on Monday, October 20, 2014
A while back, I wrote a short review of the scientific results on whether "brain training" games like the Brain Age (devs. Nintendo SDD & Nintendo SPD, various dirs., 2005-2013) series have any cognitive benefits beyond mere entertainment, as their marketing strongly implies. I argued that while it is possible that cognitive decline might be mitigated in certain populations by playing such games, the effect was poorly established and no better (and possibly worse) than other mental exercises, whether they be more traditional activities or any other video game. This question is clearly one that is on the minds of many consumers; search results leading to this post are one of the largest sources of traffic to this blog.

Recently, a group of scientists has issued a statement through the Stanford Center on Longevity that summarizes the current scientific thinking toward such games. The statement, "A Consensus on the Brain Training Industry from the Scientific Community," is available online. It largely agrees with my assessment, arguing that there is no evidence that these games are better than other activities in reducing cognitive decline. It, however, offers new and different citations to the scientific literature that my post did not have access to at the time, and it is written by experts in the field. Please give it a read if you are interested in this topic.
on Monday, July 28, 2014

Bulletstorm, the Shooter Form, and Wuxia Cinema: An Analysis

  • Developer: People Can Fly, Epic Games
  • Director: Adrian Chmielarz
  • First Person Shooter
  • Release: 2011-02-22 (US)
  • Platforms: PC (version reviewed), Xbox 360, PS3

Wuxia cinema is a genre of film that is a variant of the martial arts film. It typically focuses on a martial arts hero's adventure, usually in a melodramatic historical setting and often motivated by an honor code of some sort. In some ways, the genre's characters are analogous to gunslingers in the American Western genre. Stylistically, however, wuxia films of the last few decades have diverged from related genres in their elaborate and extremely extensive use of highly choreographed fight sequences, which often use some combination of complicated wire-assisted choreography, CGI effects, or slow-motion camera work. Its earliest examples date to the 1920s in China (e.g., The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple, dir. Zhang Shichuan,1928), and its fighting choreography style developed into its modern form in the 1960s (e.g., Dragon Gate Inn, dir. King Hu, 1967). Today, the genre is internationally popular with examples from Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000) and Zhang Yimou (Hero, 2002; House of Flying Daggers, 2004) becoming influential worldwide blockbusters.

The integration of lengthy combat sequences with a feature-length narrative is a problem that both wuxia cinema and certain video game genres, such as shooters, must tackle. Historically, the dissonance between narrative and combat in games has been troublesome, with jovial characters like Nathan Drake of Uncharted (dev. Naughty Dog, dir. Amy Hennig, 2007) discussing moral qualms and cracking light-hearted jokes before massacring hundreds of men. Ken Levine, director of Bioshock Infinite (dev. Irrational Games, 2013), brushed this issue aside by comparing it to the musical genre from film and stage:
The shooter part is [...] tricky because like you say it is kind of an odd thing, where all of a sudden all this combat's going on. I think of it sort of like musicals, you know - like you have this story and then all of a sudden everyone bursts out into song.
But this comparison neglects the non-literal function of the musicals' songs to express character development and motivation by controlling the audience's emotional reaction to the score. The music serves thematic, narratological purpose in a metaphorical, non-literal way and is thus necessary to understanding the text. In most shooters, no such essential meaning is created by each violent action required of the player. While the action sequences may convey a vague sense of tension or achievement in the player that is analogous to that felt by the avatar character, they rarely move beyond such simplistic identification.

Though the use of violence in a variety of films, such as the work of Quentin Tarantino, is instructive when considering its implementation in games, here we will focus on the wuxia example. A number of wuxia films have elegantly used combat as a non-literal, expressive tool that is essential to the films' thematic meaning. Take, for example, Zhang Yimou's Hero. The film recounts a variety of past occurrences from several subjective points of view. The elaborate, unrealistic fight choreography teaches the viewer of the unreliability of the narrative, while highlighting that the essential aspects of these memories may not be the historical veracity. Instead, emphasis is placed on the motivations for the fights, with the beauty serving as a stand-in for their nobility of cause. The fights inspire a sense of wonder and inevitability in the viewers, while also contrasting how such honorable actions have inherently contradictory aspects of beauty and horror. The viewers come to understand that these subjective tensions are the true story of a people's history. This construction of thematic meaning is similar to how music functions in the musicals of Levine's analogy, but it is a good deal more sophisticated than a typical first- or third-person shooter.

It is here that we come to Bulletstorm (dev. People Can Fly & Epic Games, dir. Adrian Chmielarz, 2011), which seemingly has tried to implement the lesson that wuxia teaches about meaningful, non-literal combat. Much as in a film like Hero, Bulletstorm's frequent combat sequences are outlandishly unrealistic and, in a sense, choreographed. While most shooters ask the player use the avatar to kill other characters, they typically do so in such a way that encourages optimization of killing efficiency. The best weapons available should be coupled with the safest tactics to ensure progression through the game via the quick elimination of enemies. Bulletstorm still asks for optimization of a sort, