occurrence, the goal of play changes. It not only forces the player to think about the digital materiality of the artefact and the technology behind it, but essentially invites her to play with it. With her acceptance of this invitation, the player is no longer playing within the boundaries of the video game environment, but with the game artefact itself.

 

This article was financed from statutory activity funds for scientific research and development of young scholars and PhD students.

 

Games

FarCry, Crytek, Pc, 2004.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Rockstar North, Pc, 2004.

Her Story, Sam Barlow, Pc, 2015.

Mario SuperBros., Ninetendo, NES, 1985.

Minecraft, Mojang, Pc, 2011.

Pokémon Red and Blue, Game Freak, Gameboy, 1996.

Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar San Diego, XBOX 360, 2010.

Sherlock Holmes Versus Arsène Lupin. Frogwares, Pc, 2007.

 

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Another Top 10 Video Game Glitches, https://youtu.be/sotqQFRUeHE, date accessed 25 February 2018.

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Bolter Jay David & Grusin Richard, Remediation: Understanding new media, (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press) (1999).

Briz Nick, Meaney Evan, Menkman Rosa, Robertson William, Satrom Jon, Westbrook Jessica (ed) Gli.t/ch 20111 Reader [ROR], (Amsterdam/Chicago: Unsorted Books) (2011).

Calleja Gordon, In-game: From immersion to incorporation, (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.) (2011).

Cascone Kim, “The Aesthetics of Failure: ‘Post-Digital’ Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music”, Computer Music Journal 24:1 (2000);

Consalvo Mia, Cheating. Gaining advantage in videogames, (Cambridge, MA: MIT) (2007).

Creeper, https://minecraft.gamepedia.com/Creeper , date accessed 3 September 2017.

Domańska Ewa. (2008). „Humanistyka nie-antropocentryczna a studia nad rzeczami”, Kultura Współczesna 3 (2008).

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Koch-Butryn Małgorzata, „Sobowtóry, manekiny i bio-obiektywy w twórczością Tadeusza Kantora”, Kwartalnik Teatralny 1 (2002).

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Majkowski Tomasz Z., „Różnojęzyczność gier wideo a sytuacja gracza: rozpoznanie wstępne [Video Game Heteroglossia and Player Situation: Initial Diagnosis]”, Wielogłos. Pismo Wydziału Polonistyki Uj 25:3 (2015).

Meades Alan F., Understanding counterplay in video games. (New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group) (2015).

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Minus World, https://www.mariowiki.com/Minus_World, date accessed 3 September 2017.

Newman James, “Playing (with) Videogames”, Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 11:1 (2005), pp. 48-67.

Newman James, Playing with Videogames. (New York: Routledge) (2008).

Olsen Bjørnar, W obronie rzeczy: Archeologia i ontologia przedmiotów [In Defense of Things. Archeology and the Ontology of Objects], (Warszawa: Instytut Badań Literackich PAN Wydawnictwo) (2013).

Pleśniarowicz Krzysztof, Teatr Śmierci Tadeusza Kantora, (Chotomów: Verba) (1990).

Pokémon’s Famous Missingno Glitch, Explained, http://kotaku.com/pokemons-famous-missingno-glitch-explained-165392914, date accessed 3 September 2017.

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Švelch Jan, “Negotiating the Glitch. Identifying and Using Glitches in Video Games with Microtransactions”, in: New Perspectives in Games Studies: Proceedings of the Central and Eastern European Game Studies Conference Brno 2014, ed. Tomáš Bártek, Jan Miškov, Jaroslav Švelch (Brno: Masaryk University) (2015).

Top 15 SCARIEST Video Game Glitches, https://youtu.be/q5m0WVhYMX4, date accessed 25 February 2018.

Twitchin Mischa, The Theatre of Death – The Uncanny in Mimesis: Tadeusz Kantor, Aby Warburg, and an Iconology of the Actor, (London: Palgrave Macmillan UK) (2016).

Verbeek Peter-Paul, “Cyborg intentionality: Rethinking the phenomenology of human-technology relations”, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 7:3 (2008), pp. 387–395.

 

 

[1] Rosa Menkman, The glitch moment(um), (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures) (2011), p. 32.

[2] See also: Peter Krapp, Noise Channels: Glitch and Error in Digital Culture, (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press) (2011); Kim Cascone, “The Aesthetics of Failure: ‘Post-Digital’ Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music”, Computer Music Journal 24:1 (2000); Gli.t/ch 20111 Reader [ROR], ed. Nick Briz, Evan Meaney, Rosa Menkman, William Robertson, Jon Satrom, Jessica Westbrook, (Amstardam/Chocago: Unsorted Books) (2011).

[3] Mia Consalvo, Cheating. Gaining advantage in videogames, (Cambridge, MA: MIT) (2007); James Newman, Playing Videogames, (New York: Routledge) (2008).

[4] Alan F. Meades, Understanding counterplay in video games, (New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group) (2015).

[5] Thomas Apparley, „Glitch sorting: Minecraft, curation and the post-digital”, in Postdigital Aesthetics. Art, Computation and Design, ed. David M. Berry, Michael Dieter (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmilla) (2015).

[6] Jaroslav Švelch, “Comedy of Contingency: Making Physical Humour in Video Game Spaces”, International Journal of Communication 8:23 (2014).

[7] Jan Švelch, “Negotiating the Glitch. Identifying and Using Glitches in Video Games with Microtransactions”, in: New Perspectives in Games Studies: Proceedings of the Central and Eastern European Game Studies Conference Brno 2014, ed. Tomáš Bártek, Jan Miškov, Jaroslav Švelch (Brno: Masaryk University) (2015).

[8] Rosa Menkman, pp. 26-27.

[9] Jan Švelch, “Negotiating the Glitch. Identifying and Using Glitches in Video Games with Microtransactions”, in: New Perspectives in Games Studies: Proceedings of the Central and Eastern European Game Studies Conference Brno 2014, ed. Tomáš Bártek, Jan Miškov, Jaroslav Švelch (Brno: Masaryk University) (2015), pp. 55-59.

[10] James Newman, “Playing (with) Videogames”, Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies  11:1 (2005), p. 63.

[11] For example: Top 15 SCARIEST Video Game Glitches, https://youtu.be/q5m0WVhYMX4, date accessed 25 February 2018; 10 Insane Glitches that Actually Made Video Games Better, https://youtu.be/D8bCcTjcGP0, date accessed 25 February 2018; Another Top 10 Video Game Glitches, https://youtu.be/sotqQFRUeHE, date accessed 25 February 2018;

[12] Rosa Menkman, p. 27.

[13] Martin Heidegger, Bycie i czas [Being and Time], (Warszawa: Wydaw. Naukowe PWN) (2008), pp. 87-92.

[14] Bjørnar Olsen, W obronie rzeczy: Archeologia i ontologia przedmiotów [In Defense of Things. Archeology and the Ontology of Objects], (Warszawa: Instytut Badań Literackich PAN Wydawnictwo) (2013), p. 113.

[15] Martin Heidegger, pp. 92-96.

[16] See: Gordon Calleja, In-game: From immersion to incorporation, (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.) (2011)

[17] Jay David Bolter & Richard Grusin, pp. 31-50.

[18] Piotr Kubiński, „Immersion vs. Emersive Effects in Videogames”, in Play, Theory, and Practice: Engaging with Videogames, ed. Dawn Stobbart and Monica Evans (Oxford: Inter-Disciplinary Press, 2014), pp.133-141.

[19] Piotr Kubiński, Gry wideo: Zarys poetyki, (Kraków: Towarzystwo Autorów i Wydawców Prac Naukowych “Universitas”) (2016), pp. 78-79.

[20] Veli-Matti Karhulahti, “Defining the Videogame”, Games Studies: international journal of computer game research 15:2 (2015), http://gamestudies.org/1502/articles/karhulahti, date accessed 3 September 2017.

[21] Olli Tapio Leino, “Death Loop as a Feature”, Game Studies: the international journal of computer game research 12:2 (2012b), http://gamestudies.org/1202/articles/death_loop_as_a_feature , date accessed 3 September 2017.

[22] Olli Tapio Leino (2012b)

[23] Olli Tapio Leino (2012b)

[24] Ewa Domańska, „Humanistyka nie-antropocentryczna a studia nad rzeczami”, Kultura Współczesna 3 (2008), pp. 19-21.

[25] Tadeusz Kantor, Teatr śmierci: Teksty z lat, 1975-1984, (Wrocław: Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich) (2004).

[26] Tadeusz Kantor, p. 397.

[27] Tadeusz Kantor, p. 397.

[28] Krzystof Pleśniarowicz, Teatr Śmierci Tadeusza Kantora, (Chotomów: Verba) (1990), p. 35.

[29] Rosa Menkman, p. 31.

[30] Bjørnar Olsen, pp. 117-118.

[31] Olli Tapio Leino, “Untangling Gameplay: An Account of Experience, Activity and Materiality Within Computer Game Play”, in The Philosophy of Computer Games, ed. John Richard Sageng, Hallvard Fossheim and Tarjei Mandt Larsen (Dordrecht: Springer) (2012a), pp. 71-72.

[32] Tomasz Z. Majkowski, „Różnojęzyczność gier wideo a sytuacja gracza : rozpoznanie wstępne [Video Game Heteroglossia and Player Situation: Initial Diagnosis]”, Wielogłos. Pismo Wydziału Polonistyki Uj 25:3 (20015), pp. 23–39.

[33] Tadeusz Kantor, pp. 413-424.

[34] Ewa Domańska, p. 20.

[35] Mischa Twitchin, The Theatre of Death – The Uncanny in Mimesis: Tadeusz Kantor, Aby Warburg, and an Iconology of the Actor, (London: Palgrave Macmillan UK) (2016), p. 29.

[36] Tadeusz Kantor, p. 461,

[37] Małgorzata Koch-Burtyn, „Sobowtóry, manekiny i bio-obiektywy w twórczością Tadeusza Kantora”, Kwartalnik Teatralny 1 (2002).p. 102.

[38] Ewa Domańska, pp. 19-21.

[39] Bruno Latour, Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory, (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (2005).

[40] Peter-Paul Verbeek, Cyborg intentionality: Rethinking the phenomenology of human-technology relations”, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 7:3 (2008), pp. 387–395.

[41] Olli Tapio Leino (2012a), pp. 71-72.

[42] Jan Švelch, p. 57.

[43] Jan Švelch, p. 57.

[44] See: Mia Consalvo (2007).

[45] Alan F. Meades pp. 75-113.

[46] James Newman (2008), pp. 113-120.

[47] You can find more information about those glitches here: Pokémon’s Famous Missingno Glitch, Explained, http://kotaku.com/pokemons-famous-missingno-glitch-explained-165392914, date accessed 3 September 2017; Minus World, https://www.mariowiki.com/Minus_World, date accessed 3 September 2017.

[48] Creeper, https://minecraft.gamepedia.com/Creeper, date accessed 3 September 2017.

[49] Thomas Apperley, „Glitch sorting: Minecraft, curation and the post-digital”, in Postdigital Aesthetics. Art, Computation and Design, ed. David M. Berry, Michael Dieter (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan) (2015), p. 235

[50] Thomas Apperley, p. 236.

[51] Suicidal Photographers, http://gta-myths.wikia.com/wiki/Suicidal_Photographers , date accessed 19 October 2016.

 

Warping Diegesis: The Evolving Role of the Sound-track in Virtual Reality Gaming

Katherine Mancey

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 83-101.

 

 

Katherine Mancey

University of Liverpool

 

 

Warping Diegesis: The Evolving Role of the Soundtrack in Virtual Reality Gaming

 

Abstract

Whilst the study of music in audio-visual media is a well-established academic field, the fast and constant evolution of gaming technology creates the need for a simultaneous evolution in the analytical methodologies of video game music, and results in a need to draw from a wide range of disciplines, from film music studies to cognitive science. The rising popularity of virtual reality gaming, with the mass market introduction of VR headsets such as the Oculus Gear VR and Sony’s PSVR opens up a new field of discussion for the evolving role of non-diegetic music in gaming, and its subsequent effect on the player experience. My article addresses the shifting role of music from 2D screens to the in-world experience of virtual reality, and how this alters our perception of diegesis. This is supported by a discussion of varying neuropsychological explanations for the relationship between music and emotion, its effect on various theories of immersion/presence, and their application to this new visual immediacy. Through an analysis of a selection of films and video games, including the most recent Batman: Arkham VR, I will be questioning whether the same need for a non-diegetic underscore exists, or if this new visual experience calls for more musical fluidity across the diegesis where soundtrack and in-game audio flow seamlessly. Now that the physical distance between the player and the graphics has been drastically reduced, I question whether traditional non-diegetic video game scores will break the fourth wall rather than enhancing the player’s immersive experience. By examining where we draw lines within diegesis, this paper acknowledges the need for a re-evaluation of the relationship between soundtrack and in-game audio, as gaming technology moves away from the traditional static screen experience and into an edgeless game world, highlighting the significance of analysing all game sound as a guide to emotional response.

Key words: music, virtual reality, video games, soundtrack, Batman, film

 

The soundtrack has been a vital part of audio-visual media since its introduction in early film. However, before discussing the evolution of the soundtrack from silent film to virtual reality gaming, it is important to first contextualise virtual reality within both the gaming world and the wider technology sector. Whilst VR video games and 360º visual experiences have only recently emerged on the mass market, the design principle of Darlene Wheatstone’s 1838 stereoscope is still used today for the Google Cardboard and other lower budget VR head-mounted displays for mobile phones, using two different 2D images side by side to build a 3D image. One of the first ‘VR’ gaming experiences for the mass market was Nintendo’s table top console, Virtual Boy. Released in 1995, it used the same stereoscopic principles to create a 3D display but without free head movement. This proved unpopular with global sales of only 770,000 units[1]. Since then, developments in technology, such as an increase in graphical fidelity, have led to greater sophistication in virtual reality technology and in 2016 three premium VR headsets were released, the HTC Vive, the Oculus Rift, and the PSVR. Of the three, the PSVR has been the most commercially successful, perhaps due to its lower price point and easier set-up, requiring a PS4 to use rather than a high specification gaming PC, selling roughly one million units in its first six months.[2]

The HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift have applications outside of the gaming world, with their virtual reality technology starting to be introduced into a range of industries. For example, VR headsets allow architects to better ‘feel’ the spaces they are designing[3]. There has been a rise in 360º video production too, with popular entertainment outlets such as Buzzfeed sharing numerous 360º videos on their YouTube channel. To be experienced, their videos use stereoscopic principles which require lower-end VR headsets such as Google Cardboard, or they can be viewed without a headset by scrolling around the video, bringing this new cinematic experience to a much wider audience, and beginning to normalise the virtual reality experience in popular culture. Although these videos are not interactive, it shows a rise in the popularity of this visual engulfment, with their ‘How Animals See the World’ video being viewed over 4 million times[4]. In contrast, the PSVR is only used for gaming as it works in conjunction with the PS4. Due to its popularity and sole gaming function, I will be focusing on the PSVR and games made for the PSVR specifically whilst discussing the shifting role of music from film to 2D video games, through to virtual reality.

The soundtrack is well established as an essential part of film, television, and video games, serving many functions both practically and aesthetically. Before the advent of synchronised dialogue in 1927, films were completely silent but the theatres themselves were far from silent. The machinery involved in projecting films was loud, and audiences treated going to the movies as a social occasion. This gave music a functional purpose as it could drown out the real world, drawing attention to the screen. Music was seen as part of the performance of a film, with composers Hans Erdmann and Giuseppe Becce questioning in 1927 whether films needed music at all[5], as it was believed that non-diegetic music during dialogue scenes could annoy viewers who were trying to concentrate on the dialogue. But this opinion was not universal; when film makers managed to synchronise dialogue with image, the fidelity of the sound playback was poor. Actors had to stand awkwardly still and close to hidden microphones which lead to unnatural line delivery. This resulted in actors on screen appearing ghostly, as suggested by Adorno and Eisler, ‘For the talking picture, too, is mute. The characters in it are not speaking people but speaking effigies’[6]; without music films became ‘emaciated, bloodless, lacking in emotional appeal’[7]. It was music’s job to bring emotion to scenes and to breathe life back into the ghostly figures, overcoming the ‘questions of belief, immediacy and illusion’[8] from the audience. Musical ensembles differed between theatres, with some using full orchestras, but most movie theatres employed solo theatre organists or pianists to accompany the film. After reading the director’s ‘emotion’ annotation for the scene, they would use a mixture of improvisation, original scores, and compiled scores from pre-existing music to express this emotion to their audience; as noted by Stuart Oderman, ‘The tremolo increased suspense…A diminished chord called for resolution’[9], creating the foundations of a soundtrack. This use of soundtrack to convey human emotion has carried through to video games. As Collins suggests, sound in video games is a ‘simulacrum of the real’[10], whilst this also applies to the reactive sound effects in games, the principles behind the use of sound are still the same, to stop the on-screen action from feeling alien and detached.

We can draw parallels between the use of musical cues in early film and in video games. Just as audiences had to read slides, in early video games the players had to read text to continue the narrative, reinforced by music (see Fig 1.1). Without the capacity to play dialogue, music had to bring the text to life. Whilst still very obviously non-diegetic, this music was a key communicator of diegetic mood. Square Co.’s Final Fantasy I (1987) employs this technique. After reaching the Light Warrior Memorial Bridge, a prologue screen opens accompanied by the Final Fantasy overture (see Example 1.1)

Zrzut_07 2018-07-29 00.46.05

Example 1.1: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_nWX1M6xTA0>

 

The music during the prologue has to set the scene for adventure, achieving this through a variety of compositional techniques. If we analyse the opening melodic statement (See Fig 1.2 and 0’0’’ to 0’13’’ from Example 1.1) we can see how its structure mirrors the beginning of a journey. It starts with the tonic note in the bass and the fifth in both melodic lines, followed by a minor seventh leap. The seventh pushes us to the expansion of an upper octave in the safety of the tonic key opposed to a more nostalgic return to the original octave[11]; therefore, its use in the opening of the prologue readies the player for expansive adventure as the on-screen text reads, ‘And so, their journey begins…’. The use of the seventh is repeated in sequence; transposed up a tone to G minor it accompanies the text, ‘What awaits the Four, they do not know’. By using rising sequential repetition and a minor chord, tension builds which creates an air of mystery to mirror the text, finishing with a C major 7 chord which propels the music forwards as the ear wants it to resolve, again creating an expectation of exploration and a sense of adventure.

Zrzut_08 2018-07-29 00.46.36

The melody, harmonic structure and overall musical phrasing is reminiscent of baroque music, using a continuo bass and melodic counterpoint alongside binary form and faster-paced chord changes. However, Finally Fantasy I is not set in 17th Century Western Europe, therefore the decision to use this baroque style is not reflective of the diegetic world. When Final Fantasy I was released for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System, only three audio channels were available, and during gameplay one channel had to be left open for sound effects. As Collins suggests, ‘technological constraint has shaped aesthetic decisions’[12]. The use of this baroque style fit nicely within the three-channel system, it allowed for melodic lines to be effective whilst sounding in similar timbres akin to the contrapuntal melodic lines in Bach’s piano preludes, building and resealing tension to add depth to the pixilated characters. It also gave a sense of grandeur to the otherwise thin textures, making the resolve to the major tonic feel triumphant.

Final Fantasy I has spawned a series of sequels since its 1987 release. The most recent, Final Fantasy XV (2016), has a vastly greater capacity for audio with huge development in both the technology within the game engine and consoles (such as memory and processing capacity), and the technology used to record the music itself (such as microphone fidelity and digital processing) since the 8-bit three channel system, resulting in a high-fidelity and far more musically intricate soundtrack. It uses the same prologue theme from Final Fantasy I, but this time it is heard at the end of the game and in much richer scoring (see Example 1.2).

 

Example 1.2: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2&v=EojQj4UI58A>

 

As Summers suggests, ‘The total time, on average, that a player spends with any one game is significantly longer than the running time of most mainstream films’[13], and the player’s exposure to this prologue motif is significantly longer if they have played through all fifteen games in the series. This familiarity and long-term association with the motif adds greater emotional value to the piece above the sociocultural meaning accompanying its musical style, reinterpreting the prologue theme from the opening game play of Final Fantasy I as a finale theme to bring the whole series full circle. Yoko Shimomura’s re-orchestration of the prelude theme takes the music from a string quartet, to a piano-led quintet, through to a fanfare using brass, percussion, and a choir. This mirrors the journey the player has taken throughout the game (and throughout the whole series,), moving away from the baroque scoring techniques used in Final Fantasy I and using more contemporary scoring techniques with no technological restriction. For example, the opening string quartet uses homophonic harmonic movement with a leading violin melody on top, previously impossible via earlier 8-bit technology (See Fig. 1.3). However, both Example 1.1 and 1.2 are taken from cut scenes. These passive moments from otherwise interactive experiences allow for a linear score which lends itself to filmic musical tropes: scoring can be thicker, and the certainty of linear playback allows for greater melodic and harmonic development. Whilst this interpretation of the theme is much grander and has been humanised through the use of acoustic timbres and performance techniques such as varying vibrato, the music is still firmly non-diegetic and there is a clear distinction between the sounds and timbres of the game world and those of the soundtrack.

 

Zrzut_09 2018-07-29 00.46.57

 

Numerous studies have been conducted analysing the effect that music has on emotion; Schäfer et al. found in their study that the faster the rhythms, the more stressful and dangerous a situation the listener experiences[14]; this correlates with the use of fast-paced music in chase scenes. Chia-Hung Yeh et al. found that participants in their study could easily and accurately identify the emotions behind a piece of popular music even through different cover versions of the piece using varying lyrics in different languages[15], thus showing how powerful melody can be. Lipscomb and Kendall analysed participants’ ability to determine which music best fit a scene from Leonard Nimoy’s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home from five musical examples. They found that participants could identify the ‘correct’ music for each scene with a high degree of accuracy, and this level of accuracy increased when scenes included human characters as the music worked to mirror human gestures[16].

This reaction to musical cues works in reverse too, as found in Bullerjahn and Güldering’s study in which participants watched intentionally ambiguous film clips accompanied by a range of music, and found that musical genre had a great impact on the participants film outcome predictions, such as ‘thriller’ music leading them to imagine a more adventurous and violent film ending than the ‘melodrama’ score which lead to visions of happier, family-centric plot conclusions[17].  Imagining an accompanying image is a commonly reported reaction to music[18] and whilst each image in the mind of the listener may differ from the next, Osborne found that listeners often associated relatively similar images to specific music[19], which shows how music can be used as a powerful tool in video games to underpin gameplay and create a vaster picture of a game world than can be shown on the screen. Musical foreshadowing is a powerful tool in video games too; as Whalen suggests, ‘the paradigmatic atmosphere music also acts as melodic foreshadowing’ in relation to the interactive ocarina feature in Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, in which ‘the melodies they learn have an eerie familiarity’ as they are heard throughout the game [20]. Therefore, as discovered in each of these studies, music has a profound impact on the players’ emotional reading of a scene, with musical cues both aiding the emotional understanding of current gameplay and also creating narrative expectations for gameplay sequences to come.

There are varying neuropsychological explanations for these emotional responses to music. Juslin and Västfjäll suggest that the emotional response is controlled by brainstem reflexes, and that emotions are induced by music because of their fundamental acoustical characteristics, signalling a potentially important and urgent event[21]. For example, a large shift in dynamic from pianissimo to fortissimo is alarming to the brain and can result in an emotion of fear or shock, manipulating an evolutionary response to sound. Berlyne suggests this emotional-arousal property of music, regulated by the brainstem, explains why there is a preference for certain music at certain times[22], such as soft and harmonically predictable music being relaxing. Another explanation for the relationship between music and emotion is evaluative conditioning, which suggests that a formerly neutral stimulus such as music is transformed into a conditioning stimulus by its repeating pairing with an already existing emotionally charged stimulus[23], such as the repeated pairing of kiss scenes in film with lyrical string melodies to create an association between lush string scoring and romance. Another theory, emotional contagion, relates musical expression and gesture with an internal mimicking of that gesture by the listener, which in turn reproduces the emotions felt by the performer. This phenomenon has been seen in facial expressions in which musical expressions of fear have been recreated in the tensing of certain facial muscles by the listener[24]. Davies’s theory of emotional episodic memory works with theories of the personal semiotic values of music, as it suggests that specific emotions can be induced by the relationship between an emotional memory and the sounds of that time, also called the ‘Honey, they are playing our tune’ phenomenon[25], and can also be used to explain the emotional currency of nostalgia. All of these theories attempt to describe the way music can trigger emotion within the listener, and whilst exact emotion responses are unique to each person, they all suggest there is some commonality in emotional reactions to certain audio stimuli, whether it be an evolutionary response or a culturally embedded and subconsciously learned response to certain musical stimuli.

This use of music to aid emotional depth is a significant contributing factor to a player’s level of immersion, so that the player can experience the sensation of feeling spatially located in the game world environment[26]. There are a range of theories as to what creates this feeling of immersion and how it can be sustained, but there is a general consensus amongst scholars that immersion is a multi-faceted process. Wirth et al. suggest that this immersion process happens on two levels, influenced by media factors, process components, user actions and user factors. Primarily, the media factors and user factors work together to create both controlled attention, such as the player actively choosing to play a video game, and automatic attention, such as game music drawing the player’s eye to the screen. Once the player is engaging with the game, they suggest that immersion moves to a secondary level where the player experiences a ‘suspension of disbelief’ as they adapt to the laws and physics of the game world[27]. Brown and Cairns suggested a three-tier system: The first is engagement, which includes learning the controls and game mechanics when a conscious effort has to be made to play the game. The second is engrossment, when the controls have become second nature the player is susceptible to emotional influence from the game as their focus moves from learning to experiencing. The third is immersion, when the player is totally emotionally invested in the game at that moment and their own emotions are influenced by the characters and narrative in the game world[28].

Sweester and Wyeth focused on quantifying what creates immersion, developing their GameFlow model, using a table of ‘GameFlow criteria for player enjoyment in games’ in an attempt to explain the process of becoming immersed in video games[29]. From this table they can award games an individual GameFlow score, but their calculation does not take into account the role of music on any of their criteria, which is arguably a prominent influencer on player immersion, as suggested by Lipscomb and Zehnder’s study[30]. Using game play sequences from Electronic Arts’ Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, they measured player enjoyment with and without music using a verbal scale and found a positive correlation between music and enjoyment. Nacke, Grimshaw and Lindly’s study furthers this notion, analysing the impact of both music and sound effects on player enjoyment in a first-person shooter game, and found through their gamer experience questionnaire that the most enjoyable play occurred when both music and sound effects were present, and that playing without music and sound effects resulted in a tenser and less enjoyable gameplay experience[31]. The fact that these two studies focused on games from distinctly different genres but resulted in similar findings highlights the universal importance of music for player enjoyment, as it created a better environment for player immersion to occur.

 

The Batman franchise serves well as a case study to discuss the varying use of music to evoke emotion from early film through to virtual reality gaming, with a long lineage of films, video games and now a virtual reality video game for PSVR to analyse. Batman is a long-standing figure in popular culture, with the first Batman story, ‘The Case of The Chemical Syndicate’ published in Detective Comics issue #27 in May of 1939[32]. He first appeared in films during the 1940s and has since been a staple character of the blockbuster, rebranded in 2005 with Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, taking him further away from the underpants-over-tights comic book hero and into the more sophisticated ‘dark’ hero that Batman is best recognised as in current popular culture. This new image for Batman proved popular, with the two sequels The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012), also directed by Christopher Nolan, earning over $1 billion worldwide.[33]

Throughout his appearances in film, television and video games, Batman has existed at the extremes of musical gesture. Lambert Hillyer’s 1943 The Batman, released during Hollywood’s ‘golden age’, uses a full orchestral score synonymous with that era of film, with culturally embedded musical tropes such as tremolo strings and rising melodic lines to create suspense (See Example 2.1). In 1966, Batman was brought to television with a live-action series based on the comic books, its theme tune is in stark contrast to the music of Lambert Hillyer’s film, with obvious influence from popular music of the 1960s in both musical style and instrumentation, using a jovial, catchy melody (See Example 2.2). In further contrast, the use of music in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins moves away from the heavy orchestral scoring of the 1940s and the up-tempo theme of the 1960s, and takes a more reduced, almost acousmatic approach to scoring Batman’s scenes (See Example 2.3). The first Batman video game, Ocean Software’s Batman, was released in 1986 for the ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, and other 8-bit personal home computers. Even with the limitations of the three-channel audio system, the game opens with a chip-tune version of the Batman theme from the 1966 television series (See Example 2.4). This ease of adaptation to fit changes in contemporary popular culture aesthetics throughout the past century shows the robust nature of Batman and his sustained popularity as a character, from early film to television through to video games.

 

Example 2.1:  <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6zVmIit0PXU>

Example 2.2: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FDWSHNEbkII>

Example 2.3: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r8tT_2QMwxI>

Example 2.4: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I5_cHljImI0>

 

Just as there is a long and varied history of Batman films, Batman has been a staple character of video games across gaming platforms for decades, appearing in over sixty titles, of which he is the main character in over thirty. The portrayal of Batman in these games has largely stayed in line with his portrayal in film and television. Due to technological limitations of the 8-bit systems, the earliest Batman video games used soundtracks typical of 8-bit games during gameplay but still took musical cues from other Batman media where possible (See Example 2.4). In 1990, SunSoft developed four video games with the title Batman; each game was tailored to its platform (Nintendo Entertainment System, Game Boy, Sega Genesis, PC) resulting in a difference in gameplay across platforms, but it is best associated with the release for the Nintendo Entertainment System, selling over a million copies[34]. Whilst it was released just after Burton’s film Batman (1989), the game’s narrative does not bear much resemblance to the film, and Naoki Kodaka’s soundtrack is independent of Elfman’s film score. However, they do share some melodic characteristics. For example, in the first level (See Example 2.5) the overall melodic contour is similar to that of Elfman’s scoring for the film’s opening scene (See Example 2.6), with both melodies rising up from the tonic to the sixth and falling to a sustained fifth (See fig 2.1).

 

Example 2.5: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HktXo2AgWBk>

Example 2.6: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vXGXllCMOQg>

Zrzut_10 2018-07-29 00.47.32

As the possibilities of game audio increased, the music of Batman video games became more stylistically reminiscent of film scores as it was possible to use a full orchestral linear score during interactive cinematic cut-scenes and more sophisticated modular cues that are triggered during gameplay. Tsunami Music’s score for Eurocom’s Batman Begins (2005) is far more closely linked to Nolan’s film Batman Begins (2005) than Sunsoft’s Batman (1990) was to Burton’s Batman (1989) in both character representation (See fig 2.3) and soundtrack, due to improvements in both graphic and audio fidelity. This considerable increase in game audio fidelity caused a shift in video game soundtracks as composers could broaden their use of timbres and move away from the synthesized sounds of 8-bit and 16-bit consoles.

Whilst the music in Batman video games does reference its use in film, especially during interactive cinematics, film uses a fixed linear narrative which creates a passive audience experience, while video games use a more flexible interactive narrative and active player engagement which calls for a difference in compositional approach during gameplay. Ryan suggests that interactivity appears on two levels, one constituted by the medium and one intrinsic to the work itself. She suggests these can exist as internal, where the user plays the role of an individual in the narrative, or as external, where the user has a god-like role. This creates two main types of user experience: the first is exploratory, in which the user has no creative power in the story world, such as in films; the second is ontological, in which user actions create objects and cause effects that bring lasting change, as in video games. These can be combined to create four types of interactivity: external-explanatory, external-ontological, internal-ontological, and internal-exploratory[35]. Dogramain and Liptay discuss the relationship between ‘solid’ and ‘liquid’ realities, suggesting that the anticipation of liquid spaces breaks down the barrier between the viewer and media[36]. Although they discuss this in relation to visual art, this anticipation of liquid space works within Ryan’s descriptions of interactivity as the premise of a liquid narrative environment invites player immersion, as seen in the external-ontological and internal-ontological narrative structures. This ontological narrative results in a need for dynamic, reactive scoring, based on modular cues. As discussed, music has a prominent effect on emotion, but the player’s ability to direct the narrative leads to the condensing of musical tropes to short looping cues which can seamlessly fade in and out of the non-diegetic score during gameplay. This use of adaptive scoring further cements the internal-ontological status of the player within the game world, as they are leading the soundtrack through their narrative choices.

Though there is a need for different approaches to music with linear versus modular scoring, film and 2D video games share a need for music to draw focus to the screen and to help transport the audience/player into that 2D world. However, virtual reality gaming brings a new visual experience to the player, totally separate from that of 2D video games, film and even 3D film. It creates for the first time an edgeless game world, where the player experiences total visual engulfment. With the headset on, there is no room to look away from the screen, giving the game world an immediate sense of vastness. There is no separation between the player and the action, with characters appearing to be standing directly in front of their face. This alters music’s function as it no longer needs to attract the player’s attention to the screen, and this change in function can be seen in comparing the opening of Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009) with their Batman: Arkham VR (2016). The opening of Batman: Arkham Asylum (See Example 3.1), uses orchestral timbres such as horn swells, rising sequential string melodies and a choral pad. In stark contrast to this, the opening of Batman: Arkham VR (See Example 3.2) uses a more processed string sound, synthesised pad swells and a melody heard once in octaves on horn and strings before launching straight into thick atmospheric sounds. There is no melodic development, more synthesised timbres, thinner scoring, and a much shorter title sequence. It still depicts the darkness of Gotham City and the image of Batman as the dark hero, but in a musically simplified way in comparison with the 2D game. The ‘Suit Up’ scene in Batman: Arkham VR (See Example 3.3) does use a slightly thicker score for this interactive cinematic, but it is still far sparser than the music of the 2D game. We hear the theme but again in octaves with no countermelody or obvious harmonic reinforcement, underpinned by a synthesised pulse and low horn and string pad which swells when the player is not engaging with the game mechanics. This use of more prominent processed timbres and less prominent orchestral timbres both reinforces the visuals of the technology surrounding the player and also compliments the new ‘high-tech’ experience of virtual reality.

 

Example 3.1: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DHXR4QIQPsA>

Example 3.2: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RTiTnY9FPgk>

Example 3.3: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bedb1UBtEc>

 

Another explanation for this use of reduced scoring could be the change in the physical delivery of the sound to the player. More than ever before players are encouraged to use surround sound headphones with the PSVR; a pair is included with the headset and there is a headphone jack on the headset control with its own volume control, making it easy to adjust the sound. This change in delivery plays with the notion of diegesis as the sound feels closer to the player and there is greater accuracy in the reception of stereo imaging. A busy soundtrack using orchestral timbres runs the risk of breaking the fourth wall for players as it becomes more obviously non-diegetic whilst they are totally visually situated within this game world. Using these electronic timbres that are more congruent with sounds of the game world creates a less obviously non-diegetic soundtrack which can aid player immersion and comfort without making players hyper aware that they are playing a video game. This soundtrack is reduced further during gameplay, when moving sound creates a 360º audio picture to accompany the image and to further reinforce the player’s feeling of being surrounded by the game and at the centre of the image (See Example 3.4). Just as the player is totally encompassed by visuals, they are totally cloaked in sound. Techniques applied to orchestral scores to create tension are instead applied to game world sounds to create a sense of unease without it being obviously musical. There is a constant pitter-patter of rain, setting a pulse, then rhythmic fragments are created by the blowing wind which moves between left and right and occupies the higher-end frequencies usually inhabited by violins and upper woodwind in an orchestral setting. This is underpinned by a consistent sub-bass rumble, then dissonances used to create tension come from the moving sounds of trams which pan from side to side and slide in pitch from high to low or low to high depending on their starting position in relation to the player, reminiscent of the doppler effect. Where these sounds intersect, dissonances are created, as if these tram sounds were an evolving instrumental pad; the dissonances do not resolve, they simply fade away as the trams pass, building suspense as the ear waits for a solid resolution.

 

Example 3.4: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sTsjbn-6e30>

 

This use of music alters our perception of diegesis as it uses a mixture of diegetic and non-diegetic timbres that work together to create a soundtrack, existing somewhere in between the two sound worlds. It also changes the relationship between music and sound effects: rather than existing as two independent devices, they exist as one multifunctional device. Barnabé suggests that the notion of space in video games can be broken down into three concepts. The first, cosmos, is the game world that exists regardless of play participation, game narrative, or game objective. The second, diegesis, is the cosmos which is oriented by the story as its construction is necessary to allow for gameplay. The third, ludiegesis, is the diegesis as ruled by the player’s actions, the space that exists as a result of the player’s decisions[37]. If we apply this framework to virtual reality, the collaboration between in-game and external sound sources facilitates the smooth transitions between these virtual spaces as the player moves from the diegetic, such as an interactive cinematic scene, to the ludiegesis during gameplay. For example, Batman transitions from the ludiegesis, where he has the ability to capture the Penguin, to the diegesis, where he listens to the Penguin’s dialogue, back to the ludiegesis, without an obvious break between the fixed scene and the gameplay as there is no change in the sound world (See Example 3.4). Virtual reality easily accommodated this transition as the characters appear to be directly in front of the player, so a full screen close-up of their face can appear in both gameplay and the cinematic without needing an obvious change in camera angle. The seemingly randomised interactions between the various sound sources that creates the soundtrack also means there is no sense of interruption to the underlying score as the player transitions between these game states, allowing the player to feel as if they are always actively engaged in play even when a non-player character is delivering dialogue to progress the narrative.

From Wheatstone’s stereoscopic invention to modern day virtual reality technology, there has been growing interest in experiencing total visual engulfment. Although it has many cross-industry applications, the largest mass market for virtual reality is currently in video games, and an increasing number of game developers are creating virtual reality-only games and adding virtual reality downloadable content to their other titles. Throughout history, sound has accompanied moving image and has adapted to developments in visual and in audio technology. By analysing the way soundtracks have been used from early film through to virtual reality, we can see its evolution from the thick romantic scoring of the ‘golden age’, to the baroque stylings of early video games, to the use of modern film music technique. However, what has been shared throughout all these iterations of soundtrack is the use of a clear distinction between the diegetic world and the non-diegetic music, whether this is the live accompaniment during silent films or the full orchestral scores used in Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009). Virtual reality brings with it another change in music scoring technique, sound design and sound delivery to the player. It shares some fundamental characteristic with 2D video games, such as anchoring the player in the game world, but there is a contrast between the way these are executed. Now, the player’s perception of diegesis is warped as they are wholly visually engulfed in the game world, and the use of greater fluidity between music and game-world sound reflects this. We are still at the beginning of mass market virtual reality gaming, and whilst it is popular, it could take a few generations of virtual reality technology and a decrease in system prices before more players become accustomed to the new visual experience. However, through combining theories of immersive play, music’s representation of emotion, and its influence on feelings, with a discussion of the development of soundtrack over the past century, it is clear that music and sound are still vital to the gaming experience. The new game world of virtual reality may be edgeless, but our field of vision is still 114º, needing sound to add emotional context and depth to build a 360º experience.

 

References

Adorno, T. Eisler, H. Composing for the Films, (New York: Oxford University Press) (1947).

Bakshy, A. With Benefit of Music. The Nation, 27 May (1931).

Barnabé, F.  ‘Storytelling in Videogames: From ‘Narraive’ Towards ‘Fictional Universe’, presented at: Poetics of the Algorithm – Narrative, the Digital, and ‘Unidentified’ Media. Liège, 18th June 2016. <http://orbi.ulg.ac.be/handle/2268/198777>  accessed 5th January 2017.

Berlyne, D. E. Aesthetics and Psychobiology. (New York: Appleton-Century-Croft) (1971).

Bocking, S., Hartmann, T., Klimmt, C., Schramm, H., Vorderer, P., Wirth, W. “Spatial Presence Theory: State of the Art and Challenges Ahead”, in Immersed in Media: Telepresence Theory, Measurement & Technology, eds. Biocca, F., Freeman, J., IJsselsteijn, W., Lombard, M., Schaevitz, R. J. (New York: Springer) (2015).

Brown, E., Cairns, P. “A Grounded Investigations of Game Immersion”. CHI’04 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors and Computing Systems (Vienna, April 2004).

Bullerjahn, C., Güldenring, M. “An empirical investigation of effects of film music using qualitative content analysis”, Psychomusicology 13:1 (1994).

Collins, K. “In the loop: Creativity and constraint in 8-bit video game audio”, Twentieth-century music 4:2 (2008).

Collins, K. Playing with Sound: A Theory of Interacting with Sound and Music in Video Games. (Cambridge: MIT University Press) (2013).

Curtis, M. E., Bharucha, J. J. The Minor Third Communicated Sadness in Speech, Mirroring Its Use in Music, Emotion 10:3 (2010)

Daniels, L. Batman – The Complete History: The Life and Times of the Dark Knight. (San Francisco: Chronicle Books) (2004).

Davies, S. “Philosophical perspectives on music’s expressiveness”, in Music and Emotion: Theory and Research, eds. Juslin, P. N., Sloboda, J. A. (Oxford: OUP) (2001).

Dogramain, B., Liptay, F. “Immersion in the Visual Arts and Media”, in Immersion in the Visual Arts and Media eds. Dogramain, B., Liptay, F. (Leiden: Brill) (2015).

Edwards, B. Unraveling The Enigma Of Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, 20 Years Later. Fast Company. <https://www.fastcompany.com/3050016/unraveling-the-enigma-of-nintendos-virtual-boy-20-years-later> accessed 13th May 2017.

Field, A. P., Moore, A. C. “Dissociating the effects of attention and contingency on awareness on evaluating conditioning effects in the visual paradigm”, Cognition & Emotion. 19:1 (2005).

Fruchter R., Lia, A. Developing a collaborative workflow from BIM to virtual reality. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University) (2015).

Good, O. S. PlayStation VR sales figures revealed in exec’s interview. Polygon. <https://www.polygon.com/2017/2/26/14742880/playstation-vr-sales>  accessed 17th May 2017.

Groner, R., Weibel, D., Wissmath, B. “Dubbing or Subtitling? Effects on Spatial Presence, Transportation, Flow, and Enjoyment”, Journal of Media Psychology 21:3 (2009).

Halfyard, J. K. “Cue the Big Theme? The Sound of the Superhero”, in The Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics, eds. Richardson, J., Gorbman, C., Vernallis, C. (2013).

Juslin, P. N., Västfjäll, D. “Emotional responses to music: the need to consider underlying mechanisms”, Behavioural Brain Science 31:1 (2008).

Lastra, J. Sound Technology and the American Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press) (2000).

Lipscomb, S. D., Kendall, R. A. “Perceptual judgment of the relationship between musical and visual components in film”, Psychomusicology 13:1 (1994).

Lipscomb, S. D., Zehnder, S. M. “Immersion in the Virtual Environment: The Effect of a Musical Score on the Video Gaming Experience”, Journal of Physiological Anthropology and Applied Human Science 23:1 (2004).

Lundqvist, L. “Facial expressions are contagious” Journal of Psychophysiol. 9:1 (1995).

Maman, F. The Role of Music in the Twenty-first Century. (California: Tama-Dõ) (1997).

Nacke, L. E., Grimshaw, M. N., Lindly, C. A. “More than a feeling: Measurement of sonic user experience and psychophysiology in a first-person shooter game”, Interacting with Computers 22:5 (2010).

Oderman, S. “The sound of silents”, Films in Review 47:3 (1996).

Osborne, J. W. “A phenomenological investigation of the musical representation of extra-musical ideas”, Journal of Phenomenol Psychology 20:1 (1989).

Reay, P. Music in Film: Soundtracks and Synergy  (New York: Wallflower Press) (2014).

Ryan, M. Narrative as Virtual Reality 2: Revisiting Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press) (2015).

Schäfer, T., Huron, D., Shanahan, D., Sedlmeier, P. “The sounds of safety: stress and danger in music perception”, Frontiers in Psychology 6:9 (2015).

Strangman, R. Memoirs of a Virtual Caveman. (North Carolina: Lulu Press) (2014).

Subers, R. Around-the-World Roundup: ‘Dark Knight Rises’ Joins Billionaire Club. Box Office Mojo. < http://www.boxofficemojo.com/news/?id=3514&p=.htm>  accessed 18th May 2017.

Summers, T. “Wagner and Video Game Music” in: Music in Video Games: Studying Play eds. Donnelly, K. J., Gibbons, W., Lerner, W. (UK: Routledge) (2014).

Sweester, P., Wyeth, P. “GameFlow: A Model for Evaluating Player Enjoyment in Games”, ACM Computers in Entertainment 3:3 (2005).

Tan, S. L., Kelley, M. E. “Graphic representations of short musical compositions”, Psychology of Music 32:2 (2004).

Whelan, Z. N. Play Along: Video Game Music as Metaphor and Metonymy (Florida: University of Florida) (2004).

Wingstedt, J., Brändström, S., Berg, J. “Narrative Music, Visual and Meaning in Film”, Visual Communication. 9:2 (2010).

Yeh, CH., Tseng, WY., Chen, CY. et al. “Popular music representation: chorus detection & emotions recognition”, Multimedia Tools and Applications 73:3 (2014)

 

Films

Batman (1989, Tim Burton)

Batman and Robin (1949, Spencer Gordon Bennet)

Batman Begins (2005, Christopher Nolan)

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986, Leonard Nimoy)

The Batman (1943, Lambert Hillyer)

The Dark Knight (2008, Christopher Nolan)

The Dark Knight Rises (2012, Christopher Nolan)

The Pawnshop (1916, Charlie Chaplin)

 

Video Games

Batman (1986, Ocean Software)

Batman (1990, SunSoft)

Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009, Rocksteady)

Batman: Arkham VR (2016, Rocksteady)

Batman Begins (2005, Eurocom)

Final Fantasy I (1987, Square Co.)

Final Fantasy XV (2016, Square Enix)

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002, Electronic Arts)

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998, Nintendo)

 

[1] Edwards, B. Unraveling The Enigma Of Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, 20 Years Later. Fast Company. <https://www.fastcompany.com/3050016/unraveling-the-enigma-of-nintendos-virtual-boy-20-years-later> accessed 13th May 2017.

[2] Good, O. S. PlayStation VR sales figures revealed in exec’s interview. Polygon. <https://www.polygon.com/2017/2/26/14742880/playstation-vr-sales>  accessed 17th May 2017.

[3] Fruchter R., Lia, A. Developing a collaborative workflow from BIM to virtual reality. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University) (2015).

[4] How Animals See the World, Buzzfeed. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HqmBa8FPMx8> accessed 28th August 2017.

[5] Discussed by Reay in Music in Film: Soundtracks and Synergy  (New York: Wallflower Press) (2014).

[6] Adorno, T. Eisler, H. Composing for the Films, (New York: Oxford University Press) (1947) p76.

[7] Bakshy, A. With Benefit of Music. The Nation, 27 May (1931) p359.

[8] Lastra, J. Sound Technology and the American Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press) (2000) p64.

[9] Oderman, S. “The sound of silents”, Films in Review 47:3 (1996) p38.

[10] Collins, K. Playing with Sound: A Theory of Interacting with Sound and Music in Video Games. (Cambridge: MIT University Press) (2013) p135.

[11] Maman, F. The Role of Music in the Twenty-first Century. (California: Tama-Dõ) (1997).

[12] Collins, K. “In the loop: Creativity and constraint in 8-bit video game audio”, Twentieth-century music 4:2 (2008) p209.

[13] Summers, T. “Wagner and Video Game Music” in: Music in Video Games: Studying Play eds. Donnelly, K. J., Gibbons, W., Lerner, W. (UK: Routledge) (2014) p206.

[14] Schäfer, T., Huron, D., Shanahan, D., Sedlmeier, P. “The sounds of safety: stress and danger in music perception”, Frontiers in Psychology 6:9 (2015).

[15] Yeh, CH., Tseng, WY., Chen, CY. et al. “Popular music representation: chorus detection & emotions recognition”, Multimedia Tools and Applications 73:3 (2014).

[16] Lipscomb, S. D., Kendall, R. A. “Perceptual judgment of the relationship between musical and visual components in film”, Psychomusicology 13:1 (1994).

[17] Bullerjahn, C., Güldenring, M. “An empirical investigation of effects of film music using qualitative content analysis”, Psychomusicology 13:1 (1994)

[18] Tan, S. L., Kelley, M. E. “Graphic representations of short musical compositions”, Psychology of Music 32:2 (2004).

[19] Osborne, J. W. “A phenomenological investigation of the musical representation of extra-musical ideas”, Journal of Phenomenol Psychology 20:1 (1989).

[20] Whelan, Z. N. Play Along: Video Game Music as Metaphor and Metonymy (Florida: University of Florida) (2004) p43.

[21] Juslin, P. N., Västfjäll, D. “Emotional responses to music: the need to consider underlying mechanisms”, Behavioural Brain Science 31:1 (2008).

[22] Berlyne, D. E. Aesthetics and Psychobiology. (New York: Appleton-Century-Croft) (1971).

[23] Field, A. P., Moore, A. C. “Dissociating the effects of attention and contingency on awareness on evaluating conditioning effects in the visual paradigm”, Cognition & Emotion. 19:1 (2005).

[24] Lundqvist, L. “Facial expressions are contagious” Journal of Psychophysiol. 9:1 (1995).

[25] Davies, S. “Philosophical perspectives on music’s expressiveness”, in Music and Emotion: Theory and Research, eds. Juslin, P. N., Sloboda, J. A. (Oxford: OUP) (2001).

[26] Groner, R., Weibel, D., Wissmath, B. “Dubbing or Subtitling? Effects on Spatial Presence, Transportation, Flow, and Enjoyment”, Journal of Media Psychology 21:3 (2009).

[27] Bocking, S., Hartmann, T., Klimmt, C., Schramm, H., Vorderer, P., Wirth, W. “Spatial Presence Theory: State of the Art and Challenges Ahead”, in Immersed in Media: Telepresence Theory, Measurement & Technology, eds. Biocca, F., Freeman, J., IJsselsteijn, W., Lombard, M., Schaevitz, R. J. (New York: Springer) (2015).

[28] Brown, E., Cairns, P. “A Grounded Investigations of Game Immersion”. CHI’04 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors and Computing Systems (Vienna, April 2004).

[29] Sweester, P., Wyeth, P. “GameFlow: A Model for Evaluating Player Enjoyment in Games”, ACM Computers in Entertainment 3:3 (2005).

[30] Lipscomb, S. D., Zehnder, S. M. “Immersion in the Virtual Environment: The Effect of a Musical Score on the Video Gaming Experience”, Journal of Physiological Anthropology and Applied Human Science 23:1 (2004).

[31] Nacke, L. E., Grimshaw, M. N., Lindly, C. A. “More than a feeling: Measurement of sonic user experience and psychophysiology in a first-person shooter game”, Interacting with Computers 22:5 (2010).

[32] Daniels, L. Batman – The Complete History: The Life and Times of the Dark Knight. (San Francisco: Chronicle Books) (2004).

[33] Subers, R. Around-the-World Roundup: ‘Dark Knight Rises’ Joins Billionaire Club. Box Office Mojo. < http://www.boxofficemojo.com/news/?id=3514&p=.htm>  accessed 18th May 2017.

[34] Strangman, R. Memoirs of a Virtual Caveman. (North Carolina: Lulu Press) (2014).

[35] Ryan, M. Narrative as Virtual Reality 2: Revisiting Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press) (2015).

[36] Dogramain, B., Liptay, F. “Immersion in the Visual Arts and Media”, in Immersion in the Visual Arts and Media eds. Dogramain, B., Liptay, F. (Leiden: Brill) (2015).

[37] Barnabé, F.  ‘Storytelling in Videogames: From ‘Narraive’ Towards ‘Fictional Universe’, presented at: Poetics of the Algorithm – Narrative, the Digital, and ‘Unidentified’ Media. Liège, 18th June 2016. <http://orbi.ulg.ac.be/handle/2268/198777>  accessed 5th January 2017.

Intermediality and Digital Games: On Player-figures and Media Borders in Uncharted 4

Kristian Ahm

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 102-121.

 

Kristian Ahm

University of Copenhagen

 

 

Intermediality and Digital Games: On Player-figures and Media Borders in Uncharted 4

 

Abstract

This paper will present the argument that Nathan Drake, the player-figure in Uncharted 4, is an intermedial entity. By this, I mean that he is an entity with the ability to cross media borders. Based on this argument, the concept of gameworlds will be discussed and it will be suggested that the worlds players encounter in modern digital games should be perceived as intermedial landscapes. This landscape is traversed by the player via a player-figure that is imbued with the ability to cross media borders. In doing so, the analysis is meant to highlight the potential fruitfulness of utilizing perspectives from intermedial studies in the analysis of individual games, instead of mostly focusing on processes of transmedial adaptation.

The paper will begin by defining the concept of the player-figure and Nathan Drake as a player-figure will be analysed. It will be argued that by appropriating the same player-figure to different contexts, the player-figure switches back and forth between being perceived as an avatar and a character.

Subsequently, the concept of intermediality will be introduced and an analytical framework from that field will be utilized to analyse how the player-figure crosses media borders. It will be argued in this analysis that a fundamental change takes place on the spatiotemporal modality when the game transitions from gameplay to cutscene. This marks a crossing between two qualified media – from that of games to cinema.

In the discussion, the argument is presented that Nathan Drake is an intermedial entity because of the audio-visual consistency of the player-figure, which means it is the player-figure itself traversing the media borders. From a media studies perspective, this paper focusses on the intermediality of the player-figure to highlight how intermedial perspectives can be useful in the analysis of the player-figure and its relations to the player controlling them.

Finally, a jumping-off point for future research will be established, focusing on what intermediality could potentially bring to game studies. Most importantly, it will allow for a more granular analysis of what defines the digital game as a medium.

 

Key words: intermediality, player-figure, gameworlds, ludo-narrative, media borders, game studies, digital games

Introduction

 

While digital games are always mediated, seeing as they are dependent on the processing power of computers and (almost) always on some sort of screen output, it is only in recent years that researchers have highlighted the fact that contemporary digital games are something more than just games. Aarseth points out that games, fundamentally, are “complex software programs that can emulate any medium, including film, text/novel [and] graphic novel […]”[1]. He goes on to call these “games” ludo-narratological constructs, highlighting their composite nature, consisting of elements from games as well as narrative media[2]. For clarity’s sake, the paper will primarily refer to games as ludo-narrative software. The acknowledgement of the multimodality of digital games seems to suggest that the intermedial perspective would be especially fruitful for the analysis of digital games. This is especially the case for contemporary games that, due to great advances in processing power, can mix earlier and newer media in innovative and interesting ways[3]. For now, we can broadly define intermediality as a concept describing “the totality of cross-media phenomena, […] involving a crossing of borders between media”[4]. Within game studies, the intermedial perspective has been used to study transmedial phenomena such as the adaptation of games into movies or tv series into games[5];[6]. This paper makes a distinction between what we could call external intermediality, which focuses on transmedial processes of adaptation, and internal intermediality, which focuses on the crossing of media borders within a single media object. The present paper will not engage with external processes of adaptation across media, but instead focus on the internal intermediality of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (Naughty Dog, 2016). As such, the object of analysis is the crossing of media borders within the ludo-narrative software itself, between the qualified media that constitute it. Recently, Fuchs performed an intermedial analysis of Alan Wake in the same internal vein, focusing on how the constellation of several media managed to create a sense of gothic uncanniness[7]. This paper however, will focus on the player-figure of Nathan Drake, the swashbuckling hero the player controls during gameplay.

This article will consist of four parts. In the first part, Nathan Drake will be analysed through the lens of Vella’s concept of the player-figure. Next, the concept of intermediality will be presented and an analytical framework from that field will be utilized to analyse how the game transitions between gameplay and cutscenes. Part 3 will discuss the results of the analyses and present the following arguments:

1) Nathan Drake in Uncharted 4 is an intrinsically intermedial player-figure. This distinguishes him as a new kind of media entity, different from earlier, multimodal player-figures.

2) The worlds encountered in modern ludo-narrative software should be conceptualized as intermedial landscapes which players traverse via a player-figure that is imbued with the ability to cross media borders.

Finally, a jumping-off point for future research will be established, focusing on how intermediality can contribute to the field of game studies. Specifically, it will be highlighted how intermedia studies can present new perspectives on what constitute digital games as a medium.

 

  1. The Player-Figure

 

Theory

 

Klevjer argues that avatar-based gameplay, i.e. games where players take control of a character in the gameworld, creates a sense of bodily immersion which is based on the embodied experience of play[8]. The immersion is not a trick of fiction, but the result of experiencing playing the game. This prosthetic agency is created through real-time control of in-game elements[9]. He also remarks that a distinction needs to be made between the avatar understood as a playable character and the avatar as an entity that grants the player agency and presence within the gameworld[10].

This is where Vella’s theoretical framework enters the picture. In his dissertation he lays the foundation for his concept of the player-figure. He makes an ontological distinction between avatar and character[11]. The avatar refers to the player-figure as a game component, while the character refers to the player-figure as a represented individual in the game’s heterocosm[12]. He goes on to define an avatar’s most important characteristic: that all player interactions are structured through them[13]. The character, on the other hand, is both a mimetic representation of a possible person, and a textual construct constituted of signs[14]. A character is built up of characterization statements (from now on called CSs), a stream of signifiers that allow the player to construct a mental image of a character[15].

This differentiation into avatar and character does not imply a duality. Instead, Vella describes the player-figure as a hybrid-identity, where the player may waver between perceiving it as an avatar or a character[16]. This hybrid-identity is possible because of what Vella calls the double perspectival structure; that the player has an internal and an external perspective on the game’s events[17]. From the internal perspective, the player inhabits the I can of the avatar and has a first-personal experience of playing out subjective experience within a domain. From the external perspective, the player sees a translation of events of her being-in-the-gameworld into discourse “in the form […] of a temporal sequence of audio-visual representation”[18]. This again relates to the player either perceiving the player-figure as avatar or character.

 

On- and off-line engagement

 

In the coming analysis of the Nathan Drake player-figure, I will be focusing on the differences in perception of the player-figure during gameplay and cutscenes. I will be using the concept of on- and off-line engagement[19] to refer to these parts of the game. On-line is to be understood as “the state of ergodic participation that we would […] think of as ‘playing the game’” [20]. On the other hand, off-line “describes periods in which no registered input control is received from the player” [21]. When I refer to on-line segments in Uncharted 4, I mean parts where the player is granted control of the player-figure by the software. Conversely, off-line segments refer to parts in which the player is not in control of the player-figure.

 

Analysis

 

On-line engagement.

 

During on-line segments, the Nathan Drake player-figure functions mainly as an avatar, a game-systemic entity. This is especially the case during action-filled shootout sequences. Here, the player must fight to survive, not because they fear the character Drake will feel distressed if he dies, but because the player wants to overcome a challenge and progress to the next chapter. Drake becomes a vessel for the player’s engagement within the gameworld and has systemic characteristics that structure the player’s decision making. For example, if Drake gets shot too many times in a row, the game stops and returns Drake to an earlier part of the game. The player utilizes the actions afforded by the player-figure to overcome obstacles, i.e. find cover and shoot henchmen. It seems reasonable to believe that during shootouts the player identifies as Drake. This is further stressed by Drake’s utterances during such segments. If a grenade is thrown near Drake, he will frantically shout “No, no, no, no!”. In Vella’s terms, this outburst could be perceived as a CS originating from the character Nathan Drake[22]. However, I would argue that the outburst functions more as a signifier of the grenade having landed within a certain radius of the player-figure, who is implicitly warning the player to get away from it. While this point is arguable, it makes sense if one views Nathan Drake the avatar, as a virtual game object that has certain behavioural properties, which places him on a different level than the fictional[23]. The utterance does not characterize Drake as a character who dislikes grenades, but as a game-systemic entity that also functions as a dynamic information source to the player.

During on-line segments of exploration, the Drake player-figure manifests traits of a character through numerous instances of CSs. In Chapter 11, Drake must traverse a Madagascan street market. The player still controls Drake’s movement and must guide him towards a destination, but small verbal exchanges and constraints on player actions function as CSs, creating a mental image of who he is as a character. The player-figure fluidly changes between being perceived as an avatar and a character. When walking through a crowd, Drake automatically squeezes through crowds and occasionally mumbles “Excuse me”.

 

Figure 1. Drake traversing a Madagascan street market

obraz 1
Source: YouTube[24]

 

Here, a combination of dynamic mimetic elements[25], i.e. the context-based animation of the player-figure and voice, create an image of Drake as a character, not a game-systemic entity. While it could be argued that the cover and shooting animations experienced during shootouts also characterize Drake, the point made here is that the dynamic mimetic elements utilized in the street market are more overtly expressive about Drake, since they are unique to him. Drake’s companions, who occasionally join him in battle, are programmed to shoot and take cover using the same animations as Drake.

Further on, the player can choose to buy an apple from a vendor. If the player chooses to do so, she does not get a health bonus or any kind of boost to their avatar’s systemic attributes. Instead, this serves as another dynamic mimetic element where the player, through her actions, decides what type of character Drake is.

 

Figure 2. Drake buys an apple from a vendor

obraz 2
Source: YouTube

 

The most notable CSs stem from the lack of player actions possible in the market sequence, compared to the wealth of actions possible during shootouts. Besides walking and looking, the only other possible action is to “look closer”, which makes the game camera zoom in. This action is performed by pressing the button that normally makes Drake aim his weapon. Although the 3D model of the player-figure is visibly equipped with a gun and rope hook, they are no longer signifiers of possible player actions, but are part of the character’s costume[26], characterizing him as an experienced adventurer. This shows how the player-figure’s features, both semiotic and mechanical, can be appropriated to different contexts, thereby facilitating the seamless change back and forth between avatar and character.

 

Off-line engagement.

 

During off-line segments, the Drake player-figure functions only as a character. I would argue that the player, no longer having agency within the gameworld, takes on an external perspective on the events of the game. Although the word ‘cutscene’ may have problematic implicit meanings, I will summon it now to help properly explain what these off-line segments are. According to Klevjer, a cutscene is a “cinematic sequence that suspends regular gameplay in order to convey plot, characterization and spectacle”[27]. Because the Uncharted series is deeply inspired by action-adventure cinema, the cutscenes are indeed cinematic elements that form the most explicitly narrative parts of Uncharted 4. Here, the player is fed a stream of static mimetic CSs[28], as if they are watching a movie. Static mimetic elements are “statements regarding fixed (or relatively fixed) facts regarding a character” such as name and appearance[29]. Some might argue that the instances in cutscenes, where the player is asked to choose a response on Drake’s behalf, turns the player-figure into an avatar. I would argue that this is not the case since these choices, like the situation with the apple vendor, only serve to characterize Nathan Drake. What is particularly interesting when examining Drake as a character in off-line segments is how much emphasis is put on showing his face to the player. Because of the sophistication of the performance capture technology used, Drake’s expressiveness during cutscenes is very impressive. It thereby foregrounds him as a represented individual. As engagement changes from off-line to on-line, the view of Drake’s back signals the change from character to avatar. He is stripped of his salient characteristics and reconfigured into a vessel.

 

Figure 3. Drake player-figure off-line

obraz 3
Source: YouTube

 

Figure 4. Drake player-figure on-line

obraz 4
Source: YouTube

 

This concludes the analysis of the Nathan Drake player-figure. It has attempted to demonstrate how Drake can switch between being perceived as an avatar and a character by the player. The fluidity of this transformation process is important for this paper’s argument that the player-figure is an intermedial entity. By reconfiguring the same player-figure, players are confronted with a visually coherent player-figure that is imbued with the ability to cross media borders, instead of being split into several different representations.

 

  1. Intermediality

 

Theory

 

Intermediality is the study of all instances in which different media interact with each other, assuming a theoretical “in-between space” where these interactions take place[30]. In Elleström’s words, intermediality is something “that sometimes ‘happens’; an effect of unconventional ways of performing medial works”[31]. As such, it is important to define what intermediality means in the context of this paper[32].

The intermedial focus of this paper is the subcategory of media combinations[33]. This is to be understood as media objects that combine “at least two conventionally distinct media or medial forms of articulation”[34]. Of interest for this paper is the crossing of borders between qualified media, considered a key intermedial phenomenon[35];[36]. Because of Uncharted 4’s status as a piece of software, within which are encompassed several distinct media, I believe it is ripe for intermedial analysis because of the novel ways it seamlessly changes between those media. The word “media” has been thrown around quite a lot by now. Let me elucidate what the term means in the context of the coming analysis. Elleström divides the medium into basic media, qualified media, and technical media[37]. Basic media are media that are “mainly identified by their modal appearances” such as “still images”, “moving images” or “organized non-verbal sound”[38]. Qualified media are what we would normally call “art forms and other cultural media types” which are constituted by both historic contexts and communicative conventions, and which consist of basic media[39]. While the first two categories are abstractions that help us understand how media are formed, technical media are the physical objects or physical phenomena that “‘realize[…]’ and ‘display[…]’ basic and qualified media”[40].

These distinctions help me clarify my last statement: When I talk of the novel ways the Uncharted 4 software transitions between media, I am referring to transitions between qualified media. As will become clear when I begin my analysis, I am interested in the ways the software transitions from the qualified medium of games to the qualified medium of cinema.

To properly analyse these transitions, I will be utilizing Elleström’s analytical framework, based on his four modalities of media. The term “modality” is related to the term “mode”, which is a “way to be or do things”[41]. In Elleström’s analytical framework, which will be introduced presently, he uses the term “modality” to refer to the different ways media can manifest themselves. He describes these modalities as “the essential cornerstones of all media without which mediality cannot be comprehended […]”[42]

The first of the four modalities is the material modality, referring to “the latent corporeal interface of the medium”[43].

Second is the sensorial modality, which relates to the “physical and mental acts of perceiving the present interface of the medium through the sense faculties” – through sense-data, receptors, and sensation[44].

Third is the spatiotemporal modality. This modality covers “the structuring of the sensorial perception of sense-data of the material interface into experiences and conceptions of space and time”[45]. In other words, this modality refers to the way a person perceives and constructs the experience of space and time in the medium at hand.

Finally, the fourth modality, semiotic modality, relates to the “creation of meaning in the spatiotemporally conceived medium by the way of different sorts of thinking and sign interpretation”[46].

For my analysis of Uncharted 4, I will be focusing on the spatiotemporal modality since I believe an important shift happens in this modality when the game transitions between gameplay and cutscene. I will argue that this shift in modality marks a transition between games and cinema.

 

Analysis

 

Please note that in the following I will be writing numbers in parentheses, the decimals will refer to the images within Figure 5.

 

Setting the scene

 

In chapter 8, Drake and his brother are exploring a cave-system.

 

Figure 5. Transitions between on- and off-line segments

obraz 5
Source: YouTube

 

The player is in control of the player-figure, meaning its current status is an avatar (5.1). Occasional chat between the brothers deploys verbal CSs that characterize their relationship. The player steers through the cave-system and begins climbing a wall (5.2). As they press the jump button, which makes the player-figure jump up onto a small ledge, they lose control of the player-figure and the camera closes in on the brothers (5.3).

A cut, and the viewer is now witnessing a conversation between the antagonists, which the brothers are listening in on (5.4).

As their scene ends (5.5), it cuts back to the two eavesdropping brothers (5.6).

As they converse, the camera automatically pulls out (5.7) and control of the player-figure is returned to the player (5.8).

 

Time and space

 

It is the argument of this paper that a change in modality has occurred within Uncharted 4, thus signalling a transition between the media encompassed within. For this analysis, I will focus on the changes happening on the spatiotemporal level, since this modality most effectively indicates the crossing from the medium of games into the medium of cinema.

If we begin by looking at the temporal level, the change is obvious. We move from the partially fixed sequentiality of games to the fixed sequentiality of cinema[47]. I refrain myself from claiming that Uncharted 4 has non-fixed sequentiality, since the game’s linear nature does not leave much room for the player to improvise.

On the spatial level, it is not as easy to use Elleström’s concepts of spatiality to make relevant distinctions between the types of space the player encounters during on- and off-line segments. Instead, I will use the concepts of gameworld interface[48] and scenographic space[49] to make these distinctions.

During on-line engagement, the player controls Nathan and must navigate the cave without falling to their death. The world is presented to the player in a wide view, allowing her to survey the world through the player-figure. Also, the player can control the view she has of the gameworld. Small reliefs of stone communicate to the player that she can grab them. The space functions as a gameworld interface, a space that’s “designed to support and inspire certain gameplay activities” and which allows the player to “take gameplay-relevant actions within the gameworld”[50]. The space changes as soon as the player loses control of the player-figure and thus also the view they have of the gameworld, signalling a change to a different modality.

The nature of the space changes to that of a scenographic space, where the player, now a passive viewer, constructs the world through visual and auditory cues[51]. Unlike before, the player cannot control where they want to look, but are fed cues that help them construct the space in their minds. This is most explicitly the case with the room in which the antagonists converse since the player-figure will never set foot in that room. The room’s function is not to feed the player information about relevant gameplay actions, but to set up expectations for the unfolding narrative. From this perspective, it could be argued that a change has also taken place on the semiotic modality, since the player/viewer employs different types of “sign thinking and interpretation” depending on whether the player perceives the represented space as a gameworld interface or as a filmic, scenographic space[52]. What is important to note is that this perception of space is dependent on whether the player can control the perspective (i.e. the camera) or not. Keep in mind that the scenographic space is still technically constructed in the same way as the gameworld interface: inside a game engine. The fundamental difference is that the player during on-line segments can control the perspective and thus engage with the world in a different way than if they did not control it. Interactivity, it seems, also plays a big part in cueing the player/viewer to employ a specific type of sign interpretation.

Based on this analysis, I am arguing that a transition has taken place between two qualified media: games, and cinema. What is particularly interesting is the seamless nature of these transitions, which can be quite jarring when the player is engaged in the real-time control of the player-figure. This seamlessness rests on the design decision to present the player with information in an ecological, integrated manner in a way that does not draw players’ attention to the fact that they are playing a game[53].

Before I move on to discussing the implications of these blurred media borders, I will quickly summarize the results of my analysis.

By analysing the player-figure of Nathan Drake, I determined that he is mainly perceived as an avatar during on-line segments of gameplay, but that he was able to manifest traits of a character through different kinds of CSs. During off-line segments, he was perceived only as a character. This transformation from avatar to character is seamless because of the constant reappropriation of the same player-figure.

In my analysis of the player-figure’s media border crossings, I concluded that the modality of the software changed fundamentally on the spatiotemporal level, turning the heterocosm from a gameworld interface during on-line segments, to a scenographic, filmic space during off-line segments.

 

III. Discussions and Contributions

 

The Player-Figure as an Intermedial Entity

 

As has been pointed out in the analysis, Uncharted 4 jumps to-and-fro between different qualified media. It does so in an almost seamless way, both by reconfiguring the player-figure and the perspective on the space the figure inhabits. But does this seamlessness exclude it from being categorized as an intermedial phenomenon? Rajewsky highlights digital media’s ability to simulate earlier media forms and to erase perceptible media differences[54]. This is certainly problematic since the study of intermediality is based on the existence of perceptible borders, which can be crossed. With that said, this paper would like to present an idea of where this perceptible border might be found.

In ludo-narrative software, the perceptible border between media is grounded in the player-figure and its ability to be mapped onto several qualified media in a way that is perceived as being coherent. Nathan Drake as a player-figure can be either a game-systemic entity, i.e. an avatar, or a character. We as players perceive him as a unified whole and this is key to him being an intermedial entity. Another very perceptible way that the player-figure signals a crossing between media borders is by having the player relinquish control of it.

 

Multimodal and Intermedial Player-Figures

 

This does not mean that all player-figures are intermedial. Cloud, the protagonist from Final Fantasy VII (Square, 1997) could certainly be called a multimodal player-figure with the hybrid-identity of both an avatar and a character[55]. However, the player-figure of Cloud is built up of several different audio-visual representations. Avatar-Cloud is a small polygonal man during on-line segments of exploration and a slightly more realistically proportioned man during combat. The Character-Cloud found in off-line segments is a wholly different, third representation. This compartmentalization of several different player-figures makes the types of border crossings seen performed by the player-figure in Uncharted 4 impossible. This does not make the intrinsic intermediality of Nathan Drake in Uncharted 4 some technological goal that developers should strive for. Instead, the realization that a player-figure can consist of several representations opens new avenues of inquiry. What implications do these multiple representations have aesthetically, ontologically, functionally? The recent World of Final Fantasy (Square Enix, 2016) acknowledges the multiple representations of its protagonists and incorporates their shape-shifting abilities as a part of gameplay. What does this self-reflexive design practice tell us about the ontology of the player-figure? This brings up another point. While Vella’s study of the player-figure is very detailed, many of his analyses are based on games developed in western countries. Except for a footnote mention of Final Fantasy VIII (Square, 1999), all the role-playing games mentioned in his dissertation are western. It would be interesting to analyse how Japanese role-playing games utilize multiple representations to create a coherent player-figure. As Fuchs points out in his analysis of Alan Wake, the co-presence of several representations of the same character can have an aesthetic function, e.g. to create discomfort[56].

In summary, Nathan Drake in Uncharted 4 is intermedial because he is audiovisually consistent across media, in a way that has been hard to achieve until now for technological reasons. This consistency is instrumental for the player perceiving the player-figure as both an avatar and a character. Even in the previous game, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception (Naughty Dog, 2011), changes from off- to on-line engagement are marked with a second of black screen. This second of black is a way of compartmentalizing the player-figure into different modal strata. The player-figure is multimodal in this instance but not intermedial, since the figure itself is not crossing any media borders.

The observation that the Nathan Drake player-figure in Uncharted 4 is an intermedial entity brings me to my next point.

Discussing Spatiality in Digital Games

 

If we accept the argument that Nathan Drake in Uncharted 4 is an intermedial player-figure, we must also accept how this problematizes the ways digital game worlds are conceptualized. As was argued in the analysis – in tandem with the player-figure’s transformation from avatar to character and the player’s loss of control of it – the spatiotemporal modality of Uncharted 4 changes. Instead of being a gameworld interface, it transforms into a filmic, scenographic space. The implication of this is that we can see the world of the ludo-narrative software as an intermedial landscape that can be both a gameworld and a traditional filmic space. It is never just a gameworld or a scene, it is something in-between and can switch between these. To echo Aarseth[57], it would be metonymic to simply call them gameworlds since the world in Uncharted 4 is used as much more than an obstacle course for players to conquer. While the concept of intermedial landscapes is used by Fuchs in his analysis of Alan Wake’s uncanny, gothic world, it is used in this paper to call attention to a fundamental characteristic of the worlds players are confronted with when they play modern digital games.

This paper suggests that the worlds players encounter in ludo-narrative software should be conceptualized as intermedial landscapes which the player traverses via a player-figure that is imbued with the ability to cross media borders. It seems salient at this juncture to point out that this view builds on the fundamental observation that videogames are not simulations, but virtual worlds that are ontologically distinct from the physical world[58]. Uncharted 4 is not a simulation of the physical world but is its own virtual realm in which these border crossings are a very real phenomenon.

Finally, future research endeavours utilizing the intermedial perspective will be outlined.

 

  1. Future Research

 

Towards a Conceptualization of the Digital Game Medium

 

The intermedial approach could potentially be useful in the investigation of understanding what digital games are as a medium, beyond simply calling them a “virtual hypermedium”[59]. What is the medium of games? What borders surround it and how do we identify these? Wolf states that media borders are created by conventions[60]. Elleström’s concepts of the two qualifying aspects of media could be useful for investigating these conventions[61]. The contextual qualifying aspect relates to the use of a medium in specific historical, cultural, and social circumstances[62]. By performing analyses of the discourses, practices and conventions surrounding the videogame medium, we gain insights into its evolution, but more importantly we may be able to discourage the use of normative views and colloquialisms[63]. The second aspect, the operational qualifying aspect, relates to the aesthetic and communicative conventions of a medium[64]. Much work has been done in this field, with researchers from different disciplines attempting to describe and explain how videogames as a medium communicate and foster aesthetic experiences.

In this academic context, the intermedial analysis of individual games that could be categorized as unconventional medial works would be particularly interesting. To use this paper as an example, by being aware of communicative conventions from several qualified media, an argument has been formulated that relates to the ontology of ludo-narrative software and the modern player-figure. Wolf writes that media function “as cognitive frames for authors as well as recipients and are therefore […] part of the message itself”[65]. This suggests that the individual media present in the media constellations we normally call “videogames” have a great impact on the experience that emerges when interacting with the media object. As a future research endeavour, it could be interesting to analyse contemporary experimental games that combine media in novel and surprising ways. Examples of this could be Cibele (Star Maid Games, 2015), Her Story (Barlow, 2015) or Uriel’s Chasm (Barry, 2014). All of these games utilize real video footage captured in the physical world, but they utilize this footage in a different way than they were used in the 90’s, when the future of games was envisioned as being a combination of action cinema and shooting games (see Sewer Shark (Digital Pictures, 1992)). Kattenbelt writes about intermedial studies being a way to investigate “those co-relations between different media that result in a redefinition of the media that are influencing each other […]”[66]. This seems like an interesting avenue of research and one which this paper hopes to contribute to. How is the inclusion of the basic medium of ‘moving images’ reshaped by being put in different types of ludo-narrative software? In Sewer Shark it serves as part of the gameworld, with video footage being overlaid on a game interface and sprites of enemies. In Her Story, the video clips of a woman being interrogated are framed more like collectible objects, with the player tasked to unearth as many clips as possible to solve a murder mystery. What could an analysis of this change in convention potentially tell us about the medium of videogames? What does it tell us about how the borders surrounding the ludic medium have been reshaped in the last 20 years? What Kattenbelt’s quote also suggests is that the search for a clearly definable digital game medium is futile. The field of game studies has struggled with defining games since its conception. I certainly do not think that an adequate, stable definition can be found, but a history of game media conventions would have academic and historic value. For investigations like these, Elleström’s analytical framework of the four modalities would be a powerful tool for thinking about these (un)conventional media constellations with greater granularity. As Schut points out, every time a medium is presented in a digital game, it is no longer the exact same medium as before, since it is put in a new context.[67]

Wolf writes that the study of intermediality, “if carried out wisely”, will strengthen the core of the field of study[68]. While it is not entirely clear what Wolf means by “wisely”, perhaps Elleström’s advice to study all kinds of media “with a high level of awareness of the modalities of media and the crucial modal differences and similarities of media” is an answer[69].

The more we know about videogames as a medium, the closer we get to answering the question of what games are as a phenomenon, and this would be an important milestone[70].

 

 

References

Aarseth Espen, “A Narrative Theory of games”, in Proceedings of the international conference on the foundations of digital games, (2012), pp. 129-133

Aarseth Espen, “Ontology”, in The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf & Bernard Perron, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2014), pp. 484-492

Beil Benjamin & Schmidt Hans Christian, “The World of The Walking Dead – Transmediality and Transmedial Intermediality”, Acta Univ. Sapientiae, Film and Media Studies 10, (2015), pp. 73-88.

Bolter Jay D.  & Grusin Richard, Remediation Understanding New Media, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press) (1999)

Bordwell David, Narration in the Fiction Film, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge) (2013[1985])

Burn Andrew & Schott Gareth, “Heavy hero or digital dummy? Multimodal player–avatar relations in Final Fantasy 7”, Visual Communication, 3(2) (2004), pp. 213-233.

Elleström Lars, “The modalities of media: A model for understanding intermedial relations”, in Media borders, multimodality and intermediality, ed. Lars Elleström (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), pp. 11-51.

Fuchs Michael, “A Different Kind of Monster: Uncanny Media and Alan Wake’s Textual Monstrosity”, in Contemporary Research on Intertextuality in Video Games, ed. C. Duret & CM. Pons, (Hershey, PA: IGI Global) (2016), pp. 39-54

Hennig Martin, “Why Some Worlds Fail. Observations on the Relationship Between Intertextuality, Intermediality, and Transmediality in the Resident Evil and Silent Hill Universes”, IMAGE 21, (2015), pp. 17-33.

Jørgensen Kristine, Gameworld Interfaces, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press) (2013)

Karhulahti Veli-Matti, “Suspending virtual disbelief: a perspective on narrative coherence”, in International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling, ed. D. Oyarzun, F. Peinado, R.M. Young, A. Elizalde, G. Mendez (Berlin: Springer, 2012)

Karhulahti Veli-Matti, “Do Videogames Simulate? Virtuality and imitation in the philosophy of simulation”, Simulation & Gaming 46:6 (2015), p. 845

Kattenbelt Chiel, “Intermediality in theatre and performance: Definitions, perceptions and medial relationships”, Cultura, lenguaje y representación: revista de estudios culturales de la universitat Jaume, 6 (2008), pp. 19-29

Klevjer Rune, “Enter the avatar: The phenomenology of prosthetic telepresence in computer games”, in The philosophy of computer games, ed. JR Sageng, H. Fossheim & T.M. Larsen (Dodrecht: Springer, 2012), pp. 1-24.

Klevjer Rune, “Cut-scenes”, in The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf & Bernard Perron, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2014), pp. 301-309.

Newman James, “The myth of the ergodic videogame”, Game studies, 2(1) (2002),

Rajewsky Irina, “Intermediality, intertextuality and remediation”, Intermédialités: Histoire et théorie des arts, des lettres et des techniques Intermediality:/History and Theory of the Arts, Literature and Technologies 6 (2005), pp. 43-64.

Schut Kevin, “Media Ecology”, in The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf & Bernard Perron, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2014), pp. 324-330.

Vella Daniel, The Ludic Subject and the Ludic Self: Analyzing the ‘I-in-the-Gameworld’. (IT-University of Copenhagen, 2015)

http://www.gamestudies.org/0102/newman/, accessed November 13th 2016.

Wolf Werner, The musicalization of fiction: A study in the theory and history of intermediality, (Amsterdam: Rodopi) (1999)

Wolf Werner, “The relevance of ‘mediality’ and ‘intermediality’ to academic studies of English Literature”, in Mediality/Intermediality (Swiss Papers in English Language and Literature 21), ed. A. Fischer, M. Heusser and A.H. Juncker (Tübingen: Günter Narr Verlag, 2008), pp. 15-43.

 

Games:
Cibele (2015, Star Maid Games)

Final Fantasy VII (1997, Square)

Final Fantasy VIII (1998, Square)

Her Story (2015, Sam Barlow)

Sewer Shark (1992, Digital Pictures)

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception (2011, Naughty Dog)

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (2016, Naughty Dog)

Uriel’s Chasm (2014, Dylan Barry)

World of Final Fantasy (2016, Square Enix)

 

 

 

 

[1]  Espen Aarseth, “A Narrative Theory of games”, in Proceedings of the international conference on the foundations of digital games, (2012), p. 130.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jay David Bolter & Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge, MA:MIT Press) (1999)

[4] Martin Hennig, “Why Some Worlds Fail. Observations on the Relationship Between Intertextuality, Intermediality, and Transmediality in the Resident Evil and Silent Hill Universes”, IMAGE 21, (2015), p. 17.

[5] Benjamin Beil & Hans Christian Schmidt, “The World of The Walking Dead – Transmediality and Transmedial Intermediality”, Acta Univ. Sapientiae, Film and Media Studies 10, (2015).

[6] Martin Hennig.

[7]  Michael Fuchs, “A Different Kind of Monster: Uncanny Media and Alan Wake’s Textual Monstrosity”, in Contemporary Research on Intertextuality in Video Games, ed. C. Duret & CM. Pons, (Hershey, PA: IGI Global, 2016)

[8] Rune Klevjer, “Enter the avatar: The phenomenology of prosthetic telepresence in computer games”, in The philosophy of computer games, ed. JR Sageng, H. Fossheim & T.M. Larsen (Dodrecht: Springer, 2012), p. 14.

[9] Ibid., p. 4.

[10] Ibid., p. 2

[11] Daniel Vella, The Ludic Subject and the Ludic Self: Analyzing the ‘I-in-the-Gameworld’. (IT-University of Copenhagen, 2015), p. 216.

[12] Ibid., p. 217.

[13] Ibid., p. 219.

[14] Ibid., p. 371.

[15] Ibid., p. 374.

[16] Ibid., p. 227.

[17] Ibid., p. 364.

[18] Ibid, p. 364.

[19] James Newman, “The myth of the ergodic videogame”, Game studies, 2(1) (2002), http://www.gamestudies.org/0102/newman/, accessed November 13th, 2016.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Daniel Vella, p.393.

[23] V.M. Karhulahti, “Suspending virtual disbelief: a perspective on narrative coherence”, in International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling, ed. D. Oyarzun, F. Peinado, R.M. Young, A. Elizalde, G. Mendez (Berlin: Springer, 2012)

[24]All Figure sources: Youtube (2016). Uncharted 4 Gameplay Walkthrough Part 1 FULL GAME 1080p No Commentary (Chapter 1-23). RabidRetrospectGames. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxaw6CqVMss

[25] Daniel Vella, p. 393.

[26] Ibid., p. 379

[27] Rune Klevjer, “Cut-scenes”, in The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf & Bernard Perron, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2014), p. 301.

[28] Daniel Vella, p. 376

[29] Ibid.

[30] Irina Rajewsky, “Intermediality, intertextuality and remediation”, Intermédialités: Histoire et théorie des arts, des lettres et des techniques Intermediality:/History and Theory of the Arts, Literature and Technologies 6 (2005), p. 46.

[31] Lars Elleström, “The modalities of media: A model for understanding intermedial relations”, in Media borders, multimodality and intermediality, ed. Lars Elleström (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p. 28.

[32] Irina Rajewsky, p. 45.

[33] Ibid., pp. 51-52

[34] Ibid.

[35] Irina Rajewsky, p. 46.

[36] Lars Elleström.

[37] Ibid, p. 34.

[38] Ibid., p. 27.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid., p. 30.

[41] Ibid., p. 14.

[42] Ibid., p. 15.

[43] Ibid., p. 17

[44] Ibid., pp. 17-18.

[45] Ibid., p. 18.

[46] Ibid., p. 22.

[47] Lars Elleström, p. 19.

[48] Kristine Jørgensen, Gameworld Interfaces, (Cambdrige, MA: MIT Press) (2013)

[49] David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge) (2013[1985])

[50] Kristine Jørgensen, pp. 2-3.

[51] David Bordwell, p. 113.

[52] Lars Elleström, p. 22.

[53] Kristine Jørgensen, p. 147.

[54] Irina Rajewsky, p. 62.

[55] Andrew Burn & Gareth Schott, “Heavy hero or digital dummy? Multimodal player–avatar relations in Final Fantasy 7”, Visual Communication, 3(2) (2004).

[56] Michael Fuchs, p. 47

[57] Espen Aarseth, pp. 129-133.

[58] Veli-Matti Karhulahti, “Do Videogames Simulate? Virtuality and imitation in the philosophy of simulation”, Simulation & Gaming 46:6 (2015), p. 845

[59] Chiel Kattenbelt, “Intermediality in theatre and performance: Definitions, perceptions and medial relationships”, Cultura, lenguaje y representación: revista de estudios culturales de la universitat Jaume, 6 (2008), p. 23

[60] Werner Wolf, The musicalization of fiction: A study in the theory and history of intermediality, (Amsterdam: Rodopi) (1999), p. 37, in Lars Elleström, p. 28.

[61] Lars Elleström, p. 24

[62] Ibid., pp. 24-25

[63] Ibid., p. 25.

[64] Ibid.

[65] Werner Wolf, “The relevance of ‘mediality’ and ‘intermediality’ to academic studies of English Literature”, in Mediality/Intermediality (Swiss Papers in English Language and Literature 21), ed. A. Fischer, M. Heusser and A.H. Juncker (Tübingen: Günter Narr Verlag, 2008), p. 23

[66] Chiel Kattenbelt, p. 25

[67] Kevin Schut, “Media Ecology”, in The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf & Bernard Perron, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2014), p. 329.

[68] Werner Wolf, p. 21.

[69] Lars Elleström, p. 38.

[70] Espen Aarseth, “Ontology”, in The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf & Bernard Perron, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2014).

Pokémemory: Time-images, Transmedia, and Memory

Jayme D. Mallindine

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 122-141.

Jayme D. Mallindine

University of Texas

 

 

 

Pokémemory: Time-images, Transmedia, and Memory

 

Abstract

The 2016 launch of Pokémon Go, Pokémon Sun, and Pokémon Moon – video games that shattered sales records and expectations – show that the Pokémon brand continues to capture the hearts (and wallets) of people all across the world. Sidestepping questions of whether Pokémon’s influence is the direct result of conscious player choice, corporate control, or political power plays, this paper investigates the inflammatory lines between power and play. This paper argues that Pokémon products, as a branded transmedia franchise, have the ability to spark moments of nostalgic recall for consumers through the use of memory mechanics called “gestures” that link Pokémon products both to one another and to a player’s embodied history of play. Drawing from Laura Marks’ work on “radioactive memory fossils” and Deleuze’s “time-images”, this essay investigates a few Pokémon gestures that operate both intra-platform (within the same type of platform, such as between the animated film and the animated series) and inter-platform (between different types of digital media platforms, such as between the animated series and the video game). By investigating these gestures, we expose ways in which the Pokémon brand can inspire the recollection of memories in ways the player and producer can influence but not entirely control. Pokémon’s presence as a branded transmedia experience embedded in individual biographies of players opens avenues of resistance to traditional lines of influence in the media industry by reframing power not just as the ability to control, but also as the ability to surprise.

 

Key Words: memory, transmedia, Pokémon, branding, time-images

 

Introduction

 

In the late 1990’s, there was a sudden and seemingly never-ending influx of strangely cute monsters making their way into the United States. The children were in love. The adults? A little confused. The monsters were Pokémon[1] and they were the most recent pop culture craze from Japan. Their almost over-night popularity with youth in the United States was so surprising that the phrase “pokémania” was coined to describe what appeared to be an irrational obsession for these pocket-sized toys.

Twenty years later, Pokémon remains a transmedia heavyweight. In 2016, Pokémon proved, with the release of Pokémon Go[2], that Pokémon as a brand was still powerful enough to break the internet. An article in Rolling Stone Magazine reported that Pokémon Go, an augmented-reality game that utilized Pokémon imagery, developed by Niantic and released to iOS and Android, experienced such unexpected high demand that the developer’s overloaded servers crashed within two days of the game’s initial release.[3] Pokémon’s continued popularity is not limited to smartphones either. The 2016 hand-held console video games, Pokémon Sun[4] and Pokémon Moon[5], became Nintendo’s fastest-selling titles ever in the Americas by selling 3.7 million copies across the American regions within the first few weeks of sale. [6]

The popularity of this twenty-year-old brand has sparked conversations about why these toys garner such intense affection and what that means for players and society. Some viewed Pokémon’s success in terms of global politics, with the brand’s popularity seen as evidence of Japan’s burgeoning ability to counteract the hegemonic media industry of the United States.[7] Others focused on smaller-scale and individual responses and uses of Pokémon products.[8] Researchers and journalists wanted to understand how and why Pokémon had burrowed its way into the youthful hearts of U.S. children and who ultimately was the one responsible for its popularity. Was the Pokémon takeover planned from the top down as the result of corporate ingenuity, or did Pokémon gain its influence from the bottom up due to player autonomy?

This essay posits that Pokémon itself, outside of purely corporate or consumer control, can move meaning and value through memory. Looking at the various ways in which Pokémon products create their own affective and nostalgic value, I argue that Pokémon products can spark involuntary moments of recall for consumers using mnemonic “gestures” that link Pokémon products both to one another and to embodied histories of play encapsulated within the memory of the consumer. This makes the vested popular interest in Pokémon lie somewhere within an assemblage vast enough to include a multitude of various components: corporate goals, political power struggles, consumer agency, as well as meaningful memories not always controlled by either consumer or creator.

Noticing the ways Pokémon can move meaning independently of conscious thought is not to say that power inequalities, whether between producer and consumer or between nation-states, are non-existent or unimportant. It instead provides an increased awareness of tools that open the potential for media to swerve within the configured lines that typically shape the movement and flow of entertainment and information. This swerving is based on Amit Rai’s conceptualization of clinamedia, “the intensive process of becoming” that he believes is the new order of media assemblage. The ability for media to swerve like “the clinamen of Lucretius”,[9] deviating from the straight lines of cause and effect dictated by outside forces, opens up the possibility for a type of political tweaking, offering additional methods of resisting the enforced methods of control. Gestures, when seen as a type of swerve, are not ways to avoid acknowledging power differences, but instead are sources of hope that hegemonies and power structures do not always have the final say on meaning. There are ways to move outside of power imbalances, and the playful gestures found in toy objects are just one of many.

 

Gestures and Memory Mechanics

 

Pokémon’s current success in part deals with the brand’s existence as a nostalgic entity. Nostalgia, a “yearning for something that tends to have been within living memory rather than distant historical memory”, is a key component in the construction and marketing of video games today.[10] As video games, including the Pokémon franchise, age as a medium, nostalgia and memory have made appearances in the research behind why certain games become cultural and financial hotbeds of activity. Nintendo is especially known for this, with academic volumes on gaming and nostalgia, such as Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, referencing the success of Nintendo’s franchises as proof that memory and video games are significantly intertwined.[11]  But how are people encouraged to remember previous Pokémon experiences, and who controls those memorable moments?

In Laura Marks’ The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, memory is described as something that is stored bodily, as well as something that is not always called upon consciously. Marks identifies that media can be a hotbed of triggers that uproot a previous flow of experience (i.e. a memory) involuntarily on the part of the rememberer/viewer, making memory a minefield of potentiality that opens up a person to multiple flows of time simultaneously.[12] Images or objects, which she terms radioactive memory fossils, inspire this jump to the past and disrupt the time and coherence of the present plane. This launches the viewer outward into other planes of both time and experience,[13] revealing that “the past [the image] represents is not over”[14] and that it continues to live on and influence the present moment, with the present moment also reaching backwards to inexplicably influence our past experience.

Marks’ writing works in part from Deleuze’s theory of “time-image”. Time-images, as compared to movement-images, do not follow the chronological order and representation of narrative actions and reactions. While past, present, and future are all clearly differentiated from each other in movement-images, time-images flatten that temporal plane, making past, future, and present indistinguishable.[15] Pokémon achieves a similar effect through use of “gestures” which, like Deleuzian style time-images, are movements, actions, or images that disrupt the development of linear narrative by pointing towards other memories and media products within the transmedia franchise. This creates a wider system of moments that extend beyond the specific medium and moment at hand. These gestures are not “gestures” in the sense of a physical movement by an actor within the story, but rather a “pointing towards” another aspect of Pokémon through the mirroring of a familiar image, phrase, character, game mechanic, or environment. The presence of a gesture involves movement from the present moment to a previous one and has the feel of a verb – a moment that moves you – versus a noun, a moment one has.

As we learn from Marks, memories are not always purposeful, and these gestures towards the remembered past do not necessarily imply voluntary action on the part of the viewer. Rather than being a recollection in the form of purposeful nostalgia, the gestures can point to the past regardless of whether the player intended to imagine it or not. The viewer cannot choose to remember or not remember and is instead moved to memory by the gesture itself. It is an excavation of the past not by the methodical digging of a shovel-wielding archaeologist, but by an unexpected and explosive tripwire.

These types of gestures disrupt the place and time of the present experience when they surface. When a gesture moves you while you are playing the newest Pokémon game, you are pushed into a moment where your memory of playing Pokémon previously exists simultaneously with your current experience of playing, all in the very same moment. Due to the player’s embodied, tactile memory of having interacted with other Pokémon products, these gestures do not simply disrupt via the rational plane, but also via the affective one. Playing is an action, a very bodily one, and memories of play are also memories of movement and body.

The word gesture also in part draws from Bergson’s discussions on the explosive nature of repetitive, unconscious, and “disruptive comic gestures”, which he says contrast with intentional or conscious actions.[16] In the case of Pokémon, these gestures disrupt the narrative using mimic-able images, actions, game mechanics, and phrases that are associated with other temporalities, like Marks’ radioactive memory fossils. They both “condense time within themselves”[17] and expand time outwards upon the viewing or “excavation”. Using the word “gesture” instead of “fossil” is appropriate for a transmedia franchise that originates with a game, a media form that more obviously relies on physical movements of the player for a story to unfold. Using the word gesture more easily brings to mind movement, which helps us to remember the interactive (and therefore action-oriented) nature of games. This is not to say gestures are more powerful than other types of references, like music or visual imagery, just that gestures are well-suited to transmedia franchises that involve games. All forms of transmedia storytelling use a variety of different narrative-making techniques, but the narrative found in games is intertwined with game mechanics – system-based feedback mechanisms that affect how a narrative is experienced. Using action-based ideas versus noun-based ideas helps not only pay homage to what is unique about video games, but also expands our conception of transmedia memory-making beyond what an audience member remembers seeing, but also what an audience member remembers doing.

 

Brands and Memory-Making

 

Transmedia, in addition to being multiple kinds of interrelated stories based on the same fictional universe produced on multiple types of media platforms, is also a type of brand. When someone says a media product is part of a transmedia franchise, like Star Wars, the label brings with it certain expectations about what an experience with that product will be like based on previous experiences with products made under that same umbrella. Branding relies heavily on affect and past experiences, and corporations have been harnessing the power of memory to create effective branding for quite a while. In Robert J. Foster’s book, Coca-Globalization: Following Soft Drinks from New York to New Guinea,[18] Foster studies how soft drink brands such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi become more than mere commodities as they spread globally from place to place. For Foster, the qualifying of the meaning and value of Coca-Cola lies beyond production or simple commodity consumption, but in the affective work that consumers do through their association of past experiences and feelings with the Coca-Cola brand.

This affective significance comes as a result of Coca-Cola embedding itself into the everyday lives of consumers to such a degree that it becomes part of people’s individual biographies, “a prop for the particular narratives through which individual consumers actively produce their own pasts”.[19] Coca-Cola’s value and meaning is essentially produced by creating a time machine, a type of time travel only possible to consumers with previous, embodied connections with the Coca-Cola brand in physically salient ways. An example being the bodily experience of drinking a Coca-Cola during a particularly memorable summer spent at summer camp. When you see an ad for Coca-Cola, you not only rationally recognize and read the message, but also remember the emotional and physical feelings of drinking from that cold glass bottle on a warm pier. The value of a brand such as Coca-Cola comes from two interlinked sources: one from the actual consumption of a commodity marked by brand image, and the other of the memory of that consumption upon viewing the brand image later. Each product must be able to stand alone as a complete experience, but also gain in value, depth, and meaning when it becomes a node in the network of memories and experiences that make up a consumer’s experience with that brand.

Framing Pokémon as a brand like Coca-Cola makes for easy connections. Brands are created when consumers (or players, in this case) form emotional relationships with the franchise through a brand’s ability to connect products to remembered individual biographies. While brands like Coca-Cola do this through advertisements in relationship to a single experience – that of drinking Coca-Cola – Pokémon is a brand that stimulates similar time-traveling tendencies not for one product, but for a large collection of media products. Each encounter with a Pokémon product can connect various aspects of the consumers’ individual biography and identity, linking together different times and experiences of the player’s life into the continually expanding Pokémon universe.

Colin B. Harvey in Fantastic Transmedia: Narrative, Play and Memory Across Science Fiction and Fantasy Storyworlds, identifies memory and nostalgia as key mechanisms through which transmedia products are created and spread.[20] For Harvey, “the role of memory can be understood as central to transmedia storytelling, in which the invocation of ideas, characters, plot points or audio-visual imagery between elements of a franchise are central to that project’s success.” [21] This makes sense. It would be difficult to link different forms of media together (linking stories together being the basis of transmedia storytelling all together) if an audience member could not remember any of the previous stories.

When discussing the significance of memory when it comes to creating canon, Harvey examines “the multiple ways in which creators, fans and other commentators seek to control and negotiate the tensions between subjective and collective remembering of a storyworld’s diegesis” [my emphasis].[22] The emphasis on control and negotiation implies that memory is something that can be controlled through agency of either consumer or creator. This is seen again in the final chapter, where Harvey explains that,

the degree of control exercised by the IP holder in each instance in relation to how memory is controlled directly affects the particular narrative being told and the wider storyworld. Equally the lack of control experienced by those outside of such legal arrangements determines how memories can be articulated, and the extent to which they can be subverted.[23]

Control of memory, collective memory especially, is important when it comes to transmedia storytelling. While memory can be affected, encouraged, and subverted by both authorial intent and consumer choice, there are also additional ways to subvert power that are not as tied into conceptions of control. Memory, as Harvey says, can be “an unruly beast”[24], and memory’s ability to continually surprise us provides an alternative way to think about the way media moves us.

 

Producers, Players, and Play Objects

 

From the beginning, concerns about power, both why Pokémon held such a powerful position in the imaginations of players, as well as who controlled that power, were at the forefront of conversations surrounding these pocket-sized monsters. Alternatively called “Cool Japan” or “Japan’s Gross National Cool”,[25] the success of Japanese media products like Tamagotchi, Hello Kitty, and Pokémon in markets outside of Japan, especially the United States, could be interchangeably seen as either a symbol or a symptom of Japan’s rise in “soft power”. Japan was viewed as a blossoming media powerhouse, and more eyes on Japanese media meant Japan was increasingly able to affect culture, values, and politics through the appeal and attraction of their nation and their nation’s media products.[26]

This assessment of Japan’s growing persuasive capacities in globalized media networks was problematized by Iwabuchi Koichi, whose analyses of the extensive localization practices of Pokémon showed that all visual cues that marked Japanese media as being a specifically “Japanese product” were effectively removed. These localization processes revolve around the intention of making these products culturally neutral, something Iwabuchi terms “culturally odorless”.[27] In that case, it means the popularity of products like Pokémon cannot easily be interpreted as consumers appreciating or yearning for anything that, in Iwabuchi’s language, is “distinctively Japanese”. For Iwabuchi, the success of Pokémon stems not from Japan’s rise as a cultural superpower, but rather from the successful removal of all specifically Japanese references so that the world of Pokémon is familiar and comfortable for American audiences.

One of the primary limitations to research like Iwabuchi’s and McGray’s is that, as macro-level and global political commentaries, they do not consider how individual players interact with and emotionally relate to Pokémon products. It is hard to tell what consumers of media products think without researching their actual opinions, and the media itself can tell a narrative or story that moves the meaning beyond just international power struggles. Both Iwabuchi and McGray reduce Pokémon and its consumers to symbolic static straw men for clashing sovereign powers in a way that turns the individuals engaged with the media, as well as the media itself, into somewhat passive mirrors of larger, external political vying for international power. That is a meaningful conversation to be had, to be sure, but not the only one.

Anne Allison in her book Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination offers up a different reading of Pokémon. By interviewing young Pokémon fans and examining the crossover media traffic between Japan and the United States, Allison argues that Japanese entertainment goods such as Pokémon are not static objects, but instead examples of the interlocking relationships between things like Japan and the US, or fantasy and reality, effectively becoming mutable assemblages that attract youths through their ability to move, shift, and transform.[28]  While children admit to the importance of these products coming from Japan in terms of authenticity, Allison argues that the popularity of international Japanese media goods instead derives from a “Japan” that operates as a brand signifier for a certain type of fantasy-ware, rather than a marker of specific geographic or national origin.[29] In some ways, this type of scholarship fills in the gaps left over from a heavy emphasis on structural powers or national intentions. Rather than players being totally under the influence of sovereign agencies, the individual and multifaceted ways in which children are actively utilizing these toy objects in day-to-day life shows how macro processes and symbolism are not the only ones in control of the media and its meaning.

Other types of Pokémon scholarship have also focused more heavily on the relationships players and fans have formed with Pokémon, flipping the focus from macro to micro to examine the ways children actively interact with and use Pokémon products on an individual or demographically narrow level. The topics covered are highly varied, from being impressed by the information and data gathering of young players,[30] to documenting how French children purposefully integrate Pokémon cards into more traditional French card games,[31] to demonstrating how children purposefully use Pokémon to construct new identities for themselves.[32] Rather than practices that are entirely reflective of larger social or cultural narratives, this type of research reinforces the agency of young players in their creative play.

In the research mentioned, Pokémon products become inert tools in either the international hands of nations and corporations, or the somewhat smaller hands of children. I seek instead to complicate this hierarchical relationship, placing Pokémon alongside both the player and producer in terms influence and power, rather than strictly below or above. The value players imbue the Pokémon brand with is not entirely a result of top-down decision-making, with The Pokémon Company solely managing the brand and its meaning, nor is it entirely a product of consumers dictating their own emotions and use of Pokémon products. The answer is between all these things, with the producer, the player, and the actual play product itself interacting on a playing field that is not entirely predetermined, hierarchical, or even adversarial.

 

The Method Behind the Memories

 

To catalogue all the interconnections within the vast and ever-expanding universe of Pokémon would be a monumental endeavour and beyond the scope and limitations of this essay. Instead this article provides a digestible snapshot of how gestures can be located and understood using only specific parts of the Pokémon franchise. I avoided looking at narrative similarities between media products, which lean towards being “movement-images” that utilize rationality versus emotion and affect as the primary driving force. I concentrated instead on the memories that were playful or action-oriented, elements of the world geared towards memories of doing or playing. These gestures are slight, large enough to jar something loose in the memory banks of someone who has played or experienced other Pokémon products, but small enough to not disrupt the story or seem out of place to someone who did not understand the reference.

I started with two specific iterations of the Pokémon franchise: the 1999 cinematic release, Pokémon: The First Movie,[33] and the 2013 video game release, Pokémon X. The gestures found in these two iterations flatten time both intra-platform and inter-platform. Intra-platform gestures point across new or older versions of the same type of product. (i.e. the newest version of a game pointing towards older versions of the game). Inter-platform gestures point across different types of platforms or formats (i.e. an animated television episode pointing towards a video game). This sort of snapshot analysis shows how these gestures are not limited to a specific type or era of Pokémon media, and how gestures can tie together a transmedia brand across multiple products and platforms. The presence of memory gestures across multiple renditions of the franchise, and even across different decades, make this aspect of the media a part of Pokémon’s lasting transmedia brand and emotional legacy.

 

Intra-Platform Gestures

 

“Who’s That Pokémon?” is a question-and-answer segment featured in numerous episodes of the Pokémon animated television series.[34] During each episode, before a commercial break, the silhouette of a Pokémon is shown with the voice of the narrator asking the audience to guess the name of the Pokémon being shown. To ask the question, the narrator always uses the same phrase: “Who’s that Pokémon?” After the commercial break, a human character from the show shouts the name of the Pokémon as the fully detailed and non-silhouetted image of the Pokémon appears. For instance, in figure 1, the answer is “Pikachu”, the main Pokémon throughout the series. In addition to being a playful game to pass commercial time, “Who’s that Pokémon?” is also an intra-media memory gesture, a moment pointed towards by Pokémon’s first full-length film.

Pokémon: The First Movie: MewTwo Strikes Back (Gekijōban Poketto Monsutā: Myūtsū no Gyakushū)[35] was released in 1998 in Japan before making its way to the United States in 1999. As reported by Anne Allison in her book Millenial Monsters, the movie earned opening day profits that at the time exceeded all other films in American film history except for Star Wars. [36] The film was based primarily on the characters from the syndicated animated television series: Ash, Misty, and Brock (as they are called in the American release). In the film, our human protagonists, plus Pikachu, face Mewtwo, a bioengineered Pokémon made from the cloned DNA of Mew, the legendary Pokémon, and the super-Pokémon clones MewTwo has created. Like any good iteration in a transmedia franchise, it is a stand-alone film, and it is possible to find enjoyment watching it without having played any of the Pokémon video games or having watched any episodes of the animated television series. While previous knowledge and experience with a Pokémon product is unnecessary to understand what is happening, there were special, memory-laden gestures that offered additional depth and meaning for viewers who did have familiarity with other Pokémon products.

During Pokémon: The First Movie, the “Who’s that Pokémon?” gesture is referenced during a scene in which two members of Team Rocket, Jessie, and James (a pair of “villains” that often act as comic relief rather than a serious threat), are trapped in the underground laboratory of MewTwo. In the giant stadium above, MewTwo captures the Pokémon of the various trainers he has lured to his island (including Ash, Misty, and Brock) and sends the captured Pokémon down to his lab to be cloned. The cloning machine, while the captured Pokémon go through an assortment of tubes, displays on an overhead screen the silhouette of the Pokémon being cloned. At one point, when James sees a Pokémon’s silhouette on the screen, he mutters aloud “Who’s that Pokémon?” (see fig. 2). While this scene is part of a larger narrative arc revealing how MewTwo is creating his team of super-powered Pokémon, the moment when James asks quizzically about what is being shown on screen, and in fact even the existence of the screen itself, are largely unimportant for continuing the action of the story. But for viewers with previous experience of the animated Pokémon series, this gesture could potentially point towards memories of playing this specific guessing game while watching the animated television series on a couch in their living rooms, therefore recalling a past moment and layering it on top of the present to create an experience that extends backwards through time.

 

obraz 1 obraz 2

Fig. 1 (left) and Fig. 2 (right). A side-by-side comparison of a screenshot of the “Who’s that Pokémon?” segment from the first Pokémon episode, “Pokémon, I Choose You!”, in the United States (Fig. 1) versus a screenshot from Pokémon: The First Movie: MewTwo Strikes Back (Fig. 2).

 

The Pokémon video games also make use of intra-media gestures. Pokémon X, one of two of the first sixth generation games published in 2013, includes instances of gestures that take players out of the present moment by bursting backwards into older video games. For instance, at one Pokémon Center, a type of building that provides healing services within all of the games (its continued existence a type of gesture in and of itself), a non-playable character you speak with makes mention of the changes that have happened to Pokémon Centers within the last ten years (see fig. 3). One change the non-playable character notices is that of building aesthetics.

The Pokémon Centers, while common staples found in most of the main-franchise role-playing games, have gone through several changes in terms of their appearance as the games have developed over the years. The mention of there at one point being two stories is temporally important, as the two-story Pokémon Centers in old games (most notably the original 1998 video games Pokémon Red[37] and Pokémon Blue[38]) were due to technological specifications of the Game Boy console. The “Pokémon Cable Club”, as the character mentions, used to be housed on the second floor of the Pokémon Center in Pokémon Red and Blue. It is where players went to trade Pokémon with friends via physical, real-world cables connecting one Game Boy console to another before wireless transfer was made technologically possible.

For players of the original video game, stumbling across this innocuous comment in Pokémon X [39] could push the player back in time to a moment where you sat two feet away from your friend, impatiently watching a grey blob travel along tubes on your black-and-white pixilated screen as you waited for a trade to complete. It could also work in reverse. If you first encountered Pokémon X, encountering the second story in Pokémon Red or Pokémon Blue could cause you to “remember the future” of the franchise, adding meaning to the in-game architecture through your previous experiences of future renditions of the Pokémon Center.

 

obraz 3aobraz 3b

Fig. 3. Screenshots of a conversation with a non-playable character in Pokémon X while at a Pokémon Center.

 

The Pokémon themselves are their own intra-media gestures. As time goes on, the Pokémon franchise adds new Pokémon that are available for capture and training in addition to the ones that already exist. Generally, Nintendo only adds more Pokémon to the Pokémon universe, and never takes any away. Even if all the Pokémon are not available for capture within the same game, a player’s digital Pokédex (like an encyclopaedia or a field guide) holds information about every single Pokémon ever created. While the first games, Pokémon Red and Blue, started with a total of 151 Pokémon, the official online Pokédex compiled by The Pokémon Company on Pokemon.com lists a total of 801 different Pokémon as of 2017.[40]

Since the available Pokémon changes from game to game, recent developments have made it possible to transfer Pokémon from older games to newer games, so players can more fully complete their Pokédex. That means Pokémon from different generations can still be played with inside the game no matter what game you are currently playing. This has some interesting affective possibilities. If, as a player, you choose to move some of your old Pokémon to your new system, that means when you battle it is not just any Venosaur you’re playing with, it’s the same one you’ve owned and trained since 2004, the Venosaur that has seen you through different birthdays, bad romances, and good years. Pokémon you previously formed a relationship with are now available in your present moment, blurring the temporal lines between the battle you are having now and the battle you had ten years ago when you first levelled up the Pokémon on your screen.

 

Inter-Platform Gestures

 

The tendency to throw in moments that bring to mind other renditions of the Pokémon franchise is not limited to referencing products within the same type of platform. Pokémon: The First Movie, in addition to gesturing towards the animated series, also pointed the viewer towards the original video game, Pokémon Red. Upon revealing his powerful Pokémon clones before the final battle, MewTwo describes the very impressive battle trio standing in the frontlines as the “ultimate evolutions of the three Pokémon any trainer can get upon starting their journey”.[41] The Pokémon he is talking about are Charizard, Venosaur, and Blastoise, the final evolutions of Charmander, Bulbasaur, and Squirtle. This might mean nothing to the average viewer, but players of the Pokémon Red or Pokémon Blue video games would know that Charmander, Bulbasaur, and Squirtle are the first three starter Pokémon you must choose from at the beginning of the first Pokémon games. Hearing MewTwo’s speech brings the viewer back to the first time they ever turned on their Game Boy, reminding them of how difficult it was to choose which cute and cuddly battle monster would be their comrade for the remainder of the game.

Pokémon: The First Movie gestures towards more than just one video game. Pokémon Yellow[42] was released in 1999 as an almost a direct copy of Pokémon Red and Blue with only two big changes: Pikachu is the only available Pokémon to start with (rather than the typical trio of Charmander, Squirtle, and Bulbasaur), and Pikachu follows the player around on the screen rather than being carried in a Pokéball. This is directly gestured towards by the relationship between Ash and Pikachu in the film. It is quickly revealed to the audience that Pikachu is different than other Pokémon, namely because Pikachu refuses to go inside his Pokéball, which is where most Pokémon spend most of their time, even when critically injured. Watching that episode can instantly suggest the memory of navigating the game-world in Pokémon Yellow, with that tiny pixilated Pikachu you were forced to choose following happily along behind you.

Game mechanics are their own sort of gestures, with most Pokémon games utilizing some variation of in-battle moves relating to attack, defence, switching to another Pokémon, using an item from your in-game inventory/bag, or running away (if you are battling a wild Pokémon). While these game mechanics have stayed similar from game to game, changing little between iterations, they also re-appear across different platforms. “Thundershock” is a move used by Pikachu in Pokémon X, but is also seen in the first episode of the animated series.[43] It is also available as an attack move on some of the Pikachu playing cards from the Pokémon Trading Card Game (see fig. 4).[44]

 

obraz 4

Fig. 4. A Pikachu card found in Pokémon Trading Card Game, listing “Thunder Shock”, a move seen in both the anime, film, and in video games.

 

Game mechanics like this are unique to transmedia franchises that incorporate or are based out of games. Game mechanics and actions, rather than providing additional narrative depth or filling gaps in a story-line, combine media threads together through memories of repetitive action to create bonds between different kinds of media.

 

Who is Choosing Who? Purpose vs. Potential of Implanted Gestures

 

While these examples are just a few among many, they expose the multiplicity of ways that Pokémon could potentially inspire memories on the part of the player. The key point here is that of potential. While it is likely the creators purposefully implant some of these gestures throughout the franchise, the order in which the gestures are experienced and the effect they will have (if at all) is not entirely predictable. If your memories of a certain game are entrenched with memories of hiding in your room while soon-to-divorce parents are downstairs screaming, a game unintentionally causing you to go back in time to that moment might be met with frustration and sadness rather than joy and happiness.

Additionally, like all transmedia franchises, not everything will inspire moments of memory, in part because there is no specific chronological order in which to encounter the Pokémon franchise. Creators have little control over the order in which the franchise is experienced. A player can start anywhere, either the card game, anime, a video game, or movie, and still be able to participate in the main narrative arc of each Pokémon variant. Tajiri (the creator) says this himself in an interview with Time Magazine:

TIME: Do you think the TV show now dictates how people play the game?

Tajiri: At first, I was a little concerned. It depends on how people are

introduced to Pokémon. If they start with the TV show, or with the cards, or

the video game, they approach it differently each time.[45]

Some people start with the newest video game and work their way backwards to the classics, while others have purchased every video game since 1998. Some start in the middle. Some skip a game. Some people participate in all levels of the Pokémon franchise, from the card game to the anime, and still others participate maybe in only one or two types of the Pokémon media medley. Unlike a series, in which starting at the wrong point would cause confusion, the Pokémon franchise has many entry points that are constantly expanding outwards. The gestures work regardless of what order they move you, mainly because they have nothing to do with chronological time or narrative sequence. Each entry, each memory, each action, is just another addition to the individual biography, the individual Pokédex, of the player’s life which can be collected in any order.

These Pokémon products can exist separately even while being enmeshed in networks that bind them together across various stories, times, and method of engagement. The ability to pick up and engage with the Pokémon franchise at any point, even though these games are laden with references to other parts of the franchise, is possible because these types of gestures are not essential for narrative action. In fact, as a game, the glue that holds much of this transmedia franchise together is not even the narrative arc, but rather types of actions a player or audience member has performed when interacting with this world sometime in the past. These gestures draw the consumer in through the engagement of their individual, and very active, biographies, busting the present moment open to the possibility of pollution by other times and other experiences throughout the player’s life.

The possible effects of these radioactive memory gestures embedded within Pokémon products not only hold parts of the branding of this transmedia franchise together, but also provide a way to move meaning in ways not entirely calculable by producer or the player. Catching these movements of memory, or at the very least the moments in which these movements are possible, helps us better understand the ebbs and flows of media and its meaning as it crosses national borders, media platforms, and individual relationships. Catching just the power of the state or the power of individual intent is not enough. Put in the language of the Pokémon universe itself, we “Gotta Catch ‘Em All”.

 

References

Allison Anne, Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination, (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press) (2006).

Bergson Henri, Laughter. An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, (Los Angeles: Green Integer Books) (1999).

Brougere Gilles, “How Much Is a Pokémon Worth? Pokémon in France”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2008).

Deleuze Giles, Cinema 1. The movement-image, (London: The Athlone Press) (1986).

Foster Robert J., Coca-Globalization: Following Soft Drinks from New York to New Guinea, (New York, New York: Palgrave MacMillan) (2008).

Frank Allegra, “Pokémon Sun and Moon set big new sales record for Nintendo”, Polygon http://www.polygon.com/2016/11/30/13797626/pokemon-sun-and-moon-sales-record, date accessed 14 January 2017 (2016).

Harvey Colin B., Fantastic Transmedia: Narrative, Play and Memory Across Science Fiction and Fantasy Storyworlds, (King’s College London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan) (2015).

Iwabuchi Koichi, “How “Japanese” Is Pokemon?”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2008).

John Davison, “How Pokemania Broke ‘Pokemon Go’”, Rolling Stone Magazine http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/pokemon-go-how-pokemania-broke-mobile-gaming-app-20160712, date accessed 14 January 2017 (2016).

Taylor Laurie N., Whalen Zach, “Playing the Past: An Introduction”, in Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, ed. Laurie N. Taylor and Zach Whalen (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press) (2008).

Lien Tracey, “How successful is Pokémon? Take a look at the numbers!”, Polygon http://www.polygon.com/pokemon/2014/8/18/6030089/Pokemon-sales-numbers, date accessed 27 November 2014 (2014).

Marks Laura U., The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2000).

McGray Douglas, “Japan’s Gross National Cool”, Foreign Policy http://foreignpolicy.com/2009/11/11/japans-gross-national-cool/, date accessed 27 November 2014 (2002).

Nye Joseph, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, (New York: Basic Books) (1990).

Pokémon Blue (1998, The Pokémon Company, Gameboy).

Pokémon Go (2016, Niantic, iOS and Android).

“Episode 1: Pokémon, I Choose You!”, Pokémon [animated TV program] Cartoon Network, 8 September 1998.

Pokémon Moon (2016, The Pokémon Company, Nintendo 3DS).

Pokémon Red (1998, The Pokémon Company, Gameboy).

Pokémon Sun (2016, The Pokémon Company, Nintendo 3DS).

Pokémon X (2013, The Pokémon Company, Nintendo 3DS).

Pokémon Yellow: Special Pikachu Edition (1999, The Pokemon Company, Gameboy).

Pokémon: The First Movie: MewTwo Strikes Back! (1999, Yuyama Kunihiki).

Rai Amit S., Untimely Bollywood: Globalization and India’s New Media Assemblage, (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2009).

Reading Anna, Harvey Colin, “Remembrance of Things Fast: Conceptualizing Nostalgia Play in the Battlestar Galactica Video Game”, in Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, ed. Laurie N. Taylor and Zach Whalen (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press) (2008).

Sefton-Greene Julian, “Initiation Rites: A Small Boy in a Poke-World”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2008).

Tobin Joseph (ed) Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2004).

Willet Rebekah, “The Multiple Identities of Pokémon Fans”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2008).

“All Pokémon Video Games”, The Pokémon Company http://www.pokemon.com/us/pokemon-video-games/all-pokemon-games/, date accessed 14 January 2017.

Pokémon Trading Card Game (2014, The Pokémon Company, XY-Furious Fists expansion, “Pikachu”).

“Pokédex”, The Pokemon Company https://www.pokemon.com/us/pokedex/, date accessed 14 January 2017.

“The Ultimate Game Freak”, Time Magazine http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2040095,00.html, date accessed 30 November 2014 (1999).

 

 

[1] Because the single word “Pokémon” is used to describe and name a cornucopia of media objects and things, I utilized a specific key to help readers recognize references more easily. Throughout this paper I use the term “Pokémon” to discuss the creatures, or objects of capture, that inherit the Pokémon universe; I use the italicized “Pokémon” to discuss specific products (i.e. cartoons, movies, card games, video games, etc.); and I use the underlined “Pokémon” to discuss both the franchise and brand itself, as well as the universe in which Pokémon and Pokémon discussions are situated in or centred around.

[2] Pokémon Go on iOS and Android (2016, Niantic).

[3] John Davison, “How Pokemania Broke ‘Pokemon Go’”, Rolling Stone Magazine http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/pokemon-go-how-pokemania-broke-mobile-gaming-app-20160712, date accessed 14 January 2017 (2016).

[4] Pokémon Sun (2016, The Pokémon Company, Nintendo 3DS).

[5] Pokémon Moon (2016, The Pokémon Company, Nintendo 3DS).

[6] Allegra Frank, “Pokémon Sun and Moon set big new sales record for Nintendo”, Polygon http://www.polygon.com/2016/11/30/13797626/pokemon-sun-and-moon-sales-record, date accessed 14 January 2017 (2016).

[7] Douglas McGray, “Japan’s Gross National Cool”, Foreign Policy http://foreignpolicy.com/2009/11/11/japans-gross-national-cool/, date accessed 27 November 2014 (2002).

[8] Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2004).

[9] Amit S. Rai, Untimely Bollywood: Globalization and India’s New Media Assemblage, (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2009), p. 218-219.

[10] Anna Reading and Colin Harvey, “Remembrance of Things Fast: Conceptualizing Nostalgia-Play in the Battlestar Galactica Video Game”, in Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, ed. Laurie N. Taylor and Zach Whalen (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2008), p. 164-179.

[11] Laurie N. Taylor and Zach Whalen, “Playing the Past: An Introduction”, in Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, ed. Laurie N. Taylor and Zach Whalen (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2008), p. 1.

[12] Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2000), p. 65.

[13] Laura U. Marks, pp. 77.

[14] Laura U. Marks, pp. 81.

[15] Giles Deleuze, Cinema 1. The movement-image, (London: The Athlone Press) (1986).

[16] Henri Bergson, Laughter. An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, (Los Angeles: Green Integer Books) (1999), p. 130.

[17] Laura U. Marks, pp. 77.

[18] Robert J. Foster, Coca-Globalization: Following Soft Drinks from New York to New

Guinea, (New York, New York: Palgrave MacMillan) (2008).

[19] Robert J. Foster, pp. 85.

[20] Colin B. Harvey, Fantastic Transmedia: Narrative, Play and Memory Across Science Fiction and Fantasy Storyworlds, (King’s College London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan) (2015).

[21] Colin B. Harvey, pp. 34.

[22] Colin B. Harvey, pp. 92.

[23] Colin B. Harvey, pp. 200.

[24] Colin B. Harvey, pp. 183.

[25] Douglas McGray.

[26] Joseph Nye, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, (New York: Basic Books) (1990).

[27] Koichi Iwabuchi, “How “Japanese” Is Pokemon?”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008), p. 53-79.

[28] Anne Allison, Millenial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination, (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press) (2006), p. 34.

[29] Anne Allison, pp. 277.

[30] Julian Sefton-Greene, “Initiation Rites: A Small Boy in a Poke-World”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008), p. 141-164.

[31] Gilles Brougere, “How Much Is a Pokémon Worth? Pokémon in France”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008), p. 187-209.

[32] Rebekah Willet, “The Multiple Identities of Pokémon Fans”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008), p. 226-240.

[33] Pokémon: The First Movie: MewTwo Strikes Back! (1999, Yuyama Kunihiki).

[34] “Episode 1: Pokémon, I Choose You!”, Pokémon [animated TV program] Cartoon Network, 8 September 1998.

[35] Pokémon: The First Movie: MewTwo Strikes Back!

[36] Anne Allison, pp. 237.

[37] Pokémon Red (1998, The Pokémon Company, Gameboy).

[38] Pokémon Blue (1998, The Pokémon Company, Gameboy).

[39] Pokémon X (2013, The Pokémon Company, Nintendo 3DS).

[40] The Pokémon Company, https://www.pokemon.com/us/pokedex/, date accessed 14 January 2017.

[41] Pokémon: The First Movie: MewTwo Strikes Back!

[42] Pokémon Yellow: Special Pikachu Edition on Game Boy (1999, The Pokemon Company).

[43] “Episode 1: Pokémon, I Choose You!”.

[44] Pokémon Trading Card Game (2014, The Pokémon Company, XY-Furious Fists expansion, “Pikachu”).

[45] “The Ultimate Game Freak”, Time Magazine http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2040095,00.html, date accessed 30 November 2014 (1999).

 

 

 

 

 

Creation Myths, Community, and Collectanea: A Folk Group Case Study, or “Welcome to Dota, You Suck”

Ciara Smith

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 142-161.

 

Ciara Smith

Auburn University

 

 

Creation Myths, Community, and Collectanea:

A Folk Group Case Study, or “Welcome to Dota, You Suck”[1]

 

Abstract

This paper posits folklore studies as an appropriate lens through which to examine a specific gaming community. Game studies, itself an emerging but recognized field of study, offers an alternative possibility. In practice, folklore seems to be more appropriate. Ludology, the study of gameplay, lacks methodologies and metrics specific to the field by which to study communities, their practice, and the process of coherent group creation. Other gaming studies research focusing on gaming communities invariably employs techniques and terminology of other disciplines in order to contribute to the growing compendium of gaming studies that have been conducted. The following paper might be seen to contribute to practices by which folklore studies provide similarly lendable terms and methods; it also clearly represents the expansion of folklore studies into the realm of the digital world. Accordingly, three aspects of folk group study are examined: community beliefs, community creation practices, and communally significant material culture. In each, there is a necessary process of adjustment from the physical to the digital iterations of these traditionally examined aspects. These aspects represent only a few of the myriad possibilities of digital versions of folkloric methodologies.

Key words: gaming studies, digital folklore, gaming communities, MMOs, MOBAs

 

Introduction

In 2007, webcomic artist Randall Munroe posted a comic called “Online Communities” which features some of the most popular websites, social media systems, virtual communication tools and online gaming communities reimagined as a geographical map, complete with the Gulf of YouTube, the Mountains of Web 1.0, and the Blogipelago.[2] By 2010, this map was obsolete and he produced “Online Communities 2”. After an interval of only three years, the area devoted to MySpace had shrunk considerably and is now located near the “Wasteland of Abandoned Social Networks”; Facebook sprawls Sino-Russia-like across the top of the map and YouTube has become its own land mass with smaller areas like the Britney mountains and the already-abandoned Rick-Rolling Hills. “Communities rise and fall”, Munroe writes, “and total membership numbers are no longer a good measure of a community’s current size and health. [‘Online Communities 2’] uses size to represent total social activity in a community – that is, how much talking, playing, sharing, or other socializing happens there”.[3]

Society is already happening online, and although geographic location is still an important factor in a person’s life, online activity (and “where” this activity happens) is becoming just as important. While the art community expands to include the digital arts and humanity scholars examine the “written” word that is now being transmitted and consumed virtually, those who study the artists, the writers, and their societies must learn to incorporate the reality of online identity. Alan Dundes, claimed that:

The term ‘folk’ can refer to any group of people whatsoever who share at least one common factor. It doesn’t matter what that factor is – it could be a common occupation, language, or religion – but what is important is that a group formed for whatever reason will have some traditions which it calls its own.[4]

In their chapter on folk groups in Living Folklore, an introduction to folklore study, Martha C. Sims and Martine Stephens qualified this definition. Citing Dunde’s and the definitions of a number of other folklorists in regard to folk groups, Sims and Stephens eventually arrive at what they consider the centrally important ideal of group: that the group is “doing folklore”. “Basically, if a group has folklore, it’s a folk group”.[5]  Such a definition is clearly applicable to online societies which produce or revolve around a number of recognized forms of folklore. Even before such an in-depth exploration as is attempted below, personal experience renders undeniable the claim that online communities produce such items as jokes and art – two forms that are mentioned in Dundes’ non-exhaustive list referenced by Sims and Stephens.[6]

The possibilities of a folkloric study of an online gaming community are potentially endless. Such a community’s status as a lore-producing group seems clear, but despite the current rise in participation in virtual folk groups there has not been so drastic a rise in corresponding study of such groups. Digital folklorist Trevor J. Blank has identified one of the potential reasons for this slight:

On the surface, it may appear that the identification of “folkness” via a technological medium (such as the internet) is presumptuous, or worse, inherently “non-folk”, since it requires some technical prowess with computer-mediated communication in order to be engaged. However, there is an inborn “folk” presence in cyberspace by virtue of the fact that people are behind nearly every symbolic interaction that takes place online and through new media technology.[7]

Technology, Blank claims, is merely a conduit through which folkness is expressed.[8] As stated in the Randall Munroe quote above, online communities are in a constant state of rise and fall. Even as communities are abandoned, the nature of the Internet itself means that an archive of these communities is already being created.

One of the longest lived online communities is that of World of Warcraft. WoW, as it is generally known, is one of the most exoterically recognizable of online gaming communities, yet its community is incredibly esoteric.[9] WoW is an MMO (or MMORPG), a massive multiplayer online game where players from all over the world can interact with others and make friends. Such a game is inherently social in nature, mimicking real life societies in terms of race, class, and faction divisions (somewhat comparable to national divides). Players themselves recognize the social aspects of the game:

When I started, WoW was more of a social experience than gaming. I spent the bulk of my time chatting with people, and that was the reason I logged on everyday…

And theres [sic] more to it than levelling. You can do professions, gather pets, earning money, exploring, immersion, roleplay… And most important of all; friendship! Youll [sic] undoubtely [sic] meet some people. Ive [sic] played WoW for many years and I have friends all over the globe.[10]

This is a member of the WoW community’s response to someone who was trying to play the game without any real motivation, “just because”. These ideas of social interaction online are not restricted to MMOs, WoW, or even to the game communities to which this article will eventually turn its attention: DotA and DotA 2. However, such online communities as these are clearly defined, esoteric, and somewhat homogenous in ways that, for example, social media sites (Facebook, Pinterest, etc.[11]) are not.

While this paper is primarily occupied with the attempt to speak of a gaming community as a folk group, an obvious question remains: If folklore is a discipline ill-suited to the task of examining this group, what discipline would be more appropriate? The field of gaming studies is particularly apropos, but similar studies on gaming communities by scholars of games and gaming communities have been largely conducted by sociologists with an interest in gaming. While folklore studies must change and adapt to online life and the new facet such phenomena bring to a study of communities, gaming studies continues to develop as a field that is inherently interdisciplinary.

In general, ludology, the emergent term for the study of play, seems far more suited to the aspects of play than the communities themselves. According to Gonzalo Frasca, “A ludologist is somebody who wants to have a better understanding of games”.[12] Notably, Frasca used this description when trying to differentiate ludology from narratology, implying that these two fields are similar and neither of them seem concerned specifically with the study of the players and their communities. While games such as WoW allow players to create personas and interact in their community during gameplay, DotA and DotA 2 games are often very short. DotA players spend almost as much time out of game taking part in their community as in the game. This does not mean, however, that the gaming aspect does not matter to DotA players. Nor does it mean that this external component of community is exclusive to these communities. In his work on identity expressions in the gaming subculture, J. Patrick Williams has noted the way that items, understanding, and gaming history including success statistics all play a part in the identity of players of collectible card games such as Magic: The Gathering. He notes for these games what might be applied to the community-identity aspect of most if not all games: “Multiple, overlapping processes are involved in the construction of ‘authentic’ identities”.[13] Such a statement highlights both the social complexity of these groups and the way in which the construction of such identity is not limited to in-game activity. Ludology’s focus on gameplay seems, therefore, to fall short of a comprehensive study on the DotA communities. Recent developments in gaming studies posit the game as a tri-part artefact of technology, individual activity, and social pastime. It is this final aspect with which this researcher is most concerned and which would be broadened by the use of folklore studies as a research apparatus.

Where relevant, the following examination of the DotA and DotA 2 communities has attempted to refer to gaming study articles and works that examine related aspects in other games and their communities. In general, even when the authors of these works primarily deal with digital studies, games, etc. they are dependent on these other disciplines for methodology and terminology. Furthermore, the myriad ways in which this case study examines aspects that are often divergent or oppositional between the DotA communities and similar ones in other studies conducted by scholars of games speak of the breadth and range necessary for broader attention to community studies in the still emerging discipline of game studies. The idea of a single discipline of gaming studies assumes qualities that are unique to games. However, the current status of gaming studies as an inherently interdisciplinary field both recognizes the unique qualities of games and allows them to be seen as a newer subsection of humanities and liberal arts studies, neither so different as to be unrelated nor so similar as to be subsumed by earlier works.

Below, the DotA communities will be examined through a folkloric lens, but like folk groups situated in the “real” world, the DotA communities are comprised of members who in turn populate myriad other groups. The influence of other folk groups is omnipresent: many gamers are a part of the WoW community or choose to participate in DotA alongside real life friends with whom they form a different sort of community. Although this digital folklore exploration is far from a one-to-one comparison between online and “real life” folk groups, I’ve chosen to focus on creation stories and beliefs, community making, and “collectanea” within these online communities.

Although mediated by technology, such folkloric forms are recognizable as variations on their non-digital analogues. I’ve therefore conducted this research primarily through examination of various websites where players interact with each other. Some of these websites are forums and literal discussions while others are websites such as Wikipedia and DotA and DotA2 Wikipages. Such sites are often viewed as neither legitimate nor credible but are particularly useful here as they represent archives created by and for members of these communities. Also, email interviews have been conducted with a few members of the DotA 2 community. These members, while hardly representative of a large and thriving community, do allow for more personalized feedback than can be drawn from simply observing community activities.

 

Creation Myths: Dota Beginnings, IceFrog, and Game Deities

 

According to Sims and Stephens, belief is an important aspect in folk groups, indeed it is one of the ways that “cultural information is most often communicated within groups”.[14] For many folk groups, “the question of belief is often most apparent in studying religious elements.[15] Some games include an in-game religion that players become pseudo practitioners of during gameplay. In her book-length study on an MMO called Uru: Ages Beyond Myst, Celia Pearce elaborates on some of the ways in which players of this game participate in a specific religion.[16] While DotA and DotA 2 players do not participate in religious activities per se, they have long exhibited an interesting set of creation myths regarding the existence of the games. These creation myths, in conjunction with famous figures within the community, regularly lead to community members expressing their beliefs about the game in terms and phrases that mirror religious participation.

As the 2 in “DotA 2” implies, DotA 2 is the more recent of two games. DotA[17], while strongly related to WoW, is not an MMO, but a MOBA, a multiplayer online battle arena game in which teams compete for a specific goal or specific amount of time on a game map that is much more restricted in size than the world map of an MMO[18]. DotA is an acronym for Defense of the Ancients, a reference to the goal of the game. Two opposing teams of 5 players defend their “Ancient”, which isn’t specifically defined. An explanation can be extrapolated from in-game contexts and definitions of the word, such that it becomes a combination temple/tower/deity. Regardless of how the term is understood, these opposing Ancients figure in the game as attackable structures in opposite corners of the game map with a limited amount of “life”. Teams must attack and destroy several tiers of towers and eventually the Ancient of the opposing team while protecting their own towers and Ancient. The team whose Ancient falls first, loses the game.

DotA began as a kind of sub-game in Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, [19] which included a world builder, where players could create custom scenarios. “These custom scenarios can be simple terrain changes, which play like normal Warcraft games, or they can be entirely new game scenarios with custom objectives, units, items, and events, like Defense of the Ancients”.[20] Because gameplay was located within the Warcraft game, original players were part of the Warcraft community. However, in 2013, the standalone sequel DotA 2 was released as a free-to-play MOBA by Valve Corporation, allowing gameplay for experienced DotA players as well as newcomers unfamiliar with Warcraft. Hero names, images, and other in-game terms were changed, but DotA 2 is easily recognizable as a “sequel to DotA”.[21]

The DotA mod for Warcraft was originally created by an anonymous player named Eul in 2003, who soon disappeared from the scene, allowing for a series of other notable “modders” to step in and curate gameplay, heroes, and the map, including Guinsoo, Neichus, and IceFrog.[22] Players were invited by IceFrog to comment on what changes they wanted made in the game, and IceFrog listened to these requests, reportedly changing a hero’s abilities less than two weeks after a newer version had been released because the community claimed that the hero was too powerful.[23] In 2009, it was announced that IceFrog would be working at Valve Corporation to develop a new game.[24] While community involvement in the creation of DotA 2 wasn’t as public as it had been in DotA, it was created by the same people who were controlling DotA.

Although anonymity isn’t a requirement of the DotA and DotA 2 communities, it does seem to be a mark of the creators to remain anonymous[25]. This did not stop community members from speculating about IceFrog’s identity. A defamatory blog post by an alleged Valve employee identified IceFrog as Abdul Ismail was published in 2010 during the development of DotA 2.[26] Although Valve Corporation denied these rumours, a man named Ismail does appear to be a Valve employee, as his name appears in the credits of several Valve projects including their DotA 2 documentary Free to Play. DotA players’ devotion to IceFrog is apparent in the comments section of this blog post. Despite the claims that IceFrog/Ismail had previously worked for a rival game company, comments largely amounted to: “I don’t care as long as DotA 2 is good”. Meanwhile, commenters that leaned towards condemning IceFrog/Ismail professed a dislike for DotA players in general,[27] demonstrating a clear break between DotA community members’ adoration and the cynicism of non-members.

Another theory behind IceFrog’s identity explored by those in the community includes the possibility of IceFrog’s being Bruno Carlucci, a statistician, programmer, and DotA player and game commenter. Bruno’s publicly available timeline doesn’t match up very well with IceFrog’s apparent one. IceFrog was announced to have been working with Valve from 2009, while Bruno announced in May 2014 that he’d “recently accepted a job at Valve as a Software Engineer”.[28]  Nevertheless, rumours that Bruno is IceFrog persist. Forums discussing the possibility cite age, astrological sign, tweeted pictures, and even an apparently shared love of mangoes as evidence for this. There are also several interviews in which co-workers of Bruno appear to ask him directly why he refused to make certain changes in DotA, implying that he indeed was the IceFrog controlling and editing the game according to player suggestions.

I’ve been referring to this quest to determine the identity of DotA and DotA 2 developers as a creation myth because the mystery surrounding the game’s creation and players’ interest therein mirrors the creation story questions posed by other societies. Most of the conversation and evidence surrounding these ideas are provided by community members who are active curators of official DotA history in avenues such as Wikipedia pages on DotA content and self-written DotA histories, such as that published on Facebook by professional DotA player Bu Yanjun “YaphetS”, from China.[29]

However, there are other strains of what will be termed “worship” and “belief systems” in the DotA communities. The aforementioned YaphetS is one of the players who has occasionally had “god” attached to the end of his name because of his “godlike” skill level. These DotA gods are described by a strange mixture of fan speculation and “official” information, often with mythic claims like “labeled by the Chinese”.[30] In addition to the worship that seems to be inherent in labelling someone a god, players have been known to share items with other players they believe to be DotA gods or professional players.[31] There is also talk of fraternization between the DotA gods and IceFrog. YaphetS’s hero of choice in gameplay was Shadow Fiend, whose alternate name on DotA was “YaphetS”. This name was reputedly given “by IceFrog himself”, in tribute to this player.[32]

Furthermore, DotA and DotA 2 players often “believe in the RNG gods and either their favour or disfavour”.[33] RNG stands for Random Number Generator (or, occasionally, RNG is Random Number Gods). As a game that relies on strategy and skill, there is still a certain amount of random “luck” involved in DotA. A number of heroes possess skills that randomly deal more damage than at other times, while a number of items will similarly randomly deal damage or randomly block attacks. The “disfavour” of the RNG gods is demonstrated by a random number that works in a player’s disfavour.

Interestingly, rhetoric surrounding IceFrog, the DotA gods, and the RNG gods, while usually clearly parodic, is often religious in nature, revealing if nothing else a tendency by DotA community members to explain DotA conventions in terms of belief. Players have created and posted parodies of the Lord’s Prayer as prayers to IceFrog and to the RNG[34]. In one forum, a community member posed the question “Is IceFrog a god?” and responses to the post intentionally understood the question to be about IceFrog’s divinity rather than his playing ability. Responses include such assertions as “Eul is the Creator and IceFrog is the Savior”, and “IceFrog is a merciful god”.[35] The rhetoric surrounding the aforementioned DotA gods, meanwhile, seems mythic in nature as community members attempt to pass on the correct lore to new(er) players. “These titles were given during the DotA1 times”, one community member says, explaining the DotA gods to a self-professed new player asking about them on a forum.[36] These stories don’t always agree, and players are quick to defend their views using the same language. “Vigoss is the first god; they called him V-god because it sounded like Vigoss, and this is when he redefined how Dota was played. At least this is the legend I’ve heard…”[37]

Game designer Aaron Oldenburg has demonstrated the potential for virtual games to “simulate religious faith” through procedural and emotional response-provoking elements. His exploration, however, limits itself to first person games. Not being a folklorist, Oldenburg’s interests do not extend to a gaming community’s creation of such faith. However, Oldenburg’s assertion that “religion and games often seem separate from the everyday world, as believers and players (by no means mutually exclusive categories) choose to follow agreed upon sets of rules and narratives that distinguish them from non-believers and non-players” has a certain poignancy when applied to the DotA communities”.[38] Religion and gaming become inextricably linked as markers of community participation.

 

Community: Self-Regulation and Groups within Groups

 

An important aspect of community participation is ritual, which includes not only religious and coming-of-age rituals, but also initiation rituals. “Initiations involve activities that an individual initiate or group of initiates perform to prove their worthiness or to bond them to each other and/or to the group”.[39] Gaming communities have their own sets of rituals, including initiations. Through playing the game in his research of Magic: The Gathering, Williams discovered that before a player is able to play, he or she must construct a deck of cards, usually by buying a number of packs of cards from which players choose a combination to create a deck, which may or may not be strong depending on players’ skills and available cards. Although ready-to-play decks are available for purchase, Williams notes that players typically do not buy these decks,[40]  indicating that the process of creating a deck – which demonstrates investment and understanding – is a sort of ritual for these players. Initiation and ritual in the DotA communities include such aspects as the structured act of downloading the game and completing the tutorial as well as the less rigidly defined period of time in which new players go from being hazed by experienced players to joining in the hazing of “newbs”.

DotA is a game created and regulated by the gamers who play it. Despite the way updates and changes were made to the game by apparent individuals like Eul or IceFrog, the changes were suggested by the community at large:

“Eul, Guinsoo or IceFrog alone did not make the map. The DOTA community…makes the map”, one player said. Loadscreen art is drawn by fans. Some bugs are found and some items and heroes are made, erased, and changed almost entirely because of community outreach.[41]

Community members are aware of their own power in this game-creation, and they extend this regulation to the moderation of the community itself.

With the release of DotA 2 as a free-to-play MOBA in 2013[42], entrance into the DotA community became much less restricted for new players. Before this, it had technically been restricted only by purchase of the Warcraft III game. However, WCIII was notably the third game in a series of games with an already-tight community. DotA 2’s easy availability removed the lingering traces of esotericism in terms of familiarity with the Warcraft games. However, the DotA and DotA 2 communities are self-regulating. Although the common stereotype of gamers such as these includes social awkwardness or inability to express themselves, these community members are incredibly prolific on forums, blogs, and YouTube. While access to the community is never officially denied, ignorance, lack of skill, or inability to learn from past mistakes is vehemently ridiculed and derided by the community. That DotA has a “steep learning curve” was attested to by three of the community members interviewed, all of whom confess to playing as many as six hours a week.[43]

Because of the large number of heroes (each with their own set of abilities) that players can choose from, and the even wider selection of items that change the in-game situations, DotA and DotA 2 gameplay necessitates the ability to strategize; this requires a commitment to practicing as well as the inherent ability to mentally organize, calculate, and remember the items and heroes. Many players learn by watching public matches, watching YouTube videos, or reading Purge’s guide to DotA, subtitled “Welcome to Dota, You Suck”. Purge is a professional commentator and sometimes professional player.[44] The guide was originally written for DotA in 2011, before the public release of DotA 2 and it was updated for DotA 2 in 2012 and again this year. Purge’s most recent version changes his opening line from “Welcome to DotA, you suck” to “Welcome to DotA, you su… well actually you guys have gotten a lot better”.[45] This guide represents the starting point to even the minimal level of skill in DotA for many players. A number of blogs suggest this as a starting point, and this researcher has been personally told that reading this Guide is the best way to learn to play.

However, until the recent updates which thank players for “taking a chance on this game” that “takes a long time to refine your skills and learn”, the guide read almost as a discouragement from entering the community.

You suck, and you are going to be constantly reminded of this fact for about 6-9 months (if you learn). If you read this guide and use your brain and be actively aware of how bad you suck, you can easily shave 3-6 months off of your complete noob status… You are going to feed. You are going to ruin games, and someone is going to be happy to tell you why.… You are going to have to have thick skin to play DotA.[46]

Learning by playing can be similarly discouraging. In public matches, opposing teams will openly mock the losing team. Furthermore, many players talk about and practice “rage quitting”, in which a particularly good opposing team or, more often, a particularly unskilled set of allies will lead to a player getting angry and leaving in the middle of a game. Interestingly, the community seems to regard these ostensibly destructive relationships as constructive criticism. DotA forums hold regular discussions on rage quitting, in which members show a mild amount of embarrassment after rage quitting while other players often console them with similar stories. Players sometimes describe these actions as necessary: “Someone on my team picked Necrophos, bought a ward and went to our ancient jungle camp. I knew what had to be done”.[47] Such phrasing in these responses and even in the titles and original posts (“everyone has done it at least once in their gaming lifetime”) posits these actions as intrinsic parts of playing DotA.[48]

Such a hard-to-enter community, however, doesn’t actually seem to discourage players. Instead, the high standards set by the community seem devoted to regulating the skill and care that goes into playing. Half-hearted community members are culled out, but even poor players who are committed to playing will be allowed to remain in the community.

Professional DotA players belong to teams, but regular public matches often loosely consist of teams as well[49]. The five players interviewed all know each other in real life and sometimes, but not always, play together as a full team[50]. One of them says that he began to play because “it had been getting a lot of press at the time due to The International 3 tournament going on” in 2013.[51] The others all profess that they began playing because their friends were playing. With the exception of one of them, however, they all claim to play even with only one or two of their friends and often with “randoms”, players they don’t know.

These interviewees met in college, and DotA seems to have presented an opportunity for the friends to “stay connected”, though many of them have moved to distant states. Even when only three or four of them play, they regularly use a different program than the one provided by the DotA 2 game to audibly chat with each other. In addition to offering a hands-free chat mechanism, this separate program allows these friends to talk to each other without having to talk to any “randoms” that might be playing as their teammate. These friends usually opt instead to include the random teammates in strategies via typed messages.

Although members of the DotA communities at large, the interviewed players maintain a community within a community. They are each active within the community to varying degrees, often keeping up with the professional DotA circuit, online forums, and occasional public matches without their friends. However, they seem to largely view the DotA 2 community to which they belong as a virtual conduit that allows them to continue the community they established prior to playing together. “We have a private chat server, and a lot of times we talk about our lives, our jobs, and things that have nothing to do with Dota around the game or while we play”.[52]  Even when the players are physically together for visits, their conversations and activities are largely DotA-related. Sometimes, this group will play together while all in the same room, foregoing the virtual chat system to plot strategies and discuss the game aloud. Digital community for them has become a stand-in for a physical community, but apparently is no less realistic.

 

Collectanea: Digital Collectibles and Player Creations

 

Sims and Stephens have identified material culture as an important genre in folklore studies. For traditional studies, this material culture looks at permanent and ephemeral objects such as architecture or food, respectively. “Permanent or not, material culture has in common that it is tangible – can be touched, seen, eaten, or lived in”.[53] The study of a folk group’s material culture includes not only items produced by/within that community, but also items used by the community. These items acquire relevance and meaningfulness for folklorists through the method and purposes of their production as well as the occasion and frequency of their use.

Although there are a number of physical objects associated with the DotA games, such as T-shirts and figurines, there are also a number of digital items and activities that, while unrelated to actual gameplay, are very much a part of the DotA communities. Players can, for example, buy a $35 hero set for a hero named Crystal Maiden which includes new clothes, new animations for her in-game abilities, and a wolf pup pet that follows her around during the game. These items are not necessary to gameplay in the way that some items are necessary for gaming, such as the cards in the collectible card games that Williams has examined.[54] Williams spends a significant amount of time elaborating on the capitalist aspect of such games. While it is possible to acquire a particularly strong card in a cheap pack of randomly assorted cards, it is much more common that strong cards are held by players who have invested more monetary capital into the game by buying more random packs and increasing the odds of getting a good card or by outright buying expensive cards from other players. DotA 2, however, is a free to play game and while some items are bought and paid for, they do not have the power to affect player or character skill or strength.

Perhaps the most popular digital content in DotA 2 is the Compendium. Each year, a new Compendium is released which gives players a number of in-game challenges that allow them to win prizes, many of which are available for purchase and some of which are specific to the Compendium. These special items are displayed during gameplay and players can see each other’s achievements. Although such items are not as unique, as the anime artist Trevor Blank examines in his chapter on digital collectors, his claim that such collectanea represent “a type of fetish in both an imaginative and a social sense” seems apt here as well. “Ownership”, Blank says, “means absolute possession of a specific, emotionally significant event in the narrative created by using the object. For this reason, possessing such an object invests the owners with equivalent social power among those sharing the same reverence for that narrative”.[55] Similarly, Pearce has spoken of the way that artefacts in the Myst games are often common to most or all iterations of the games, demonstrating the way that physical (or the digital version of digital) objects are an integral part of a community.[56] The acquiring and exchange of items and knowledge as well as original creations such as art or fictions that are based on DotA characters or experience in the DotA communities are likewise markers for community involvement and participation.

The sales from the Compendium fund one of the other main out-of-game activities that community members participate in: The International. The International (TI) is a tournament that happens every year, most recently in Seattle, WA. DotA 2 fans and players can travel to watch the tournament in Washington, or they can watch live online. In August 2015, the tournament was also broadcast live in a number of theatres both in America and in other countries, so that members of the DotA 2 community could watch the championship match live, even if they were unable to travel to the tournament. TI is truly an international tournament, demonstrating, as the small sub-community I’ve chosen to interview attempts to do, the way that this online community is unrestricted by distance. TI consists of Chinese teams, Korean Teams, Argentinean teams, and teams that are comprised of members from multiple nations, like Team Secret, which is located in “Europe”, but has players from Sweden, Canada, and Germany, for example.[57] TI watching is an interesting activity that imitates the gameplay between friends discussed above. DotA community members meet together and combine online activities with physically present social situations.

The DotA communities, furthermore, regularly create and share material that is relevant to the communities at large. DotA’s loading screens are community members’ fan art. Other community creations include guides such as Purge’s guide to the game as a whole and his other guides for individual heroes. Players, furthermore, have access to “builds” for each hero in-game. These builds function as minimalist guides, suggesting which abilities to prioritize and which items to buy during the game, but without the explanation and commentary of the longer guides that players often create. Builds can be rated by community members, helping other players to make informed decisions regarding which build they use.

Other community creations include YouTube videos of games and tactics. These can sometimes be used constructively for gameplay by members but can also be used for entertainment. During my interviews, several players claimed to have learned the game by watching, but some of them specifically mentioned watching the “DotAWTF” YouTube videos, which are a series of videos highlighting particularly poor in-game choices by players.[58] The comments, like on the forums, are often extremely negative and/or harsh. There are more than 150 videos and the views and likes on the individual videos sometimes total more than 2,000,000 and 34,000, respectively.

There are, finally, community creations that have little to do with gameplay and more to do with creativity. Although not at all relevant to gameplay, each hero has a bio and story. During my interviews, it was revealed that the interview was for a folklore seminar, and the players were then asked if they had any ideas about how DotA 2 related to folklore. One of them pointed me to these hero profiles, which read like short fantasy summaries.[59] Another provided an internet link to an hour-long film created by a Chinese DotA player in 2011. Using scenes from the game, the player creates a story about Mirana, Magina, and TerrorBlade, wherein Mirana and Magina are in love. At the climactic end, TerrorBlade (Magina’s brother) kills Mirana. Instead of the common harsh criticism typical of the community, the film seems to be well received. The comments are overwhelmingly about how touching the movie is. Interestingly, the negative comments also seem to be caught up in the movie, as commentators flame the film character using the same language of in-game censure: “Use your ultimate [on] mirana [sic] and kill yourself noob uninstall dota”. Responses to such criticism, explanations like “He was too far to ult”, use in-game experience and logic to argue the point.[60]

 

Conclusion

 

The DotA communities and their lore demonstrate the growing presence of online identities and an opportunity for an extended examination of how traditional folkloric practices are transposed to a virtual space. Although the virtual and physical activities occasionally intersect seamlessly, the digital has largely become the real for such communities. From their beliefs, to community boundaries, to creation, this lore is being distributed virtually to a group of gamers whose physical presence is as realistic as their virtual one.

As a field that focuses on the unique qualities of a community as well as the development and practice of these qualities, folklore seems an apt field for discussions of gaming communities. It’s clear that even though these communities are formed and practiced online – their involvement and focus on games rather than more “traditional” activities like quilting (also a common focus for folklore studies) – gaming communities are not so radically different from traditionally recognized folk groups that a new terminology or methodology is necessary for examination.

As a competing field for the most suitable field by which to study gaming communities, gaming studies poses an interesting possibility. However, although frequently recognized as an independent field, game studies is not only made up of scholars from other fields, but it also often relies on long-established methods and terms used primarily in other disciplines. Perhaps folklore studies will eventually become one of the fields from which scholars enter gaming studies, as sociology, anthropology, and literature are now. Eventually its methodologies and vocabularies may become regular players in gaming studies works focusing on individual gaming communities. For this current project at least, folklore is a fitting field through which to examine the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of these particular communities. The way in which these methodologies prove successful in being applied to digital communities’ comments upon the potential trajectory for further folkloric studies of digital communities, gaming-focused or otherwise.

 

References

Anonymous, “The Truth About IceFrog: Behind the Bullshit”, http://icefrogtruth.blogspot.com, date accessed 10 December 2015.

Barachaos, “Re: Rage-quit: Tell Us Your Story”, DotA 2 Subreddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/DotA2/comments/3ctg55/ragequit_tell_us_your_story/, date accessed 30 November 2015.

Blank, Trevor J. Folk Culture in the Digital Age: The Emergent Dynamics of Human Interaction, (Logan: Utah State University Press) (2012).

“Bruno”, Liquipedia Dota 2 Wiki, http://wiki.teamliquid.net/dota2/Bruno, date accessed 19 November 2015.

Caboose, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015.

Curtis, “Blizzard and Valve settle ongoing ‘Dota’ trademark controversy”, Gamasutra,https://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/170248/Blizzard_and_Valve_settle_ongoing_Dota_trademark_controversy.php, date accessed 9 December 2015.

“Defense of the Ancients”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defense_of_the_Ancients, date accessed 11 December 2015.

Dotanewbe, “Is Icefrog a God”, PlayDota.com, http://archive.playdota.com/threads/is-icefrog-a-god.1342407/, date accessed 4 December 2015.

Dundes Alan, Interpreting Folklore, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (1980).

Gamespot, “Redefining Games: How Academia Is Reshaping Games of the Future”, https://www.gamespot.com/articles/redefining-games-how-academia-is-reshaping-games-of-the-future/1100-6106009/, date accessed 2 September 2017.

Godec Kevin “Purge”, “Welcome to DotA, You Suck”, PlayDota.com, http://archive.playdota.com/threads/welcome-to-dota-you-suck.462907/, date accessed 11 December 2015.

Godec, Kevin “Purge”, “Welcome to Dota, You Suck”, Purge Gamers, http://www.purgegamers.com/welcome-to-dota-you-suck/, date accessed 6 December 2015.

InZomnia365, “Re: I Don’t ‘get’ WoW”, WoW Subreddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/wow/comments/1p92a7/i_dont_get_wow/, date accessed 5 November 2015.

Lapyex, “Dota Gods”, JoinDOTA.com, https://www.joindota.com/en/forums/691-joindota-and-community/693-community/197339-dota-gods&page=1, date accessed 2 December 2015.

masoomdon, “Rage-quit: Tell Us Your Story”, DotA 2 Subreddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/DotA2/comments/3ctg55/ragequit_tell_us_your_story/, date accessed 30 November 2015.

Munroe Randall, “Online Communities”, Xkcd.com, https://xkcd.com/256/, date accessed 8 December 2015.

Munroe Randall, “Online Communities 2”, Xkcd.com, https://xkcd.com/802/, date accessed 8 December 2015.

Naut1g, “How Do the Devs and Community Feel about Players That Impersonate Pros on Steam?”, Dota2 Dev Forums, http://dev.dota2.com/archive/index.php/t-100430.html, date accessed 10 December 2015.

Oldenburg Aaron, “Simulating Religious Faith”, Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds 3.1 (2011)

O’Connor Alice, “DotA Dev Joins Valve, Hints at Future Game”, Shacknews, http://www.shacknews.com/article/60733/dota-dev-joins-valve-hints, date accessed 30 November 2015.

Pearce Celia, Communities of Play, (London: The MIT Press) (2009).

“Purge”, Liquipedia Dota 2 Wiki, http://wiki.teamliquid.net/dota2/Purge_(Kevin_Godec), date accessed 2 November 2015.

pwnies, “Icefrog’s identity finally revealed in court documents”, DotA 2 Subreddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/DotA 2/comments/6c1tp8/icefrogs_identity_finally_revealed_in_court/, date accessed 1 September 2017.

Smith Matt, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015.

“Team Secret”, Liquipedia Dota 2 Wiki, http://wiki.teamliquid.net/dota2/Team_Secret, date accessed 9 December 2015.

Tucker Lavernius, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015.

Tyler, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015.

Walbridge Michael, “Analysis: Defense of the Ancients – An Underground Revolution”, Gamasutra, https://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/109814/Analysis_Defense_of_the_Ancients__An_Underground_Revolution.php, date accessed 11 December 2015.

Williams J. Patrick, “Consumption and Authenticity in the Collectible Strategy Games Subculture”, in Gaming as Culture, ed. J. Patrick Williams, Sean Q. Hendricks, and W. Keith Winkler (London: McFarland & Company, 2006).

Willjaf, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015.

WoDota, “TerrorBlade’s Revenge”, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fr3lrxg-2mA, date accessed 14 December 2015.

YaphetS, “A History of Dota: Part 1”, Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/notes/yaphets-pis/a-history-of-dota-part-1/377203832338260/, date accessed 22 November 2015.

“YaphetS”, Liquipedia Dota 2 Wiki, http://wiki.teamliquid.net/dota2/YaphetS, date accessed 22 November 2015.

 

[1]My title comes from a popular DotA guide, discussed below. The community members often use such harsh language with other community members in a stringent display of community building.

[2] Munroe Randall, “Online Communities”, Xkcd.com, https://xkcd.com/256/, date accessed 8 December 2015.

[3] Munroe Randall, “Online Communities 2”, Xkcd.com, https://xkcd.com/802/, date accessed 8 December 2015.

[4] Dundes Alan, Interpreting Folklore, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (1980), pp. 6-7.

[5] Sims Martha C. and Martine Stephens, Living Folklore: An Introduction to the Study of People and Their Traditions, (Logan: Utah State University Press) (2011), p. 36.

[6] Ibidem, 8.

[7] Blank, Trevor J. Folk Culture in the Digital Age: The Emergent Dynamics of Human Interaction, (Logan: Utah State University Press) (2012), p. 2.

[8] Ibidem, 3.

[9] I am using the words “esoteric” and “exoteric” here and elsewhere as reference to “insider/outsider” knowledge. “Esoteric” refers to aspects, language, etc. that is easily understood or recognized by those within the gaming world – usually participants but also researchers or other observers. “Exoteric” refers instead to knowledge that is recognizable even to those outside of the gaming world.

[10] InZomnia365, “Re: I Don’t ‘get’ WoW”, WoW Subreddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/wow/comments/1p92a7/i_dont_get_wow/, date accessed 5 November 2015.

[11] Pinterest users, for example, don’t form a community in the way that gaming groups do. Instead, Pinterest seems to be a place to declare to which communities a user belongs, including WoW and DotA.

[12] Quoted in Gamespot, “Redefining Games: How Academia Is Reshaping Games of the Future”, https://www.gamespot.com/articles/redefining-games-how-academia-is-reshaping-games-of-the-future/1100-6106009/, date accessed 2 September 2017.

[13] Williams J. Patrick, “Consumption and Authenticity in the Collectible Strategy Games Subculture”, in Gaming as Culture, ed. J. Patrick Williams, Sean Q. Hendricks, and W. Keith Winkler (London: McFarland & Company) (2006), p. 89.

[14] Sims and Stephens, p. 56.

[15] Ibidem, p. 59.

[16] See Pearce Celia, Communities of Play, (London: The MIT Press) (2009).

[17] Although I will sometimes refer to it as “DotA 1”, the first game is rarely called as such, and is only done so anachronistically. Different companies control the two games. DotA 1 was never trademarked as a game and there was no intention of a sequel.

[18] Although DotA was not the first MOBA, it is often cited as one of the most influential. As a testament to its ubiquitous fame, you can reach the MOBA Wikipedia explanation page by following a link for “Dota (genre)” from the Dota Disambiguation page.

[19] Although I feel as though “sub-game” is a sufficient explanation for the relationship between DotA and Warcraft, it is somewhat inaccurate. The Warcraft games are actually a series of several games that are related but not dependent on each other, and they comprise several different genres. Blizzard entertainment first began releasing Warcraft games in 1994. These were RTS (Real Time Strategy) Games, to which MOBAs are directly related, since gameplay involves strategizing against the opposing team. World of Warcraft was the fourth game in the series, and the first that is an MMO rather than an RTS game. DotA, meanwhile, debuted in 2003 (one year before 2004’s World of Warcraft) as a “mod” of Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos. These first 3 games, including DotA required a purchase of the game, but not of a subscription like that of WoW.

[20] “Defense of the Ancients”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defense_of_the_Ancients, date accessed 11 December 2015.

[21] For more information on the copyright agreements between Blizzard and Valve, see Curtis, “Blizzard and Valve settle ongoing ‘Dota’ trademark controversy”, Gamasutra,https://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/170248/Blizzard_and_Valve_settle_ongoing_Dota_trademark_controversy.php, date accessed 9 December 2015.

[22] “Defense of the Ancients”

[23] Ibidem.

[24] O’Connor Alice, “DotA Dev Joins Valve, Hints at Future Game”, Shacknews, http://www.shacknews.com/article/60733/dota-dev-joins-valve-hints, date accessed 30 November 2015.

[25] Usually, but not always. For example, Guinsoo’s real name, Steve Feak, is publicly known.

[26] In May 2017, only a few months after the original research in this study, IceFrog’s identity was confirmed to be Ismail by the papers in a court case in California. Forum posts on reddit obscured Ismail’s name when announcing that the mystery was resolved, implying that some community members might prefer the belief and speculation to the truth. See pwnies, “Icefrog’s identity finally revealed in court documents”, DotA 2 Subreddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/DotA 2/comments/6c1tp8/icefrogs_identity_finally_revealed_in_court/, date accessed 1 September 2017.

[27] As is common in online communities, many of these remarks included an impressive display of vulgar language and insults, but some of the milder insults referred to them as “dota fan boys”, implying weak-minded bias. For a more detailed look, see Anonymous, “The Truth About IceFrog: Behind the Bullshit”, http://icefrogtruth.blogspot.com, date accessed 10 December 2015.

[28] “Bruno”, Liquipedia Dota 2 Wiki, http://wiki.teamliquid.net/dota2/Bruno, date accessed 19 November 2015.

[29] YaphetS, “A History of Dota: Part 1”, Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/notes/yaphets-pis/a-history-of-dota-part-1/377203832338260/, date accessed 22 November 2015.

[30] See Lapyex, “Dota Gods”, JoinDOTA.com, https://www.joindota.com/en/forums/691-joindota-and-community/693-community/197339-dota-gods&page=1, date accessed 2 December 2015. and “YaphetS”, Liquipedia Dota 2 Wiki, http://wiki.teamliquid.net/dota2/YaphetS, date accessed 22 November 2015.

[31] Naut1g, “How Do the Devs and Community Feel about Players That Impersonate Pros on Steam?” Dota2 Dev Forums, http://dev.dota2.com/archive/index.php/t-100430.html, date accessed 10 December 2015.

[32] See just kiddings’ response to Lapyex, “Dota Gods”.

[33] Caboose, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015.

[34] The RNG prayer was made by a member of the WoW community, referencing things outside of DotA gameplay.

[35] See Aircross’ and killer3254’s responses to Dotanewbe, “Is Icefrog a God”, PlayDota.com, http://archive.playdota.com/threads/is-icefrog-a-god.1342407/, date accessed 4 December 2015.

[36] See terryken’s response to Lapyex, “Dota Gods”.

[37] See Dusk562’s response to Lapyex, “Dota Gods”.

[38] Oldenburg Aaron, “Simulating Religious Faith”, Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds 3.1 (2011), pp. 51-52.

[39] Sims and Stephens, p. 119.

[40] Williams, pp. 79-80.

[41] Walbridge Michael, “Analysis: Defense of the Ancients – An Underground Revolution”, Gamasutra, https://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/109814/Analysis_Defense_of_the_Ancients__An_Underground_Revolution.php, date accessed 11 December 2015.

[42] DotA 2 was released for play in 2011 for professional players. TI1, the first international tournament for DotA 2 was held in Cologne, Germany in 2011. However, the game wasn’t available to the public until 2013.

[43] According to emails from players Smith Matt, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015., Tucker Lavernius, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015., Tyler, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015., and Willjaf, “DotA Interview”, email, received 29 November 2015.

[44] “Purge”, Liquipedia Dota 2 Wiki, http://wiki.teamliquid.net/dota2/Purge_(Kevin_Godec), date accessed 2 November 2015, and Godec Kevin “Purge”, “Welcome to DotA, You Suck”, PlayDota.com, http://archive.playdota.com/threads/welcome-to-dota-you-suck.462907/, date accessed 11 December 2015.

[45] Godec, Kevin “Purge”, “Welcome to Dota, You Suck”, Purge Gamers, http://www.purgegamers.com/welcome-to-dota-you-suck/, date accessed 6 December 2015.

[46] Ibidem.

[47] Barachaos, “Re: Rage-quit: Tell Us Your Story”, DotA 2 Subreddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/DotA2/comments/3ctg55/ragequit_tell_us_your_story/, date accessed 30 November 2015.

[48] masoomdon, “Rage-quit: Tell Us Your Story”, DotA 2 Subreddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/DotA2/comments/3ctg55/ragequit_tell_us_your_story/, date accessed 30 November 2015.

[49] “Teams” is perhaps a misleading term here. 2–5 friends can choose to play together, and any extra players needed to fill the 5 player slots will be filled with random players.

[50] There are several other members of this group whom I did not interview, but that sometimes join them in playing.

[51] Smith Matt, “Dota Interview”

[52] Tucker, “Dota Interview”

[53] Sims and Stephens, p. 15.

[54] See Williams, “Consumption and Authenticity”

[55] Blank, p. 167.

[56] See Pearce, pp. 158-167 and throughout.

[57] “Team Secret”, Liquipedia Dota 2 Wiki, http://wiki.teamliquid.net/dota2/Team_Secret, date accessed 9 December 2015.

[58] Tucker, “DotA Interview” and Caboose, “DotA Interview”.

[59] willjaf, “DotA Interview”.

[60] WoDota, “TerrorBlade’s Revenge”, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fr3lrxg-2mA, date accessed 14 December 2015

Political and Social Issues in French Digital Games, 1982–1993

Filip Jankowski

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 162-176.

 

Filip Jankowski

Jagiellonian University

 

 

Political and Social Issues in French Digital Games, 1982–1993

 

Abstract

Despite numerous publications about the history of digital games in the United States and Japan, there are few studies which aim to explore the past European trends in game design. For example, the French gaming industry remains unknown to the vast majority of game researchers. However, from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s a certain tendency emerged in this industry: political and social issues became overtly discussed within digital games. To examine such a tendency, the author follows the ‘emancipatory’ paradigm in digital game research (to cite Jaakko Suominen), instead of the ‘enthusiast’ Trans-Pacific-oriented ones. The objects of the analysis are several adventure games developed in France between 1982 and 1993 whose popularity during this period made them influential for the development of the French gaming industry. The author indicates three factors that contributed to the rapid growth of adventure games. These are the advancement of the personal computer market, the modest but existing support from French national institutions, and the article published by Guy Delcourt in the August 1984 issue of Tilt gaming magazine, which gave critical insight into previous development practices and suggested drawing inspiration from current events. The author distinguishes five thematic genres: Froggy Software’s avant-garde digital games, postcolonial and feminist games, investigative games, science fiction, and horror. Each of these provided numerous references to political affairs, economic stagnation and postcolonial critique of the past, which were severe issues in France during the 1980s and 1990s. Despite strong genre diversity, French adventure games shared similar pessimistic outlooks on the emerging “liquid modernity” (Zygmunt Bauman), during which France had to cope with more unstable work conditions, globalization, and immigration from the Maghreb countries. Because the French gaming industry in this period concentrated on local gamers and referred to their national culture, the author encourages game historians to turn their attention not only to Trans-Pacific games, but also to those manufactured outside Japan and the United States.

Key words: French video games, Video games in France, Video games history, Postmodernity, Liquid modernity

 

Introduction

 

In 1982, Japanese players encountered an arcade game whose gameplay revolved around an escape from a prison mine with stolen bags of gold. At first glance, the program resembled several mechanics from Japanese blockbusters; for example, the player could temporarily knock enemy guards unconscious with a hammer, similar to the famous Donkey Kong (1981, Nintendo). However, Le Bagnard (The Convict)—the name of the product—originated not in Japan or the United States, but came from a French company, Valadon Automation. Moreover, the program featured one of the first animated endings in games history, in which a guard chasing the player’s avatar is dazed while approaching the edge of the screen.

This introduction reminds us how neglected the European history of digital games is in the gaming discourse. Books, articles, and academic papers which discuss the development of global gaming culture focus primarily on the dominant American and Japanese industries. Thus, numerous minor narrations involving other countries are excluded[1]. This problem results from a paradigm which Jaakko Suominen calls “enthusiast”. As Suominen writes, amateurs and journalists struggle to define the master narration about the development of their favourite cultural products. The emergence of the new, “emancipatory” paradigm allows us to challenge the enthusiast narration on the industry and include the voices of women, ethnic minorities, and other countries as well[2].

This paper is an attempt to propose an emancipatory narration concerning digital games. The following analysis will concentrate on the history of the French gaming industry between 1982 and 1993. The period suggested marks the edition of the gaming magazine Tilt, one of the most significant French periodicals about video games. Between 1982 and 1993, the position of the French gaming industry changed, starting from the Trans-Pacific distribution of arcade games, and ending in the highly advanced development of games. During that time, one can note an essential number of digital games relating to the socio-political situation in 1980s France. Taking into account that—as Soraya Murray writes—digital games are “complex, fully formed visual media […] suited to nuanced ideological deconstruction”[3], I will concentrate on several tendencies which played a part in French game design during the given period.

The objects of the analysis below will be games developed in France between 1982 and 1993 which belonged to the genre called “adventure games”. In this article, an “adventure game” will be defined as a game which involves game world exploration (either in a first-person or third-person perspective), narrative[4], and problem-solving[5]. Although the period above also featured many French arcade and sports games, these narrative-based games had the highest importance in the national gaming industry at that time. As one of the leading personas of the French gaming industry, Muriel Tramis, sums up, between 1982 and 1993 “[t]here was a ferment of ideas and lots of originality. France loves stories”.[6] Several French adventure games were not devoid of bonds with local socio-political events.

 

The Prologue

 

From the beginning, the reader should know the background of the appearance of French adventure games. Before 1982, the French gaming industry did not exist. Although the 1960s marked the appearance of the first academically developed digital games, they were only board game adaptations intended for academic use. Therefore, the consumers of the French entertainment industry—similarly to the whole of Western Europe—did not experience digital games until the international success of Pong (1972). Its American developer, Atari, quickly dominated the arcade machines trade and the console market with their product Home Pong. Despite several French attempts to participate in gaming hardware production, such as the creation of Société Occitane d’Electronique in 1977, the local market was eventually taken over by American and Japanese productions[7].

This situation began to change in 1982 when Valadon Automation produced the aforementioned Le Bagnard. Subsequently, several factors helped French developers to appear on the scene. Firstly, the international arcade and home console market experienced a crisis, due to the poor quality of games made by anonymous programmers. At the same time, microcomputers became more successful as hardware which effectively combined entertainment and office use. The growing demand for personal computers saw an increase in sales, from 70,000 in 1982 to 204,000 in 1983[8]. This factor coincided with the expansionist politics of the then President François Mitterrand. Mitterrand’s government took several significant steps to nationalizing the most prominent domestic industries and accelerating the computerization of the country. After acquiring an electronic manufacturing company, CII-Honeywell-Bull, in 1982, the French government began to produce its line of domestic microcomputers, the Thomson MO5 and the TO7. Those undertakings aimed to boost economic growth, as knowledge about operation of personal computers at home and in schools and enterprises became necessary to French society[9].

The popularization of PCs in households went hand in hand with an increasing number of programming experiments. At first, programmers developed games for their own satisfaction. However, some of them tried releasing their products through emerging software houses. The first ones (Ére Informatique, Infogrames, Loriciels) were created in 1983, and they immediately published the works of individual authors. At the time, as Blanchet claims, the game publishing process resembled book publishing: programmers were independent of publishers, rather than working for them[10].

However, the first French games developed on personal computers suffered from a lack of creativity. Between 1983 and 1984, imitations of international arcade hits such as Space Invaders (1977, Taito) and Pac-Man (1982, Namco) flooded the French digital games market. Programmers such as Carlo Perconti and Bertrand Raval manufactured titles which rarely differed from games produced in the United States and Japan. The poor quality of such copies prompted French journalist Guy Delcourt to write an article The golden egg chip (La puce aux œufs d’or), which was published in the Summer 1984 issue of Tilt gaming magazine. Delcourt suggested that French programmers should reconfigure the design of their productions, making more references to reality: “So be prepared for a challenge. Try finding personal ideas, new approaches, unpublished themes that you can draw, for example, from current events”[11].

Delcourt did not specify what “current events” he meant, though British historian Tristan Donovan suggests that the article encouraged game designers “to create something more personal, more rooted in reality, more French”.[12] Citing his compatriot Jonathan Davies[13], Donovan highlights a significant difference between British and French players in the 1980s. As Donovan says, whereas British consumers relied on arcade-style games employing high fantasy settings, players from France preferred graphic adventure games. He also writes that French design soon began to specialize in games with sophisticated puzzles and a strong emphasis on aesthetic values, including references to local comic books known as bandes déssinées[14].

1984 also marked the first signs of acknowledgment that digital games received from several institutions. France’s Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, while in office from 1981 to 1986, attempted to decentralize national cultural development and treat popular culture (like rock music, comic strips, and others) as art. Digital games were also within reach of these politics, and the newly formed governmental agency, Octet (established in 1983), tried to support game development in France. In 1984, Octet held a competition for the best French game. The winner was Marc Cecchi’s high fantasy game Mandragore (Mandrake; 1984, Infogrames)[15]. Impressed with the results of the contest, Lang announced grants for other distinguished projects. The winners of the grants, including highly innovative crime game Opium (Ludorinique, 1986) about the Shanghai drug trade in the 1930s, were fully subsidized by the government. The agency fell apart shortly after, though, and Lang’s plans to organize a similar contest in later years were thwarted by political changes in 1986, which led to his departure for two years[16]. Also in 1984, Tilt organized the first of its prestigious prize-giving ceremonies, Tilt d’Or. One French game set in the Middle Ages, L’Aigle d’Or (The Golden Eagle; 1984, Loriciels) by Louis-Marie Rocques, received the Best Adventure Award, and the national cable television channel, Canal+, transmitted the subsequent ceremonies. In competition, Apple organized its modest business award, the Pomme d’Or[17]. Its recipient Paranoîak (Paranoiac; 1984, Froggy Software), programmed by Jean-Louis Le Breton, received critical acclaim due to its originality, resulting from its contemporary settings.

 

Froggy Software

 

Paranoîak was the first game created by Froggy Software, an independent studio established in Paris by Le Breton together with Fabrice Gille. Le Breton, a self-declared left-wing activist was had been involved in the 1968 student protests, expressed a desire to make games that reflected current events. Collaborating with Parisian students such as Clotilde Marion, Chine Lanzmann, and Tristan Cazenave, he suggested a satirical approach to articulate social criticism. The catchphrase invented by them, which indicated critical factors of their games, was “aventure, humor, décalage et déconnade” (‘adventure, humour, discrepancy, and prank’)[18].

The combination of satire and seriousness which characterized Paranoîak coincided with growing public dissatisfaction with Mitterrand’s social politics. The nationalization reforms failed to increase economic prosperity and forced the first Socialist Prime Minister under Mitterrand, Pierre Mauroy, to curb public expenditure due to rising inflation and national debt. With stubbornly high unemployment, these factors eventually caused him to resign[19]. Paranoîak was one of the first games to capture the gloomy atmosphere of the time. The game follows a lonely widower suffering from numerous mental and cognitive disorders such as amnesia, Oedipus complex, and claustrophobia. While issuing text commands, the player seeks cures for the illnesses, at the same time having to earn a living and pay a psychoanalyst for help. Subsequent Froggy Software productions shared similarly pessimistic views of the world, mixing them with ironic authorial commentaries in textual form. In Le Breton’s Le Crime du Parking (The Parking Crime; 1985), the player encounters several themes such as simulated rape, drug use, and homosexuality during an investigation into the brutal murder of a girl. In turn, Lanzmann’s La femme qui ne supportait pas les ordinateurs (The Woman Who Hated Computers; 1985) comments on the situation of women using the contemporary French network Minitel, where they fall victim to anonymous male abusers. The more the player engages in conversation with men, the higher the risk that she will be subjected to sexual attacks. The conversation leads to one of the six endings, all of which are unlucky for the heroine. Thus, Lanzmann’s work can be considered the first feminist digital game, through its perhaps controversial implication that computer technology is used to maintain male domination and power in society[20]. Marion’s Même les pommes de terre ont des yeux (Even Potatoes Have Eyes, 1985), also a feminine work, is a satire on South American dictatorships with references to French reality. The player, while struggling to overthrow a junta, gains public support by exclaiming such contradictory phrases as “J’accuse!”[21] and “Je vous ai compris,”[22] and abolishes coup d’etat by committing another coup d’etat. A more conservative ideological meaning arises from Cazenave’s political fiction Le Mur de Berlin va sauter (The Berlin Wall Will Explode; 1986), in which the player tries to prevent a leftist homosexual terrorist from blowing up West Berlin.

Investigative Games

 

More historically decent were the investigative games of Cobrasoft, a studio founded by Bertrand Brocard in 1984. Brocard, as he claimed, started his programming career after the establishment of Octet[23]. Contrary to the satirical and frivolous games of Froggy Software, Brocard’s titles used carefully prepared historical material[24]. Cobrasoft’s games were more conservative in their political diagnosis, mainly criticising the Mitterrand government. One of Brocard’s first titles, Meurtre á Grande Vitesse (High-Speed Murder; 1985), revolved around the murder of a radical French senator during his trip on a TGV train from Paris to Lyon. As one of the in-game characters says, the murder victim had denounced her to the Gestapo during the Second World War. One can see here a striking reference to the history of French collaboration with Nazi Germany; also, among the tertiary characters on the train, the player can see Mitterrand himself.

The success of Meurtre á Grande Vitesse encouraged Brocard to write several other investigative games alluding to political events. Meurtres sur l’Altantique (Murders on the Atlantic Ocean; 1986), whose plot unfolds on a cruise ship sailing towards New York City in 1938, reconstructs the gloomy climate before the outbreak of the Second World War when the presence of Nazi spies was ubiquitous. In Meurtres á Venise (Murders in Venice; 1988), the player has to prevent a left-wing terrorist attack during an international summit in Venice, which in reality had taken place just two years before the game’s release[25]. In comparison to these games, Dossier G: L’Affaire du Rainbow Warrior (The Case of Rainbow Warrior; 1986, Cobrasoft) by Daniel Lefebvre referred to current affairs even more explicitly. This program documented the French intelligence service’s sinking of the titular ship owned by Greenpeace near New Zealand. The action outraged public opinion when the media revealed that Mitterrand’s government personally approved the sinking[26]. However, when transposed onto the computer screen, these severe events were belittled by game critics. A Tilt reviewer mocked the program as a “non-game”,[27] suggesting that the concept of serious games had yet to be accepted.

Indirect references to the French collaboration with Nazi Germany during the Second World War also appeared in Le Manoir de Mortevielle (Mortville Manor, 1987, Lankhor). The game, developed by Bruno Gourier and Bernard Grelaud, takes place in a mansion in the early 1950s. The main protagonist of the game, private detective Jerôme Lange, receives an invitation letter from his former friend Julia. When he arrives at the place, her funeral is just taking place. However, Le Manoir de Mortevielle slightly differs from a conventional ‘whodunit’ story: the main thread concerns not Julia’s death (which, as it turns out, was natural), but the vanishing of her friend, Murielle. The player finds Murielle’s rotten remains behind the allegoric “wall of silence” (mur de silence); no one in the family is willing to talk about her death. Only the head of the family, a historian who possesses the truth, tells the player that Murielle’s death was the result of a tragic accident. Nevertheless, the historian has an interest in erasing the memory of Murielle, just as in the 1980s, when common knowledge about the Vichy puppet state was still a national “repressed memory”.[28]

 

Postcolonialism and Feminism

 

There were also games devoted to emerging subjects in cultural studies, such as postcolonialism. The economic exploitation of slaves from Africa took place in French-Caribbean colonies like Martinique, which became a bastion of post-colonial thought. Although pioneered by such philosophers as Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon, the study of French postcolonialism in the 1980s grew in popularity thanks to Édouard Glissant and Patrick Chamoiseau. Both were supporters of a more nuanced perspective on the European and African presence in the Caribbean, where both cultural spheres mingled in the so-called Creole culture. Muriel Tramis, an African-Caribbean female programmer from Martinique who worked in the Parisian software house Coktel Vision, was under Chamoiseau’s influence. She made her debut with two games thematically linked to the history of her homeland.

Méwilo (1987, Coktel Vision) is set before the Montagne Pélée volcano eruption in 1902 which destroyed Saint-Pierre, the administrative centre of the island. The player explores several locations in Martinique, investigating people of various ethnic identities to solve a mystery surrounding past events. The titular Méwilo was a slave murdered by his French master, who owned a sugar plantation near Saint-Pierre, where a real rebellion occurred in 1831. As the game unfolds, the player learns that the influence of colonialism on Martinique lasted long after the abolition of slavery in 1848. For example, a black Catholic priest rejects the practices of his ancestors and supports their oppressors, while a wealthy Creole complains that neither black nor white inhabitants accept them. The issues raised in Méwilo are similar to Zygmunt Bauman’s reflection about identities:

 

The blacks of Martinique and Guadeloupe have to prove that their Frenchness requires no proof… By the most finical of fastidious standards, the blacks of Martinique and Guadeloupe are exemplary Frenchmen. To most exemplary Frenchmen, this is exactly what they are—black Martinicans and Guadeloupians passing for exemplary Frenchmen. Well, it is precisely this earnest effort to be exemplary Frenchmen that makes them the blacks of Martinique or Guadeloupe… The more they do to turn into something else than they are, the more they are what they have been called not to be[29].

Méwilo reflects such issues of Martinican identity, and Freedom (1988, Coktel Vision) tries to reconstruct this identity, staging the aforementioned slave revolt in Saint-Pierre. The game allows the player to initiate a slave revolt against a sugar plantation owner. The player’s goal is to recruit warriors, swiftly infiltrate buildings where colonial officials are stationed and fight them in arcade sequences. Both games met with critical acclaim; for Méwilo, Tramis received the Silver Medal from the Ministry of Culture[30], and Tilt journalist Eric Caberia considered Freedom as the gaming equivalent of Arthur Penn’s famous film Little Big Man (1970)[31].

Having ceased the cooperation with Chamoiseau, Tramis moved into erotica with three games: Emmanuelle (1989, Coktel Vision), Geisha (1990, Coktel Vision), and Fascination (1991, Coktel Vision). As Tramis claimed in an interview for PC Joker, she aimed to question the traditional gaze of the male player and provide a feminine perspective on eroticism[32]. This perspective prevails in Geisha and Fascination, whose protagonists are female characters. The heroine of Geisha flies to Japan to find his girlfriend, abducted by a mad scientist who turns women into cyborgs. Similarly, the avatar of Fascination, Doralice, who works as a stewardess, becomes entangled in a dangerous affair involving a drug which turns men into sexual abusers. In both games, these are women who win their struggle to articulate their desires. Tramis returned to postcolonial themes with Lost in Time (1993, Coktel Vision), which once again featured Doralice, this time in a fight with a white supremacist who hates women and Afro-Caribbeans. The heroine symbolically defeats her villain by giving him an orchid, “a cross-cultural symbol of female sexuality”,[33] whose smell makes him fall into the abyss.

Postcolonial themes also prevailed in Bernand Grelaud and Bruno Gourier’s Maupiti Island (1990, Lankhor), an investigative game about the white people’s colonial dominance. The central part of the game constitutes a conventional detective story involving the search for a treasure on the titular Polynesian island in 1954. Nonetheless, a secondary thread revolves around the last native inhabiting Maupiti. His death at the hands of a greedy white sailor contains a symbolic meaning recalling Paul Gauguin’s paintings, where “the themes of lush exoticism and the death of a culture are linked, and the West is indicted for destroying innocence”.[34] Nonetheless, in contrast to Tramis’s games, the reference here is problematic, because Maupiti Island associates an indigenous person more with innocence than anti-colonial anger.

 

Science Fiction

 

After 1986, science fiction also became a highly used thematic genre in France. The primary source of its inspiration was an underground comics magazine Métal Hurlant, whose creators such as Philippe Druillet and Moebius were under the influence of the political events of May 1968[35]. The background for this local science fiction was the defeat of Socialists in the 1986 parliamentary elections. During his first two years in office, the new conservative Prime Minister Jacques Chirac conducted partial denationalization of government institutions, reversing the Socialists’ ambitious reforms. Although the Left regained power in 1988, Chirac’s action had revealed the crisis of “the welfare state” and growing social disenchantment with political reforms. According to Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, French society in the late 1980s and early 1990s was less resistant to capitalism than in previous decades. Both sociologists paradoxically attribute responsibility for such a change to the May ’68 generation, who had forgone the former stability of employment in favour of self-fulfilment and more creative work[36].

French science fiction, visually inspired by Métal Hurlant (despite the closure of the magazine in 1987), reflected the ongoing instability of everyday life. In Paul Cuisset’s Les voyageurs du temps (Time Travellers; 1989, Delphine Software), the player assumes a role of window cleaner, whose frustration with his job goes hand in hand with the aggressive behaviour of his boss. The protagonist uses a secret time machine to find the epoch during which he will become a hero—the future. Similarly, in a cyberpunk game B.A.T. (1989, Ubi Soft) by Hérvé Lange and Olivier Cordoléani, the player directs a cyborg who tracks down interstellar criminals in a dystopian reality. In the game, capitalism is an uncontrolled power instrument; the player needs to pay for everything (from food to healthcare), and the final financial support comes from a local financial magnate. Neal Tringham, in his anthology of science fiction digital games, regards B.A.T. as “an impressive piece of future noir […] with a distinctly anti-capitalist tone”[37].

Games such as Philippe Ulrich and Didier Bouchon’s L’Arche du Captain Blood (The Ark of Captain Blood; 1987, Ére Informatique) and Eric Chahi’s Another World (1991, Delphine Software) maintained the same tone. Ulrich and Bouchon’s game featured a programmer immersed in his world, where he wanders in search of his duplicates to destroy them. L’Arche du Captain Blood, apart from hallucinatory visuals inspired by H.R. Giger, contained an original interface which allowed the player to communicate with other encountered aliens by creating sentences from individual symbols. The victory required an effective and non-violent communication of the aliens, who “are preoccupied with personal vendettas or desperation, genocide, extinction, war”.[38] The protagonist is also vulnerable: if the player does not kill the clones, his avatar slowly loses life and authenticity, becoming a Heideggerian “being-to-death”. Conversely, when the player accomplishes his task, his avatar finds internal peace. The game’s counter-cultural meaning can be shown during psychedelic sequences of flight, which resemble a narcotic trip. In Another World, whose visuals reveal the author’s inspiration by the images of Michael Whelan, Richard Corben, and Frank Frazetta[39], there is a similar self-referential motif: a lonely, detached scientist from contemporaneity is thrown into an alternate reality where he can trust only one specific alien. The vulnerable protagonist, having run through the unfriendly, unpredictable alternate world, eventually falls unconscious on the ground. Another World’s minimalistic design emphasized its counter-cultural meaning. The game featured no heads-up display, score, or game points. As Chahi said, “I wanted a visceral implication of the player, no distraction other than the world itself. No artificial motivation, which score is. Score’s a capitalistic view of gameplay, no?”[40]

 

Horror

 

Social criticism was also present in some French horror games developed between 1985 and 1988. Although horror adventure games were scarce, their design overtook many contemporary titles at the time. Yannick Cadin’s Zombi (1986), the first game released by the still renowned studio Ubisoft, remediated a contestatory movie, Dawn of the Dead (1978, dir. George A. Romero), whose action takes place in a shopping mall. The player wanders around the shopping centre, fighting zombies and collecting fuel for a helicopter. However, the overall context of the game changed. While Romero’s film was read as a critique of consumerism[41], the background for Zombi was also a series of terrorist attacks conducted in France by transnational terrorist groups, which targeted random civilians in cinemas, shops, and shopping malls[42]. Zombies in the game personified a violent threat from the Middle East, long before this kind of enemy became overused in post-9/11 films and digital games[43]. Not incidentally, Zombi became a highly attractive game and encouraged Ubisoft to release several other horrors, including La Chose de Grotemburg (The Thing from Grotemburg, 1987) and Hurlements (The Howling, 1988)[44].

A more nuanced take on horror themes can be found in Infernal Runner (1985, Loriciels), regarded as one of the first survival horrors[45], as Tringham defines them, “characterized by vulnerable protagonists attempting to escape from menacing and disturbing situations, almost always of a fantastic nature”.[46] The game, originally developed by Michel Koell and Yves Korta, is of a very depressive nature: the player seeks the keys to enter the exit from an industrial death labyrinth, where every game object can massacre his avatar. The ending is not uplifting, either. After exiting the labyrinth, the protagonist sees an ambulance driving towards him. He does not react, and consequently, he is run over. Not incidentally, the year 1985 marked the highest suicide rate in France in measured history[47]. Therefore, Infernal Runner’s meaning is maintained not only in the Kafkaesque tradition of the grotesque and irony, where the protagonists are “sentenced to die” from the very beginning[48], but also in the social context.

 

Conclusion

 

The period between 1982 and 1993 in French digital game industry is a not very well-known episode in the international history of the medium. However, this article demonstrates that this period marked the release of various games which pioneered the international gaming industry in many aspects. Le Breton’s Paranoïak introduced the specific contemporary setting, while Lanzmann and Tramis brought feminist themes to digital games long before the Gamergate affair in the United States. The latter game designer represented the postcolonial point of view as well, which escaped even Souvik Mukherjee’s notice[49]. The Anglo-Saxon historians, except for Tristan Donovan, do not seem to mention such niche voices.

Meanwhile, despite the collapse of Tilt magazine, the French gaming industry nevertheless fully developed during the period. Such games as Captain Blood and Another World were international successes, and there was a field for further experiments in three-dimensional technology and full-motion video techniques[50]. However, when some software houses such as Delphine Software and Lankhor fell apart in 2001, the early achievements of what we can call the “golden decade” of the French gaming industry were forgotten. Nonetheless, it is worth remembering how French games exposed their own culture before the Gallic industry became swallowed by the processes of globalization.

 

References

Aarseth Espen, “A Narrative Theory of Games”, in FDG ’12 Proceedings of the International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games, eds. Magy Seif El-Nasr, Mia Consalvo and Steven Feiner (Raleigh, North Carolina: ACM) (2012).

Aldrich Robert, French Presence in the South Pacific, 1842–1940 ([Place of publication not identified]: Palgrave Macmillan) (2014).

Anonymous, “Dossier G”, Tilt 28 (1986).

Anonymous, “Ein offense Gespräch mit: Muriel Tramis”, PC Joker 1 (1993).

Anonymous, “Le créateur du mois : Bertrand Brocard”, Tilt 30 (1986).

Anonymous, “Le micro ca boum”, Tilt 17 (1984).

Anonymous, “Les préféres de Jack Lang”, Science et Vie Micro 13 (1985).

Anonymous, “Pomme d’Or telematique”, Science et Vie Micro 14 (1985).

Anonymous, “Pour développer et produire…”, Jeux & Stratégie 37 (1986).

Anonymous, “Tilt d’Or”, Tilt 17 (1984).

Bigo Didier, “Les attentats de 1986 en France : un cas de violence transnationale et ses implications (Partie 1), Cultures & Conflits 4 (1991), https://journals.openedition.org/conflits/129, date accessed 15 February 2018.

Blanchet Alexis, “France”, in Video Games Around the World, ed. Mark J. P. Wolf (Cambridge: MIT Press) (2015).

Boltanski Luc, Chiapello Eve, The New Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Gregory Elliott (New York – London: Verso) (2007).

Bremner Charles, “Mitterrand Ordered Bombing of Rainbow Warrior, Spy Chief Says”, The Times (11 July 2005).

Caberia Eric, “Freedom”, Tilt 61 (1989).

Chastain J., Captain Blood (Atari ST), https://mu-foundation.blogspot.com/2011/11/captain-blood-atari-st.html, date accessed 14 February 2018.

Cole Alistair, “French Socialists in Office: Lessons from Mitterrand and Jospin”, Modern & Contemporary France 1 (1999).

Conan Eric, Rousso Henry, Vichy: An Ever-present Past, trans. Nathan Bracher (Hanover and London: Dartmouth College) (1998).

Corngol Stanley and Wagner Benno, Franz Kafka: The Ghosts in the Machine (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press) (2011).

Cubizolle Eric, “Infernal Runner”, Pix n’ Love 5 (2008).

Davies Jonathan, “Why are French games so weird?”, Amiga Power 6 (1991).

Delcourt Guy, “La puce aux œufs d’or”, Tilt 14 (1984).

Delcourt Guy, “Le grand chambardement”, Tilt 19 (1985).

Donovan Tristan, Replay: The History of Video Games (Lewes: Yellow Ant) (2010).

Dovey Jon, Kennedy Helen W., Game Culture (New York: Open University Press) (2006).

Ferreira Pinto Cristina, Gender, Discourse, and Desire in Twentieth-century Brazilian Women’s Literature (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press) (2004).

Froula Anna, “Prolepsis and the ‘War on Terror’: Zombie Pathology and the Culture of Fear in 28 Days Later…”, in Reframing 9/11: Film, Popular Culture and “War on Terror”, eds. Jeff Birkenstein, Anna Froula and Karen Rendall (Continuum: New York) (2014).

Harper Stephen, “Zombies, Malls, and the Consumerism Debate: George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead”, Americana 1:2 (2002), http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/fall_2002/harper.htm?pagewanted=all, date accessed 15 February 2018.

Ilous Joëlle, “Le coq se rebiffe”, Tilt 8 (1983).

Lamarche-Toloza Alvaro, Leclerc Jordan, Entretien avec Bertrand Brocard, 11 April 2016, http://controverses.sciences-po.fr/cours/com_2016/jeuxvideos/retranscription-bertrand-b.pdf, date accessed 16 February 2018.

Latorre Óliver Pérez, “The European Videogame: An Introduction to Its History and Creative Traits”, European Journal of Communication 28:2 (2013).

Le Breton Jean-Louis, “L’histoire de Froggy Software”, Jean-Louis Le Breton, http://www.jeanlouislebreton.com/L-histoire-de-Froggy-Software_10_20.html, date accessed 15 July 2017.

Lewis Helen, “A videogames critical reader, by Liz Ryerson”, The New Statesman, 6 December 2012, https://www.newstatesman.com/lifestyle/2012/12/videogames-critical-reader-liz-ryerson, date accessed 14 February 2018.

Montagnon Guillaume, “L’intégration du jeu vidéo dans une politique publique dans les années 1980: le cas de l’agence Octet”, in Les supports du jeu vidéo (Paris: Université Paris 13) (2015).

Mukherjee Souvik, Video Games and Postcolonialism: Empire Plays Back ([Place of publication not identified]: Palgrave Macmillan) (2017).

Murray Soraya, On Video Games, The Visual Politics of Race, Gender and Space (I.B. Tauris: London and New York) (2017).

Musiał Łukasz, Kafka. W poszukiwaniu utraconej rzeczywistości [Kafka: In Search of Lost Reality] (Wrocław: Atut) (2011).

Organization of Economic Growth and Development, “Health status – Suicide rates”, http://data.oecd.org/healthstat/suicide-rates.htm, date accessed 15 February 2018.

Screech Matthew, “The Myth of May 1968 in bandes déssinées”, Bélphegor 15:2 (2017), https://journals.openedition.org/belphegor/1012, date accessed 14 February 2018.

Suominen Jaakko, “How to Present the History of Digital Games: Enthusiast, Emancipatory, Genealogical, and Pathological Approaches”, Games and Culture (2016).

The Retro Gamer Team, The Making of Another World, https://www.retrogamer.net/retro_games90/the-making-of-another-world/, date accessed 16 February 2018.

Tringham Neal, Science Fiction Video Games (Boca Raton: CRC Press) (2015).

Willey Andre, “Games, Games And More Games”, Start 3:8 (1989), https://www.atarimagazines.com/startv3n8/games_games.html, date accessed 15 February 2018.

Zimmermann Bernd, Suck Michael, “Ein Cocktail, der es in sich hat!”, Aktueller Software Markt 1 (1988).

 

[1]Óliver Pérez Latorre, “The European Videogame: An Introduction to Its History and Creative Traits”, European Journal of Communication 28:2 (2013), pp. 136–151.

[2]Jaakko Suominen, “How to Present the History of Digital Games: Enthusiast, Emancipatory, Genealogical, and Pathological Approaches”, Games and Culture (2016), pp. 8–10.

[3] Soraya Murray, On Video Games, The Visual Politics of Race, Gender and Space (I.B. Tauris: London and New York) (2017), p. 105.

[4] Espen Aarseth provides an explanation of the term “narrative” in games, which means, according to him, the presence of kernels (“events that define a particular story”) and satellites (“supplementary events that fill out the discourse”) in a particular game. See Espen Aarseth, “A Narrative Theory of Games”, in FDG ’12 Proceedings of the International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games, eds. Magy Seif El-Nasr, Mia Consalvo and Steven Feiner (Raleigh, North Carolina: ACM) (2012), p. 130.

[5] The definition above includes the mutations of the genre: RPG adventures (games based on experience points and fights with enemy characters, which also feature problem-solving), and action-adventures (games requiring reflexes and problem-solving).

[6] Cf. Tristan Donovan, Replay: The History of Video Games (Lewes: Yellow Ant) (2010), p. 128.

[7]Alexis Blanchet, “France”, in Video Games Around the World, ed. Mark J. P. Wolf (Cambridge: MIT Press) (2015), pp. 175–179.

[8]Anonymous, “Le micro ca boum”, Tilt 17 (1984), p. 8; Guy Delcourt, “Le grand chambardement”, Tilt 19 (1985), p. 24.

[9]Joëlle Ilous, “Le coq se rebiffe”, Tilt 8 (1983), pp. 32–33.

[10]Alexis Blanchet, p. 180.

[11]Guy Delcourt, “La puce aux œufs d’or”, Tilt 14 (1984), p. 18.

[12]Tristan Donovan, p. 128.

[13]Jonathan Davies, “Why are French games so weird?”, Amiga Power 6 (1991), pp. 74–77.

[14]Tristan Donovan, pp. 126, 128–129.

[15]Anonymous, “Les préféres de Jack Lang”, Science et Vie Micro 13 (1985), p. 27.

[16] See also Guillaume Montagnon, “L’intégration du jeu vidéo dans une politique publique dans les années 1980: le cas de l’agence Octet”, in Les supports du jeu vidéo (Paris: Université Paris 13) (2015), p. 20; Anonymous, “Pour développer et produire…”, Jeux & Stratégie 37 (1986), p. 52.

[17]Anonymous, “Tilt d’Or”, Tilt 17 (1984), p. 47; Anonymous, “Pomme d’Or telematique”, Science et Vie Micro 14 (1985), p. 13.

[18]Jean-Louis Le Breton, “L’histoire de Froggy Software”, Jean-Louis Le Breton, http://www.jeanlouislebreton.com/L-histoire-de-Froggy-Software_10_20.html, date accessed 15 July 2017.

[19] Alistair Cole, “French Socialists in Office: Lessons from Mitterrand and Jospin”, Modern & Contemporary France 1 (1999), pp. 71–87.

[20]See Jon Dovey, Helen W. Kennedy, Game Culture (New York: Open University Press) (2006), p. 80.

[21] The title of the famous speech by Émile Zola, in defense of Albert Dreyfus, a victim of the anti-Semitic wave ôin France.

[22] The title of the speech by Charles de Gaulle, who enforced the constitutional change in France in 1958.

[23] Alvaro Lamarche-Toloza, Jordan Leclerc, Entretien avec Bertrand Brocard, 11 April 2016, http://controverses.sciences-po.fr/cours/com_2016/jeuxvideos/retranscription-bertrand-b.pdf, date accessed 16 February 2018.

[24] Anonymous, “Le créateur du mois : Bertrand Brocard”, Tilt 30 (1986), p. 18.

[25]The 13th summit of G7 ran in June 1987, on the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore.

[26]Charles Bremner, “Mitterrand Ordered Bombing of Rainbow Warrior, Spy Chief Says”, The Times (11 July 2005), p. 31.

[27]Anonymous, “Dossier G”, Tilt 28 (1986), p. 41.

[28] Eric Conan, Henry Rousso, Vichy: An Ever-present Past, trans. Nathan Bracher (Hanover and London: Dartmouth College) (1998), p. XII.

[29]Zygmunt Bauman, Postmodernity and Its Discontents (Cambridge: Polity Press) (1997), p. 75.

[30]Bernd Zimmermann, Michael Suck, “Ein Cocktail, der es in sich hat!”, Aktueller Software Markt 1 (1988), pp. 55–57.

[31]Eric Caberia, “Freedom”, Tilt 61 (1989), pp. 134–135.

[32] Anonymous, “Ein offense Gespräch mit: Muriel Tramis”, PC Joker 1 (1993), p. 68.

[33] Cristina Ferreira Pinto, Gender, Discourse, and Desire in Twentieth-century Brazilian Women’s Literature (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press) (2004), p. 131.

[34]Robert Aldrich, French Presence in the South Pacific, 1842–1940 (Place of publication not identified: Palgrave Macmillan) (2014), p. 6.

[35]Matthew Screech, “The Myth of May 1968 in bandes déssinées”, Bélphegor 15:2 (2017), https://journals.openedition.org/belphegor/1012, date accessed 14 February 2018.

[36]Luc Boltanski, Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Gregory Elliott (New York – London: Verso) (2007), pp. 167–198.

[37] Neal Tringham, Science Fiction Video Games (Boca Raton: CRC Press) (2015), p. 146.

[38] J. Chastain, Captain Blood (Atari ST), https://mu-foundation.blogspot.com/2011/11/captain-blood-atari-st.html, date accessed 14 February 2018; cited by Helen Lewis, “A videogames critical reader, by Liz Ryerson”, The New Statesman, 6 December 2012, https://www.newstatesman.com/lifestyle/2012/12/videogames-critical-reader-liz-ryerson, date accessed 14 February 2018.

[39] The Retro Gamer Team, The Making of Another World, https://www.retrogamer.net/retro_games90/the-making-of-another-world/, date accessed 16 February 2018.

[40] Cf. Tristan Donovan, p. 134.

[41] Stephen Harper, “Zombies, Malls, and the Consumerism Debate: George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead”, Americana 1:2 (2002), http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/fall_2002/harper.htm?pagewanted=all, date accessed 15 February 2018.

[42] Didier Bigo, “Les attentats de 1986 en France : un cas de violence transnationale et ses implications (Partie 1), Cultures & Conflits 4 (1991), https://journals.openedition.org/conflits/129, date accessed 15 February 2018.

[43] See, for example, Anna Froula, “Prolepsis and the ‘War on Terror’: Zombie Pathology and the Culture of Fear in 28 Days Later…”, in Reframing 9/11: Film, Popular Culture and “War on Terror”, eds. Jeff Birkenstein, Anna Froula and Karen Rendall (Continuum: New York) (2014), pp. 195–208;

[44] Andre Willey, “Games, Games And More Games”, Start 3:8 (1989), https://www.atarimagazines.com/startv3n8/games_games.html, date accessed 15 February 2018.

[45] Eric Cubizolle, “Infernal Runner”, Pix n’ Love 5 (2008), pp. 78–79.

[46] Neal Tringham, p. 311.

[47] Organization of Economic Growth and Development, “Health status – Suicide rates”, http://data.oecd.org/healthstat/suicide-rates.htm, date accessed 15 February 2018.

[48] Stanley Corngold and Benno Wagner state that the Kafka’s prose was deeply “suicidal”. Łukasz Musiał, while analyzing the ending paragraphs of The Trial, sees the Joseph K.’s acceptance of his fate as the desire to kill himself. Compare Stanley Corngol and Benno Wagner, Franz Kafka: The Ghosts in the Machine (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press) (2011), pp. 47–48; Łukasz Musiał, Kafka. W poszukiwaniu utraconej rzeczywistości [Kafka: In Search of Lost Reality] (Wrocław: Atut) (2011), pp. 288–289.

[49] See Souvik Mukherjee, Video Games and Postcolonialism: Empire Plays Back ([Place of publication not identified]: Palgrave Macmillan) (2017). Mukherjee’s book focuses mainly on the representation of Anglo-Saxon colonies in digital games, including his homeland India.

[50] The mainstream fantastic games produced in France, such as Alone in the Dark (1992, Infogrames) and Dune (1992, Cryo Interactive), popularized the aforementioned technologies in the global gaming industry, while Urban Runner (1996, Coktel Vision) was an ambitious but flawed attempt to create an “interactive movie”.

Different levels of game genre. A Review.

Marcin Petrowicz

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 177-183.

 

Marcin Petrowicz

Jagiellonian University

 

 

Different levels of game genre. A Review.

 

The problem of genre is probably as ancient as literature itself; anyone who takes up this topic not only has to face the tradition of genre studies but also has to justify the validity of applying narrative fiction concepts to game studies. Therefore, Maria B. Garda’s book Interaktywne fantasy. Gatunek w grach cyfrowych (Interactive fantasy. Genre in digital games)[1] was a daring endeavour from its inception. Yet, after reading through the first chapter one abandons initial doubts regarding Garda’s thesis.

Genre been thoroughly examined not only in many academic disciplines dealing with different media, but also in popular discourse. Labels such as fantasy, gothic, thriller, or romance are used by researchers and connoisseurs of different media, and by novice amateurs, children, and unsavoury fans that are just learning to recognize and understand the vast landscape of different cultural artefacts. Marketing copywriters use genre tags to set expectations for their consumer base; media producers employ genre effects, using them as a recognizable means of communication. Garda argues that game culture in many ways replicates the Hollywood film complex, in which “genres are by definition not just scientifically derived or theoretically constructed categories but are always industrially certified and publicly shared”.[2] Yet the fact that these collections of conventions and effects are constantly used and transformed makes it almost impossible to create an ultimate definition of any genre. Furthermore, living in a world where different types of text converge, exchange, and leave their native platform—a postmedia landscape[3]—the quest for the academic definition of genre is so much more difficult. Therefore the author of the reviewed book writes, “That is why the goal of my work is not to define the concept of [game – M.P.] genre, but rather to examine the role of genre distribution of digital games in relation to similar divisions in film and literature”[4]. Inspired by the concept of genre layers[5], Interactive Fantasy introduces the original concept of merger models and analyzes an example of a well-established one: hardcore fantasy RPG.

 

Genre layers

 

Genre layers assign games to specific genres on different levels. In Interactive Fantasy… three such layers are presented: thematic, ludic, and functional. “Thematic genres relate to categories of semantic systems and are defined primarily on the basis of the representation”[6]. These genres are easily identified throughout any medium that uses any kind of narrative or figurative imagery. Fantasy, horror or western are examples of thematic genres; they are transmedial and mostly originate from creations preceding videogames, thus frequently the tools for their analysis are derived from literature and film studies. The second layer is the ludic genres that are defined by the rules, mechanics, and conventions of gameplay. A point-of-view perspective paired with a three-dimensional environment and shooting-based gameplay will result in an FPS (first-person shooter) game, for example, the Doom series (id Software, 1993–2016), while continuous time plus a commander’s perspective and a gameplay based on economy and military conflict will be an RTS (real-time strategy game) such as the StarCraft series (Blizzard Entertainment, 1998–2017). The Ludic genre is also transmedial, as there are card games (Gwent (CD Projekt RED, in public beta from 2017) and poker), roleplaying games (Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (Games Workshop, 1986–2009) and The Witcher (CD Projekt Red, 2007–2015)) and wargames (Panzer General (Strategic Simulations, Inc., 1994) and Warhammer 40,000 (Games Workshop, 1987–present)) created for different media; but at the same time there are platformers (Super Mario Bros (Nintendo, 1985)), tile matching (Candy Crush Saga (King, 2012)) or dexterity games (Twister (Milton Bradley Company, 1966)) that could not have been transferred to any other platform than the original one. The third layer presented by Garda is the functional genres defined by the context of reception and the modes of participation. The author introduces two independent divisions of games within functional genres. The first relates to the declared goal of the product; whether it is an entertainment game or whether it has another purpose besides fun; the latter is the case of serious games, which can be further divided into educational games, advertisement games or persuasive games. The second division is based on the designed cognitive effort that the game requires from the player, resulting in either hardcore or casual games, as defined by Paweł Grabarczyk[7]. This is probably the most interesting and the least recognized genre layer, because although much is written in academia about serious games, there is little reflection on casual or hardcore games as genres.

 

Genre effects

 

Within each of the described genre layers, the games are divided by a different set of distinguishable features: narrative, gameplay, and social context. Yet, even within the categories the differentiators for each genre label are not of the same nature. FPSs are defined by environment whereas RTSs (real-time strategies) are defined by usage of time. Therefore, as Garda states, the role of the genre is less that of classification, but rather that of interpretation. To analyse this situation, she uses genre effects borrowed from Dominic Arsenault:

Playing a game is experiencing a constant flux of (genre, series or intertextual) markers, that depending on the individual spectator and his competences, can produce the genres effects that precise their expectations and prepare their favourable disposition for the upcoming semiotic sequence.[8]

A genre marker can be one of many differentiators for a single genre, like progression of character statistics in role-playing games, but a marker can also be used in several games of different genres, such as the multiple endings marker. Under this tag on the Steam platform there are listed such different games as triple AAA role-playing game The Witcher 2: Assassins of the Kings (CD Projekt Red, 2014), indie narrative adventure game The Stanley Parable (Galactic Cafe, 2013), or a visual novel Cinders (MoaCube, 2012). Genres arise, mix, and evolve so the gaming community and industry use not only names such as cRPG or FPS, but also tags, which Garda refers to as genre labels, which can either signify a whole genre, e.g. FPS, or also relate to just one genre marker, e.g. multiple ending.

 

Merger models

 

Upon those theoretical foundations, Maria Garda presents her original idea: genre merger models[9]. She argues that specific genres from different layers attract each other and have been historically proven to be popular clusters. For example, the ludic genre of HOPA (hidden object puzzle adventure) is frequently combined with the detective story theme and a casual mode of engagement, resulting in a recognizable historically embedded trend. Merger models describe a specific convention popular at a given time, “those relations change historically, as today many genres that were in the past associated with a hardcore mode of engagement open up to more casual practices”[10]. We could ask about the popularity of the WWII hardcore FPS model of the early 2000s, and how this model has changed now in a time of a possible revival of the model with the premiere of Call of Duty: WWII (Sledgehammer Games, 2017). Garda emphasizes that the list of layers is not complete and can be expanded with labels beyond what the gaming community considers genres. Two interesting additions would be the hardware and nationality layers. A collection of specific local merger models that are highly popular in a particular country could shed light on the national style of game development, while analysis of merger models related to a specific console would tell the story and reveal the strategy of the owner company.

Merger models ought not to be limited to genres; while this framework can serve to interpret a specific genre and its evolution, in my opinion it is more of a tool for writing histories of games. What it should provide us with is an insightful multidimensional map of interconnected trends in game development and its transformations over time. As presented in Interactive Fantasy, the merger model concept can be used to holistically and thoroughly describe a group of games, such as hardcore fantasy RPG, or to analyse chosen aspects of single or multiple games, as Garda does in the last chapters of the book.

 

The Exemplar Model

Fantasy

 

The fantasy genre as it is applied in video games is most indebted to J.R.R. Tolkien, his successors, and followers. Yet Garda does not limit herself to this genre core and presents a brief history that led to the creation of Middle-earth. She describes the inspirations of early fantasy writers (mythopoeic narratives, romantic nostalgy for the pre-industrial world and the English Fairyland) as the roots that set the genre’s standards for the following decades. Following the arguments from Tomasz Z. Majkowski’s monograph of the 20th century fantasy “In the Shadow of the White Tree”, Garda adapts her definition of fantasy based on three main characteristics:

  • its ‘otherness’, geographical and chronological distinctiveness from the areas identified with the common reality (…)
  • presence of fantastical elements motivated by magic,
  • conventional ancientness or ‘medievalism’[11]

Tolkien is also indirectly responsible for the popularity of magic and elves in 21st century popular culture, firstly by inspiring the nascence of tabletop role-playing games in the ‘70s and later with the film adaptation of Lord of the Rings (2001–2003, Peter Jackson). Not satisfied to just follow the history of fantasy popularity, Garda goes on to summarize the academic research dedicated to this genre. While it is not the main point of interest in the book, it is deep and thorough and can be an interesting read not only to uninitiated scholars.

 

Hardcore

 

The chapter devoted to hardcore games, or more precisely games that demand high cognitive engagement, is mostly focused on gamers’ culture and players’ typologies; it is the chapter that concentrates on the social context of games instead of the artefact itself. Following various researchers, Garda presents a history of the rise and fall of the gamer. Looking for the birth of the gamers she summons Greame Kirkpatrick, who places it in the middle of the ‘80s and points to British gaming magazines as the source of this identity[12]. The author of Interactive Fantasy rightly adjusts this statement to a Polish context, in which gaming culture experienced a similar boom in the ‘90s. On the other hand, she sees the beginning of the fall of the gamer in the Casual Revolution—the transformation of the video game industry in the early 2000, when developers opened their products to wider audiences who would not call themselves gamers, as described in Jesper Juul’s A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games[13]. Garda follows the different definitions and characteristics of the engaged user and describes how the RPG genre relates to them. While for years role-playing was considered to be the definition of hardcore games, in her opinion it is more interesting to see the latest changes in that matter. As more and more developers adopt casual strategies for their work, we see titles that have the characteristics of role-playing, but are also more open to casual players, like Games of Thrones: Ascent (Disruptor Beam, 2013), which is analysed in a later chapter.

 

RPG

 

Role-playing games are one of the most popular and vital genres in games culture and even in trying to grasp the topic broadly, Garda has a lot to cover. Yet she does so in a brief but detailed and engaging form which covers the archaeology of computer role-playing games, presenting the details of the creation of Adventure (Will Crowther, 1975), the ancestor of all RPGs. Later Garda discusses the periodization of the genre as defined in Dungeons and Desktops by Matt Barton[14]. However, the most important part of this chapter is the reflection on the foundation elements of role-playing and especially how they changed over time. Nonetheless, the two defining traits of role-playing are just as relevant now as they were in 1998, when the book Garda quotes was published. These essential RPG genre effects are the character development system (aggregation of points) and the player’s diverse interaction with the game world (role-playing)[15]. The analysis of these elements gives insight into the genre’s roots and also its relationship with its tabletop counterpart.

The last part of Interactive Fantasy shows how the theoretical model conceived by Maria Garda can be used in analysis. Especially valuable is the ludic analysis of the roguelike genre, in which the author delves into the history of this convention, describes the revolutionary effect of Diablo (Blizzard North, 1996), and the recent popularity of neo-roguelike. This part not only presents an insightful research of a forgotten breed of games but is also a great example of a middle-range game analysis.

I am convinced that Interactive Fantasy. Genre in digital games will be an essential book in Polish game studies curricula. It is a great handbook for games genre theory, presenting all the necessary concepts for aspiring students. The different theories and wide range of topics related to fantasy role-playing games will make it also engaging reading for fans or avid gamers, as the academic nature of the publication does not make it inaccessible or overly complex. On the other hand, in Interactive Fantasy Maria Garda presents an original and inspiring theoretical framework that could be useful for seasoned game researchers. The genre merger model is an insightful concept that is open to further developments and, despite its name, should be developed and adopted to game aspects beyond just genres.

 

References

Altman Rick, Film/genre, (London: British Film Institute) (2000), p. 16.

Arsenault Dominic, Des typologies mécaniques à l’expérience esthétique: fonctions et mutations du genre dans le jeu vidéo (doctoral thesis) (2011), pp. 287-288. https://www.academia.edu/2999430/Des_typologies_m%C3%A9caniques_%C3%A0_lexp%C3%A9rience_esth%C3%A9tique_fonctions_et_mutations_du_genre_dans_le_jeu_vid%C3%A9o date accessed 11 November 2017.

Barton Matt, Dungeons and Desktops: The History of Computer Role-Playing Games, (Wellesley: A K Peters) (2008).

Celiński Piotr, Postmedia. Cyfrowy kod i bazy danych, (Lublin: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Marii Curie-Skłodowskiej) (2013).

Garda Maria, “‘Limits of Genre, Limits of Fantasy’: Rethinking Computer Role-Playing Games”, in Cultural Perspectives of Video Games: From Designer to Player, ed. Adam L. Brackin and Natacha Guyot (Oxford: Inter Disciplinary Press, 2012)

Garda Maria, Interaktywne Fantasy. Gatunek w grach cyfrowych, (Łódź: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Łódzkiego) (2016).

Grabarczyk Paweł, “O opozycji hardcore/casual”, Homo Ludens: Czasopismo Ludologiczne Polskiego Towarzystwa Badania Gier. 1(7) (2015), pp. 89-109.

Juul Jesper, A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players, (Cambridge: The MIT Press) (2010).

Kirkpatrick Graeme, “Constitutive Tensions of Gaming’s Field: UK Gaming Magazines and the Formation of Gaming Culture 1981-1995.” Game Studies 12.1 (2012). http://gamestudies.org/1201/articles/kirkpatrick  date accessed 11 November 2017.

Majkowski Tomasz Z., W cieniu białego drzewa: powieść fantasy w XX wieku, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego) (2013), p. 331.

Uchański Aleksy, Gawrysiak Piotr, Mańkowski Piotr, Biblia Komputerowego Gracza, (Warszawa: Iskry) (1998), pp. 231.

Voorhees Gerald, Call Josh, Whitlock Katie, Dungeons, Dragons, and Digital Denizens: The Digital Role-Playing Game (New York: Continuum) (2012)

 

Garda Maria, Interaktywne Fantasy. Gatunek w grach cyfrowych, (Łódź: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Łódzkiego) (2016).

 

[1] Maria Garda, Interaktywne Fantasy. Gatunek w grach cyfrowych, (Łódź: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Łódzkiego) (2016).

[2] Rick Altman, Film/genre, (London: British Film Institute) (2000), p. 16.

[3] Piotr Celiński, Postmedia. Cyfrowy kod i bazy danych, (Lublin: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Marii Curie-Skłodowskiej) (2013).

[4] Maria Garda, p. 22.

[5] Gerald Voorhees, Josh Call, Katie Whitlock, Dungeons, Dragons, and Digital Denizens: The Digital Role-Playing Game (New York: Continuum) (2012).

[6] Maria Garda, p. 25.

[7] Paweł Grabarczyk, “O opozycji hardcore/casual”, Homo Ludens: Czasopismo Ludologiczne Polskiego Towarzystwa Badania Gier. 1(7) (2015), pp. 89-109.

[8] Dominic Arsenault, Des typologies mécaniques à l’expérience esthétique: fonctions et mutations du genre dans le jeu vidéo (doctoral thesis) (2011), pp. 287-288. https://www.academia.edu/2999430/Des_typologies_m%C3%A9caniques_%C3%A0_lexp%C3%A9rience_esth%C3%A9tique_fonctions_et_mutations_du_genre_dans_le_jeu_vid%C3%A9o date accessed 11 November 2017.

[9] Maria Garda, “‘Limits of Genre, Limits of Fantasy’: Rethinking Computer Role-Playing Games”, in Cultural Perspectives of Video Games: From Designer to Player, ed. Adam L. Brackin and Natacha Guyot (Oxford: Inter Disciplinary Press, 2012).

[10] Maria Garda, (2016), p. 27.

[11] Tomasz Z. Majkowski, W cieniu białego drzewa: powieść fantasy w XX wieku, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego) (2013), p. 331.

[12] Graeme Kirkpatrick, “Constitutive Tensions of Gaming’s Field: UK Gaming Magazines and the Formation of Gaming Culture 1981-1995.” Game Studies 12.1 (2012). http://gamestudies.org/1201/articles/kirkpatrick  date accessed 11 November 2017.

[13] Jesper Juul, A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players, (Cambridge: The MIT Press) (2010).

[14] Matt Barton, Dungeons and Desktops: The History of Computer Role-Playing Games, (Wellesley: A K Peters) (2008).

[15] Aleksy Uchański, Piotr Gawrysiak, Piotr Mańkowski, Biblia Komputerowego Gracza, (Warszawa: Iskry) (1998), pp. 231.

Table of Contents 2017 vol.2. no.1

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1

 

Table of Contents  2017 vol.2. no.1

 

War&Technology

 

War&Technology (Editorial)

Joanna Walewska

New American Patriotism in Games: WWII-Themed Military Shooters in the Shadow of Post-9/11 Politics

Filip Jankowski

Moving Image as Political Tool: The impact of neoliberalism on the role of the moving image in postmodern warfare 

Bethany Crawford

The Concept of War without Casualties: The Influence of the American Taboo of Death on the Perception of the Events of 9/11

Kaja Łuczyńska

Technology and the War on Terror: Film and the Ambivalence of Transhumanism

Tatiana Prorokova

Unseen war? Hackers, tactical media, and their depiction

 in Hollywood cinema

Marta Stańczyk

Emergent International Humanitarian Law in the Context of Cyber Warfare 

Ivory Mills

Knowledge is for Cutting: Waging War on the Human Terrain

Sandra L. Trappen

The nuclear technology debate returns. Narratives about nuclear power in post-Fukushima Japanese films

Agnieszka Kiejziewicz

War rape in the face of heroic narrative. The case of Polish cinema

Magdalena Podsiadło-Kwiecień

 

Varia

Eat like a Republican and you won’t get AIDS – a conversation with Barbara Hammer

Andrzej Pitrus

 

War&Technology (Editorial)

Joanna Walewska

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 1-4.

Joanna Walewska

Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń

 

 

War&Technology (Editorial)

 

Jacques Derrida (2008), when asked if the attacks of 9/11 would become one of the major events of the last century, answered that it is symptomatic that we refer to this event by means of its date: 11 September, 9/11. He concluded that it was a “thing” which probably has the status of an event for which we do not have yet a proper name. Referring to Derrida’s words, W.J.T. Mitchell wrote (2011) that every history in fact consists of two histories, one focused on what actually happened, the other on the ways of interpreting and describing the events. The first type of historical narrative is focused on facts and figures, while the other is focused on images and words that enable understanding of past events. Narratives about the past are no longer a domain reserved only for historians, because more frequently they are created in real time by official and independent media (e.g. the attacks on the WTC, when the emergency services learned about the plane that had crashed into the WTC towers from a television broadcast), millions of social media users around the world (Cottle 2006; Monahan 2010; Grusin 2010, Huff M. et al 2013), and the narration of movie directors and video game developers.

A number of social scientists, journalists, scholars, and philosophers have observed that the outcome of the attacks was a radical shift in political discourse and social practices—explained by the necessity of applying new security measures and justified by the “state of exception” (Agamben 2008; Sidel 2007; Sottiaux 2008; Neal 2010). As a result, the notions of terms such as terrorism, bioterrorism, torture, and enemy combatants were redefined in the context of 9/11 (Peters 2004; Meisels 2008; Nathanson 2010; Miller 2013; Stampnitzky 2013). This semantic operation and the introduction of the policy of fear allowed the authorities to make the “state of exception” a permanent state, which caused long-lasting effects and changed the social processes of interpretation of historical events—not only those directly related to the 9/11 attacks, but also those of earlier events from the history of the U.S. military.

These semantic operations were brilliantly identified and described by Peter Singer, who observed that many addresses delivered by George W. Bush during the “War on Terror” are based on the vision of clear binary scheme which allows a clear differentiation between Good and Evil. Singer noted that Bush’s Evil was almost a substantial entity which acts independently of human actions (Singer 2004). According to Bush, those who attacked the WTC were “enemies of freedom” or “enemies of democracy”, and the prerogative of their actions was “to plot Evil”.

Taking into consideration the long-lasting and significant effects of these cultural changes in the social perception of international military conflicts and the threat of domestic terrorism, it is no wonder that most of the authors who responded to our call for papers devoted to the relations between war and technology have dedicated their papers to topics related to the 9/11 attacks.

Most of these texts are devoted to critical analysis of how those post-9/11 phenomena have been reflected in the sphere of pop culture. Thus, in his text about American gaming industry, Filip Jankowski shows how the majority of the shooting games released between 2001and 2008 created a heroic depiction of American soldiers’ WWII effort by using national stereotypes, erasing civilians from the theatre of war, and reinforcing the U.S. government’s position as the primary guardian of global order in the face of the threat of international terrorism. It seems that a highly polarized depiction of military battles during WWII was the equivalent of President Bush’s “Axes of Evil” speech and, in retrospect, it can be seen as a propaganda tool aimed to strengthen public support for US military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The author also analyses the games that have emerged since 2008, when the gruesome acts of torture committed by American personnel in Abu Ghraib prison were revealed and Barack Obama was elected president. Since then, game producers have created a more realistic reflection of military conflicts, abandoning the binary description of ours as good and enemies as evil and presenting the player with moral dilemmas.

In the current issue of TransMissions, we also include a block of papers devoted to critical examination of the interrelations between the current military complex and the moving image industry. In her paper, based on the analysis of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2013) and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012), Bethany Crowford shows how the film industry has reinforced neoliberal political agendas and military incentives by creating filmic endorsement glorifying the U.S. government’s military campaigns. In her paper, Kaja Łuczyńska presents military technologies as a precise and effective tool for managing conflicts. She shows that along with the post-2008 politics of of “no boots on the ground”, such an image of military technologies led to the erasing of the image of casual victims (on both sides of the conflict) in the social perception of contemporary conflicts.

Based on the considerations of philosophers and critics of post-9/11 politics such as Noam Chomsky and Jean Baudrillard (among others), she shows the influence of the Western taboo of death on the perception of military interventions in the Middle East. The same line of inquiry is presented in the paper by Tatiana Prorokova, who, while analysing the moving image industry, shows how unconditional belief in the power of technology has changed American society and ensured its confidence in “superiority and dominance of its possessors”.

In the first months after the attacks, the fear of being considered an “enemy of freedom” stopped numerous U.S. intellectuals and scholars from asking questions about the actual causes of the events of 9/11. Also, the “war on terror” declared by George W. Bush led to the international military campaign against Al-Qaeda and other militant organizations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan (from 2004), as well as to the introduction of a number of legal measures such as the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act, which was based on the unclear and arbitrary category of “domestic terrorism”, which enabled the limitation of civic rights for the sake of security. The researchers point out that this Act resulted in noticeable loss of privacy as well as the reduction of transparency in public life. Both these phenomena are the subject of the papers by Marta Stańczyk, who analyses Hollywood productions concerning WikiLeaks and Hackers, and by Ivory Mills, who assesses the impact of technologies used to wage war in cyberspace. On the other hand, the paper by Sandra Trappen assesses the consequences of the engagement of anthropologists in the so-called Human Terrain System, a phenomenon which is referred to as “a cultural turn in military”. It seems that all three texts correspond to each other, because while the milieus of anthropologists and psychologists have rejected this type of cooperation as an unethical and undesirable breach of independence in the area of knowledge they are pursuing, it has become evident that the Human Terrain System is a key concept that applies not only to anti-insurgency military actions, but also to the frontiers of cyberwar. The concept appears one more time in the documents leaked by Edward Snowden 2013, concerning on-line actions developed by the American National Security Agency (NSA) and the British intelligence bureau, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) against supporters of WikiLeaks, The Pirate Bay portal, and hacktivist groups such as Anonymous.

The last two texts in the current issue of TransMissions are devoted to more general topics concerning the image of war and technology in contemporary culture, but they can still be read in the same context as the other texts in this volume. In her paper about the return of the nuclear technology debate, Agnieszka Kiejziewicz analyses post-Fukushima movies (both fiction and documentary), accurately pointing to the fact that in some way the Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011 plays a similar role to 9/11 in that it invigorated historical debates on the country’s nuclear past. Meanwhile, the paper by Magdalena Podsiadło also addresses the problem of heroic narrative, albeit based on the image of rape in Polish contemporary cinema.

 

References

 

Agamben Giorgio, Stan wyjątkowy, (Warszawa: Korporacja Ha! Art) (2009).

Cottle Simon, Mediatized Conflicts. Issues in Cultural and Media Studies, (New York: Open University Press) (2006).

Derrida Jacques, Filozofia w czasach terroru. Rozmowy z Jürgenem Habermasem oraz Jacques’em Derridą (Warszawa: WAiP) (2008).

Grusin Richard, Premediation. Affect and Mediality After 9/11 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) (2010).

Huff Mickey S., Rea Paul W., Deconstructing Deceit: 9/11, the Media, and Myth Information, http://www.projectcensored.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/DeconstructingDeceitOnlineEd.pdf (date accessed 10.11.2013)

Meisels Tamar, The Trouble with Terror. Liberty, Security, and the Rispons to Terrorism (Cambridge: Cambridge Univeristy Press) (2008).

Miller Martin A., The Foundations of Modern Terrorism. State, Society and the Dynamics of Political Violence (New York: Cambridge University Press) (2013).

Mitchell W.J.T., Clonning Terror. The War on Images. 9/11 to the Present (Chicago: University of Chicago) (2011).

Monahan Brian, The Shock of the News. Media Coverage and the Making of 9/11 (New York: New York University Press) (2010).

Nathanson Stephen, Terrorism and the Ethics of War (Cambridge-New York: Cambridge University Press) (2010).

Peters Ralph, Beyond Terror: Strategy in a Changing World (Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books) (2004).

Sidel Mark, More Secure, Less Free. Antiterrorism Policy and Civil Liberties after September 11 (Michigan: University of Michigan) (2007).

Singer Peter, The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush (Dutton: Plume Books) (2004).

Sottiaux Stefan, Terrorism and the Limitation of Rights (Oxford-Portland: Hart Publishing) (2008).

Stampnitzky Lisa, Disciplining Terror. How Experts Invented „Terrorism” (New York: Cambridge University Press) (2013).

New American Patriotism in Games: WWII-Themed Military Shooters in the Shadow of Post-9/11 Politics

Filip Jankowski

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 5-20.

 

Filip Jankowski

Jagiellonian University

 

 

New American Patriotism in Games:

WWII-Themed Military Shooters in the Shadow of Post-9/11 Politics

Abstract

In the 1980s, American popular culture started to restore its reputation as a dominant political power—weakened after the Vietnam War—by recalling the success of World War II and constructing its mythology. The following cinematic tendency, which Frank Wetta and Martin Novelli label as New Patriotism, disseminated triumphalist views on the U.S. presence during the earlier conflict. This study aims to examine the similar trend in the American gaming industry between 1999 and 2008, when a considerable number of first-person shooter games with a World War II setting were released. The author later argues that this wave responded to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, when the George Bush government started a crusade against the so-called “axis of evil”. This political background affected the American gaming industry, as shown with examples of several shooters constituting three important game series: Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, and Brothers in Arms. Those franchises used the specific setting and stylized antagonists, thus recalling the contemporary events in the Middle East. The main problems with New Patriotism are also raised, including the demonization of enemies and the simultaneous absence of civilians during in-game military actions. Further analysis discusses the hyperrealism of World War II-themed shooters produced in the United States. Products such as Call of Duty resembled cinematic narratives not only in terms of ideological message, but they also recreated scenes from films as such Saving Private Ryan and employed documentary-like cinematic techniques. Finally, the reasons for the natural atrophy of the movement are explained. This explanation includes increasing cathartic violence, the declining credibility of the ideological message provided by New Patriotism, and overutilization of episodes from World War II that are too well-known. The results of the research allow diagnosis of new possible reincarnations of New Patriotism.

Key words: 9/11, digital games, hyperreality, ludology, World War II

 

Introduction

 

The United States has one of the biggest entertainment industries in the world. From Hollywood motion pictures to television stations, this industry plays a vital role in shaping the global political discourse. One of the most important forms of U.S. cultural expansion to foreign countries has become digital games, which are not free of the “discursive, political and ideological meanings” associated with an American point of view on politics, the economy, and history.[1] As Nick Dyer-Whiteford and Greig De Peuter remind us, digital games as a form of media were created for the purposes of the “U.S. military-entertainment complex”, contributing to national imperialist politics.[2] Numerous publications describe digital games as media which support aggressive politics towards other countries (especially Middle Eastern) on the same footing as motion pictures; America’s Army (2003, U.S. Army) serves here as an important example of explicit military propaganda.[3]

However, digital games shape not only discourse about the present, they also influence current views of the past. This article examines a certain tendency in American digital games which coincided with the appearance of military shooters set in the Middle East while using another historical setting and serving similar militainment purposes. Between 1998 and 2008, the movement included an explosion of numerous American first-person shooters[4] devoted to the main events of World War II. Although World War II had already been a theme for several digital games like Panzer General (1994, Strategic Simulations) and Steel Panthers (1995, Strategic Simulations), such productions paid attention to the strategic abilities of the player, therefore appealing to a limited number of board game enthusiasts. Hence, they were overtaken in popularity by action-oriented fantasy games such as Duke Nukem 3D (1996, 3D Realms) and Quake (1996, id Software).[5] The appearance of Medal of Honor (1998, DreamWorks Interactive) changed many things, as this game succeeded at merging the reality of World War II with the conventions of the increasingly popular first-person shooter genre. The choice of this ludic genre was no coincidence because the convention of first-person shooters had a greater potential to immerse players in the game world than strategy games. This article explores the causes of that further expansion of American WWII-themed shooters, their characteristics, and political background.

The aforementioned tendency can be termed “New American Patriotism”, with reference to the name suggested by Frank Wetta and Martin Novelli to describe a movement encompassing American motion pictures with “sentimental and ideological concepts that put the nation and cause ahead of individual survival”.[6] The New American Patriotism, according to Wetta and Novelli, is a celebration of “loyalty to one’s comrades in battle, the ability to survive the horrific face of modern hyper-lethal weaponry and warfare, and the shared experience of battle”.[7] Although both researchers count numerous films from different historical settings as examples of the movement,[8] they claim that an important influence on the message of such motion pictures was remembrance of World War II, which will be further discussed below. Then, because of similarities in their depiction of combat and suffering between both American WWII-themed shooters and films, I will restrict the definition of the New Patriotism to include only the World War II setting.

The following analysis of game characteristics excluded the subversive, parodist reinterpretations of World War II such as Wolfenstein 3D (1992, 3D Realms) and Return to Castle Wolfenstein (2001, Raven Software), as well as the games of non-American developers, merely published by American enterprises, like Battlefield 1942 (2002, Digital Illusions CE). Instead, several installments in three gaming franchises (Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, and Brothers in Arms) were chosen because of their prestige among players and non-parodist approach to the war. Because of their highly cinematic form, this analysis intends to indicate the specific narrative form rather than the gameplay. The former ludology vs. narratology debate has lost its significance and some ludologists acknowledge that the narrative can also be the object of research.[9] Espen Aarseth, for example, indicates that modern first-person shooters are linearly designed. The presence of fixed kernels, which Aarseth defines as “events that define a particular story”,[10] makes linear games immune to the randomness of gameplay, as the kernels are repeatable and foreseeable during each play.[11] The American WWII-themed shooters are chained to fixed kernels, which makes them useful for the analysis of storytelling.

 

From “New Patriotism” to Digital Games

 

According to Wetta and Novelli, New American Patriotism was formed as an ideological response to national trauma after the failure of the Vietnam War.[12] During the 1970s and 1980s, American cinema encountered numerous films criticizing national involvement in the Vietnamese conflict and citing several war crimes committed by the U.S. Army. Motion pictures such as Apocalypse Now (1979, Francis Ford Coppola), Platoon (1986, Oliver Stone) and Full Metal Jacket (1987, Stanley Kubrick) reflected an absence of faith in optimistic narration about modern conflict. In contrast to this traumatic imagination, the American government sought to replace the feeling of guilt with a revived militaristic discourse (identified with the term “Reaganomatography”) shaped by both the Ronald Reagan administration and the Republican Party.[13] The flood of action heroes like Rambo helped to reinvent the heroism of individual soldiers and therefore allowed an anxious American society to be reassured that right was on their side.

A key role in redefining the official patriotic discourse was played by the remembrance of World War II. A new historical approach, comparing the conflict in Vietnam with more prestigious successes in World War II, reshaped the U.S. attitude to patriotism. World War II became the “Good War”,[14] a conflict which did not shame the nation and could instead help re-establish the common view of soldiers as patriots. The main supporter of this new movement was Stephen Ambrose, a historian who often portrayed combatants from the 1940s as common heroes or “citizen soldiers”. Ambrose’s vision of World War II was embraced by the director Steven Spielberg, who suggested a redefined approach to the spectacle of war. The New Patriotism, combining suffering and explicit violence with moral characters having a deep faith in the legitimacy of war, could give more credibility to such a discourse.[15]

In 1998, Spielberg directed Saving Private Ryan, which would serve as inspiration for the subsequent digital games. The film suggested a new, hyperrealistic approach to the representation of the effects of war on soldiers. The opening sequence of the Omaha Beach assault during the invasion of Normandy staged with attention to violent details and the frequent point-of-view camera shots, condensed the day-long attack into several minutes. Therefore, it fell within Nicholas Mirzoeff’s definition of a “visual event”, which in this example became a prototype of subsequent reconstructions of combat assaults in popular culture.[16] At the same time, it helped reconstruct the triumphalist vision of subsequent conflicts in which the United States took part; the Americans are depicted as the only liberators of Nazi-occupied France, and although “they commit atrocities in the fog of war […], this is the exception rather than the rule”.[17] Albert Auster notes that World War II, thanks to films like Saving Private Ryan, “has become for Americans that mythic, Edenic moment when the entire nation bent itself to victory over evil and barbarism”.[18]

In the same year, Spielberg produced a digital game called Medal of Honor (1998, DreamWorks Interactive), which served the same triumphalist purpose, but the adaptation of World War II reality to the first-person shooter genre was intended for younger recipients. Spielberg, fascinated with digital games, planned to popularize the “Good War” amongst a new generation raised with new forms of media. Knowing that Private Ryan’s violence would be potentially damaging to children, he commissioned a war game with a different plot, without blood and suffering.[19] The result was an adventurous shooter with the player directing a serviceman at the Office of Strategic Services. Tasks involved diverse covert actions behind enemy lines, such as stealing important documents and sabotaging military objectives. In contrast to previous strategic games about World War II, Medal of Honor did not intend to realistically imitate the historical battles themselves, and it employed the point of view of an individual soldier only; its arcade-like gameplay seemed to imitate the spy shooting game GoldenEye 007 (Rage, 1997).[20] However, there was no specific story which shaped the Rage game; intersections during the main game included briefings with tasks to complete, and nothing more.

Nevertheless, Medal of Honor received positive reviews and encouraged its publisher, Electronic Arts, to develop a series of games within a World War II setting. The sequel to Medal of Honor, subtitled Underground (2000, DreamWorks Interactive), maintained a similar tone while providing the fresh perspective of a French female underground activist.

 

The Influence of 9/11

 

Medal of Honor’s adventurous tone changed after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001. According to Jean Baudrillard, the psychological damage it caused to the American nation led to a globalized cultural expansion of the United States (resulting in such events as the First Gulf War, where the United States led military action against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq), with such symbolic violence questioning the global domination of this North American military power.[21] However, the terrorist attack did not lead to any reflections about the U.S. militarized national diplomacy. Instead, it became an excuse for President George W. Bush to order military intervention in Afghanistan in the same year, where the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda responsible for the attack was based. In 2003, the Bush government invaded Iraq for the second time, citing Iraqi development of weapons of mass destruction as a reason. Both invasions were legitimized by Bush’s speech of 23 January 2002, during which the President branded Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan as sponsors of international terrorism, the so-called “axis of evil”. A comparison to the political alliance between Nazi Germany, Italy, and Japan (Axis Powers) during World War II was evident,[22] and was not without reason, as further World War II games would allude at the same time to both “axes of evil”, both historical and current.

In the post-9/11 period, the number of military first-person shooters alluding to the military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq became much more visible. Popular culture, steered by the connection between military forces and various kinds of entertainment, was involved in the popularization of “justified” violence against other nations, as it had been during the previous events.[23] The role of military shooters cannot, therefore, be diminished, as this ludic genre reflected the enduring cult of guns and violence in the United States.[24] First-person shooters, as one of the most popular ludic genres, reflected this attitude to violence. On the one hand, there was a vast array of digital shooting games directly supported by the American government, such as America’s Army and Full Spectrum Warrior (2004, Pandemic Studios). Their role as persuasive games with an explicit political message, whose intention was to convince players to support U.S. military interventions, became a topic of comprehensive research.[25] However, it is harder to explain the simultaneous wave of American WWII-themed shooters, which lasted until 2008.

Following Medal of Honor’s success, Electronic Arts continued the series with such games as Medal of Honor: Allied Assault (2002, 2015 Inc.), Medal of Honor: Rising Sun (2003, EA Los Angeles), Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault (2004, EA Los Angeles), and Medal of Honor: Airborne (2007, EA Los Angeles). Meanwhile, another publishing company, Activision, decided to jump on the bandwagon and launched another gaming franchise with Call of Duty (2003, Infinity Ward), Call of Duty 2 (2005, Infinity Ward), Call of Duty 3 (2007, Treyarch), and Call of Duty: World at War (2008, Treyarch). An independent gaming studio, Gearbox Software, also joined the trend, producing a trilogy named Brothers in Arms, consisting of three games: Road to Hill 30 (2005), Earned in Blood (2005), and Hell’s Highway (2008). Whereas the Medal of Honor and Call of Duty series employed various perspectives of soldiers from different fronts, and featured run-and-gun mechanics restricted to shooting at enemies and destroying enemy installations, Brothers in Arms established a coherent narrative about a squad from the 101st Airborne Division during the Normandy invasion and the Operation Market Garden in 1944, with more monotonous and slow-paced gameplay involving the ability to command the whole infantry squad from a first-person perspective. Although the games were cloaked under a specific historical setting, scholars such as Marc Ouellette[26] and Trent Cruz[27] claim that the World War II-themed military shooters were used to account for military interventions both in Afghanistan and Iraq, assumptions we shall now consider.

Firstly, it is noteworthy that WWII-themed games, while not explicitly showing the influence of the war in Afghanistan and the Gulf War, tended to re-locate to Middle East settings in time and space. For example, Medal of Honor: Rising Sun, set in the Pacific Theatre, begins with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, which became a convenient excuse for the United States to engage in the world conflict. The Japanese invasion has been frequently compared to American public opinion concerning the devastation of the Twin Towers. Although there are claims that such a comparison has been lax and based on simplification,[28] the memory of Pearl Harbor within the context of the 9/11 crisis functioned as a persuasive emotional response to human misfortune and suffering.[29] This metaphorical outlook on recent events as a reiteration of the past permeated Rising Sun along with Pacific Assault. In both games, Pearl Harbor develops into a turning point of the main story. While playing Rising Sun, the player confronts kamikaze planes while defending the USS Oklahoma destroyer; in Pacific Assault, the Japanese bombers devastate the base while the defenseless player sees the other people suffering from below. Ouellette observes that the fumes of burning Pearl Harbor seen from the distance in a cut-screen resemble the smoke from the Twin Towers after the 9/11 attack.[30]

Conversely, the references are sometimes subtler. For example, the beginning of Medal of Honor: Allied Assault is a covert operation taking place in Arzew, Algeria, where a group of OSS servicemen prepare for Operation Torch, an invasion of the Allied military forces on Morocco and Algeria, where the Axis forces are stationed. One of the campaigns featured in Call of Duty 2 also includes levels depicting the British offensive against German forces in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. Although both games feature protagonists of different nationalities (the reasons for establishing different national viewpoints will be discussed later), the allusion to current events in the Middle East is mediated via Arab urban landscapes. In such scenarios, the Germans—the like Japanese in Rising Sun and Pacific Assault—serve as the equivalent of Middle Eastern terrorists. If the Japanese soldiers attack the player with bayonets and sword by surprise, the German soldiers organize a violent resistance against Allied forces, performing ambushes with grenade launchers—just like the guerrilla forces in Iraq.[31]

The Germans and the Japanese in these games are both portrayed as fanatics: they repeat conventional cries like “Banzai” and “Amerikaner”, and their role is restricted to those of targets at a shooting range. They are cruel to their captives, and their brutality becomes highlighted in Call of Duty: World at War. Each campaign of the game opens with similar scenes: in the American campaign, the player observes an enemy officer burning a prisoner with a cigar, then cutting his throat; the Soviet campaign begins with the player witnessing a massacre of his comrades by German forces. The unfolding narrative suggests the following message: the enemy shows no mercy, so we cannot show it to them either.[32]

Of course, the situation is different when it comes to portraying the Allies. Activision’s Call of Duty series, marked initially with the slogan “No one fights alone”, involves the diverse perspectives of nations fighting against the Axis. The Call of Duty game series, in contrast to homogenized American meta-narratives about their involvement in the war, features varying viewpoints of American, British, Soviet, and other Allied soldiers. All the gaming franchises also include naturalized Americans from ethnic minorities such as Italians and Mexicans (African Americans are not featured, though, due to racial segregation in the American military forces). What linked the meta-narration of the New American Patriotism in games was the accentuation of an international alliance against common enemies.[33] The national and ethnic diversity of fighting characters suggested that they united against a serious threat to their existence. The inclusion of selected Allied nations was affected by the contemporary balance of power, for example the Soviet presence in the Call of Duty series can be attributed rather to the intermittent collaboration between the United States and Russia during the invasion of Afghanistan than to the historical alliance between the Soviet Union and the United States during World War II.

By contrast, the perspectives of the defeated nations are not included. Tanine Allison notes that while in many strategy games the player can control German and Japanese forces, the narration of American WWII-themed shooters stays highly vectorized, and the Allies constitute the only playable side of the conflict.[34] The civilian perspective is also reduced from the main narration, as the New Patriotism in games would lose attractiveness if the player confronted the real suffering of defenseless people murdered during military action. According to Holger Pötzsch, such a tendency is typical for first-person shooters in general:

If civilian deaths are presented, their fates are disconnected from player involvement and usually presented as the consequence of the opponents’ actions and decisions. The only violence that is enabled is strictly battle related and targeted at opposing soldiers or paramilitary forces this way excluding such documented war-related abuses as rape, the killing of children, or the unintended targeting of non-combatants with heavy weapons.[35]

The only WWII-themed shooter which included civilians as refined characters is Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway. The game, set in The Netherlands during Operation Market Garden in 1944, features several Dutch people who interact with an American unit while residing in the city of Eindhoven; a shoemaker offers the main protagonist Matt Baker some information about the enemies’ position, and a secondary character falls in love with a local girl. However, two motives—resistance and love—are dramatically curtailed with the brutal deaths of the shoemaker’s son and the girl. Their sacrifice, however, is used pretextually to illustrate enemy atrocities, and the narration still defines the American servicemen as people determined to prevent the civilians from suffering.

 

Cinematic Imagery

 

These factors—relocation of the present into the past, demonization of enemies, and heroization of protagonists—correspond to period films constituting the cinematic New Patriotism. However, American WWII-themed shooters are defined not only by their common, ideological message, but also by their hyperrealism in staging scenes from the conflict. Although the games’ developers frequently used slogans that seemingly attest to the authenticity and realism of their products,[36] the notion of realism in digital games is actually very problematic. We can attribute this issue to the ontological status of digital games in general. The realism considered as being in the real-world environment does not apply to digital games because they can only simulate their worlds, and simulation always excludes some factors constituting real life. For example, virtual bodies disappear after the passage of time, and the player can easily heal herself even after being seriously injured. As Aarseth says, virtual bullets used in various shooters do not differ ontologically,[37] and simulation as part of gaming experience always combines the real and the fictional.[38]

Furthermore, WWII-themed military shooters from 1998–2008 are more intertextual than extratextual, which means that they borrow from cinematic imagery rather than from real experiences on World War II battlefields. One can cite numerous inspirations of game developers by the cinematic New Patriotism. For example, the Omaha Beach sequence from Saving Private Ryan appeared in two Electronic Arts’ games about the Normandy invasion (Medal of Honor: Allied Assault and Medal of Honor: Frontline) where even details such as the subtitle “Omaha Beach, June 6th, 1944” with the Times New Roman font are copied from the film. Similarly, the Call of Duty and Call of Duty: World at War’s Soviet storylines that take place during the Battle of Stalingrad remediate the settings and events previously seen in Enemy at the Gates (2002, Jean-Jacques Annaud). The spectacularly staged sequence of the parachute landing in the French countryside, which introduces Road to Hill 30, as well as the serialized narrative of the whole series, recalls the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers (2001, Steven Spielberg & Tom Hanks), whereas Rising Sun and Pacific Assault imitate Pearl Harbor in their depiction of the titular base attack.

Adapting Jay David Bolter and David Grusin’s term of “remediation”, defined as the “refashioned and improved versions of other media”,[39] James Campbell sees such a tendency as an example of “remediated nostalgia”. His research indicates that WWII-themed shooters were intended to simulate not World War II itself, but a World War II film. Hence, games such as Medal of Honor and Call of Duty attempt to provide ludic visual experiences similar to those from the 1990s American combat films.[40] This assumption, according to Eva Kingsepp, recalls the Baudrillardian notion of hyperreality which replaces historical events, currently impossible to revive, with their mediated representations.[41] The games imitated reality, but their developers could not develop a real experience, only a feeling of authenticity.[42]

Following James Campbell’s suggestion that WWII-themed shooters simulate cinematic experience, we discover that their design is intended not to demonstrate real suffering during combat, but to just “look” real. Discussing this issue, Andrew Salvati and Jonathan Bullinger define American WWII-themed military shooters as using “selective authenticity”, a term introduced to describe the creative interpretation of historical facts instead of strict historical reconstruction. This process, according to Salvati and Bullinger, applies to these shooters within the framework of three categories: technology fetishism (an accurate depiction of the weaponry used during the war), documentary authority (a selection of documentaries or quotations from known personalities), and cinematic convention.[43] The latter category is characterized by frequent use of slow-motion and cut-scenes (Rising Sun, Pacific Assault, Earned in Blood, Hell’s Highway), as well as a stabilized virtual camera during significant events (Road to Hill 30, Call of Duty 3, World at War) and the inclusion of authentic documentaries that are already cinematic in their form. All these factors contributed to the meta-narrative of the New American Patriotism in games and made them a visually attractive collection of factual discourses, where complex military operations are rapidly achieved on screen.[44]

 

The Decline and the Revival?

 

New American Patriotism in games, considered here as the presence of American WWII-themed shooters, rapidly disappeared after 2008—there were no further productions about the conflict. One can posit several causes of such a decline. Firstly, the virtual image of World War II became much darker during the existence of the movement. The first Medal of Honor games which attracted the attention of players featured no blood or gore. This situation changed after the appearance of the Brothers in Arms franchise, in which the player had to confront the dispiriting deaths of fallen comrades and scenes naturalistically picturing the physical fragmentation of soldiers. This increase of violence reflected the brutalization of the Second Gulf War, when a growing number of news reports indicated the tragic result of American aggression against civilians. The military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq were failures resulting in the appearance of so-called Islamic State in post-2010 Iraq. The last game of the Brothers in Arms series, Hell’s Highway, is set during Operation Market Garden in 1944, which was regarded a similar failure because of equally poor intelligence and dire consequences for civilians. This game, featuring horrifying imagery of the consequences of war on soldiers and civilians, ends with the operation unaccomplished and the player-directed unit being demoralized, but nevertheless having faith in further phases of the war (retrospectively motivated, anyway). James W. Creel suggests that the closure of Hell’s Highway was paradoxically uplifting in its allusion to the War on Terror and hope for a final victory since World War II had been won despite the operational failure.[45] Yet if we consider the demotivating tones of the whole game, the implicit ideological message of Hell’s Highway seemed ineffective, the story being assessed by a British journalist Kristan Reed as “overblown, and, towards the end, really quite cringeworthy”.[46]

Secondly, the constant ideological remembrance of such historical battles as the Normandy beaches, Stalingrad, and Pearl Harbor became counter-productive. The discourse, when repeated without refreshment, turned out to be unconvincing, and the depictions of historical conflicts lost their attraction, as the meta-narrative of the New American Patriotism was still the same.[47] When Activision realized that moving the World War II setting to fictionalized modern conflicts in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007, Infinity Ward) “made the game more exciting to the players”,[48] the developers shifted to political fiction while maintaining the militaristic discourse to justify U.S. military aggression. Conversely, a new trend began to infect military shooters. The bonus horror episode of Call of Duty: World at War, in which the player could battle against zombified versions of the Nazis, became more popular than the game itself.[49] Thus, World War II in military shooters turned itself into a dead project, and the military–entertainment complex sought new methods of persuading the audiences to intervene in the Middle East.

However, the relocation of U.S. military forces to Iraq to counter an increasing regional threat from the so-called Islamic State gave the American government new arguments for maintaining the position of primary guardians of the global order. The military–entertainment complex seems to respond to such trends, with Activision and Gearbox Software recently announcing the development of new games set in World War II.[50] Thus, the question of American imperialism is being reintroduced. The living dead of WWII-themed games are rising from their graves, thus forcing us to indicate the renewed articulation of New American Patriotism.

 

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[1] David A. Clearwater, Full Spectrum Propaganda: The U.S. Military, Video Games, and the Genre of the Military-Themed Shooter (McGill University) (2006), p. XIII.

[2] Nick Dyer-Witheford, Greig De Peuter, Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games (Minneapolis: Universiaty of Minnesota Press) (2009).

[3] Nick Dyer-Witheford, Greig De Peuter; see also Marcus Schulzke, “Serving in the Virtual Army: Military Games and the Civil-Military Divide”, Journal of Applied Security Research, 8.2 (2013), pp. 246–261.

[4] First-person shooter (FPS) is a genre of digital games based on shooting at enemy objects and moving within three-dimensional game worlds where the player can manipulate the point of view by steering the mouse.

[5] In the Readers’ Top 10 poll for an American gaming magazine Computer Gaming World, the debuting Quake was placed immediately higher than the Steel Panthers and Panzer General games, which were listed there for several months. See “Readers’ Top 10”, Computer Gaming World 150:1 (1997), p. 42.

[6] Frank J. Wetta, Martin A. Novelli, “Now a Major Motion Picture: War Films and Hollywood’s New Patriotism”, The Journal of Military History 67:3 (2003), p. 861.

[7] Frank J. Wetta, Martin A. Novelli, p. 861.

[8] Their objects of analysis range from movies about World War II, like Saving Private Ryan (1998, Steven Spielberg), The Thin Red Line (1998, Terrence Malick) and Pearl Harbor (2001, Michael Bay), to modern warfare, like Three Kings (1999, David O. Russell) and Black Hawk Down (2001, Ridley Scott), to the American Revolution, like The Patriot (2003, Roland Emmerich).

[9] Michalis Kokonis, “Intermediality between Games and Fiction: The ‘Ludology vs. Narratology’ Debate in Computer Game Studies: A Response to Gonzalo Frasca”, Acta Universitatis Sapientiae, Film and Media Studies, 9.1 (2015), pp. 171–188; compare Gonzalo Frasca, “Ludologists Love Stories, Too: Notes from a Debate That Never Took Place”, in Level Up: Digital Games Research Conference Proceedings, ed. by Marinka Copier and Joost Raseesne, (presented at the Level Up: Digital Games Research Conference, Utrecht: DiGRA and University of Utrecht) (2003), pp. 92–99.

[10] Espen Aarseth, “A Narrative Theory of Games”, in Proceedings of the International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games (Raleigh, North California: ACM) (2012), https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Espen_Aarseth/publication/254006015_A_narrative_theory_of_games/links/57fb37a708ae280dd0bf9983.pdf, date accessed 14 February 2017.

[11] Espen Aarseth.

[12] Frank J. Wetta, Martin A. Novelli, pp. 865–867.

[13] A term coined by Łukasz Kobylarz, “‘Rambo! Your Country Needs You!’ czyli kino w służbie państwa”, Panoptikum, 7 (2008), pp. 296–302.

[14] A phrase popularized by Studs Terkel, The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two (New York: Ballantine Books) (1984).

[15] Frank J. Wetta, Martin A. Novelli, p. 868.

[16] Nicholas Mirzoeff, “The Subject of Visual Culture”, in The Visual Culture Reader, ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff, (London and New York: Routledge) (2002), pp. 6–7.

[17] Albert Auster, “Saving Private Ryan and American Triumphalism”, Journal of Popular Film & Television 30:2 (2002), p. 102.

[18] Ibid., p. 104.

[19]Retro Gamer Team, “The Making of Medal of Honor”, http://www.retrogamer.net/retro_games90/the-making-of-the-sims/, date accessed 4 February 2017.

[20] Gerald Voorhees, “Monsters, Nazis, and Tangos: The Normalization of the First-Person Shooter”, in Guns, Grenades, and Grunts: First-Person Shooter Games, ed. Gerald Voorhees, Joshua Call, Katie Whitlock (New York – London: Continuum) (2012), p. 103.

[21] Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays (Verso) (2003), p. 6-8.

[22] William Safire, Safire’s Political Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford Dictionary Press) (2008), pp. 30–32.

[23] See, for example, an examination of the Captain America comic book as influenced by up-to-date geopolitics: Jason Dittmer, “Captain America’s Empire: Reflections on Identity, Popular Culture, and Post-9/11 Geopolitics”, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 95:3 (2005), pp. 626–643.

[24] See a comprehensive study of the Americans’ attitude to gun culture: Gary Kleck, Point Blank: Guns And Violence In America (Transaction Publishers) (2005).

[25] Margot A. Susca, “Why We Still Fight: Adolescents, America’s Army, and the Government-Gaming Nexus”, Global Media Journal, 12 (2012), p. 1–16; compare David B. Nieborg, “America’s Army: More Than a Game”, ed. by Thomas Eberle and Willy Christian Kriz (presented at the Transforming Knowledge into Action through Gaming and Simulation, Munchen: SAGSAGA, 2004).

[26] Marc Ouellette, “‘I Hope You Never See Another Day Like This’: Pedagogy & Allegory in ‘Post 9/11’ Video Games”, Game Studies 8:1 (September 2008), http://gamestudies.org/0801/articles/ouellette_m, date accessed 22 February 2017.

[27] Trent Cruz, “’It’s Almost Too Intense’: Nostalgia and Authenticity in Call of Duty 2”, http://docplayer.net/30795749-It-s-almost-too-intense-nostalgia-and-authenticity-in-call-of-duty-2.html, date accessed 28 February 2017.

[28] See Fred L. Borch, “Comparing Pearl Harbor and ‘9/11’: Intelligence Failure? American Unpreparedness? Military Responsibility?”, The Journal of Military History, 67:3 (2003), pp. 845–860.

[29] See Geoffrey M. White, “National Subjects: September 11 and Pearl Harbor”, American Ethnologist, 31:3 (2004), pp. 293–310.

[30] Marc Ouellette.

[31] Ken Silverstein, “Soviet-Designed Weapon Is Still Guerrillas’ Choice”, Los Angeles Times, 6 July 2003, http://articles.latimes.com/2003/jul/06/world/fg-rpg6, date accessed 24 June 2017.

[32] See Robin Andersen, Marin Kurti, “From America’s Army to Call of Duty: Doing Battle with the Military Entertainment Complex”, Democratic Communiqué 23:1 (2009), p. 56.

[33] See Debra Ramsay, American Media and the Memory of World War II (Oxford: Routledge) (2015), p. 170.

[34] Tanine Allison, “The World War II Video Game, Adaptation, and Postmodern History”, Literature/Film Quarterly 38:3 (2010), pp. 191.

[35] Holger Pötzsch, “Selective Realism: Filtering Experiences of War and Violence in First- and Third-Person Shooters”, Games and Culture 12:2 (2007), http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1555412015587802, date accessed 9 February 2017.

[36] See James Campbell, “Just Less than Total War: Simulating World War II as Ludic Nostalgia”, in Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, ed. by Laurie N. Taylor and Zach Whalen (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press) (2008), p. 186.

[37] Espen Aarseth, “Doors and Perception: Fiction vs. Simulation in Games”, Intermédialités 9 (2007), p. 38.

[38] Espen Aarseth, s. 43.

[39] Jay David Bolter, Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press) (1999), p. 15.

[40] James Campbell, pp. 187–188.

[41] Eva Kingsepp, “Fighting Hyperreality With Hyperreality: History and Death in World War II Digital Games”, Games and Culture, 2:4 (2007), pp. 367–368.

[42] Eva Kingsepp, “Immersive Historicity in World War II Digital Games”, Human IT: Journal for Information Technology Studies as a Human Science, 8:2 (2013), p. 64.

[43] Andrew J. Salvati, Jonathan M. Bullinger, “Selective Authenticity and the Playable Past”, in Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History, ed. Matthew Wilhelm Kapell, Andrew B.R. Elliott (New York: Bloomsbury) (2013), pp. 153–167.

[44] For example, in the Soviet campaign of Call of Duty, there is a mission in which the player defends a strategic object known as Pavlov’s House during the Battle of Stalingrad. Whereas the real defense lasted two months before the arrival of supporting Soviet forces, the in-game defense could be easily completed in 15–20 minutes. The historical events are condensed to fully immerse the player in the battle that could not be as intense as on screen.

[45] James W. Creel, “Failure Is Not An Option: WWII, Video Games, and the War on Terror”, in The Game Culture Reader, ed. by Jason Thompson and Marc Ouellette (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing) (2013), pp. 175–187.

[46] Kristan Reed, “Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway”, Eurogamer, 2008 http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/brothers-in-arms-hells-highway-review?page=2, date accessed 24 June 2017.

[47] Brian Crecente, “Video Games Bid Adieu to World War II”, http://kotaku.com/5555349/black-opsvideo-games-bid-adieu-to-world-war-ii, date accessed 24 February 2017.

[48] Seth Schiesel, “In This Electronic War, Momentum Shifts to the Underdog”, The New York Times, 4 July 2010, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/08/arts/television/08battle.html?nytmobile=0, date accessed 24 June 2017.

[49] Adam Rosenberg, ‘Zombies Don’t Belong in Call of Duty — so How the Hell Did They Get There?’, Digital Trends, 2015, https://www.digitaltrends.com/gaming/zombies-dont-belong-call-duty-hell-get/, date accessed 24 June 2017.

[50] Cade Onder, “Randy Pitchford teases new Brothers in Arms game”, http://www.gamezone.com/news/randy-pitchford-teases-new-brothers-in-arms-game-3453060, date accessed 11 July 2017.

 

Moving Image as Political Tool: The impact of neoliberalism on the role of the moving image in postmodern warfare

Bethany Crawford

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 21-36.

Bethany Crawford

Dutch Art Institute

 

 

Moving Image as Political Tool:

The impact of neoliberalism on the role of the moving image in postmodern warfare

Abstract

This research critically examines the interrelation of neoliberalism, the moving image, and postmodern warfare with the intention of determining the impact of the neoliberal influence on the increasingly important role of the moving image in postmodern warfare. Through analysis of a selection of contemporary films, this research attempts to decipher how neoliberalism is pervading culture, both in the West and abroad, and why this is important in the context of postmodern war. As image and screen-based technologies are a dominant element in contemporary culture, it is vital to understand the extent of societal manipulation delivered via these platforms to perpetuate potentially harmful political economic agendas and military incentives.

Key words: neoliberalism, post-modern warfare, warfare, moving image, moving image technologies

 

 

Introduction

 

This paper intends to evaluate the ramifications of the Western political establishments’ conformation to the politically applied neoliberal ideology on the utility and increased dependence of moving image technology in the arena of postmodern warfare, as both a weapon and a societal tool. With a focus on the modern wars that have been the consequence of the neoliberal agenda, this paper will consider the function of the moving image within this political context, with particular emphasis on cultural control. This will allow for comments on the counteractive capacity of artists’ moving image and the necessity of activating an engaged spectatorship in the face of increasingly immersive technologies and manipulative images. The intricate interrelation of neoliberal ideology, war and the film industry is a complex subject of study, as each factor facilitates and necessitates the other. Each element is historically and developmentally interwoven, with political and economic issues being a direct effect and result of motivations in conflicts and industry, and contrariwise. Du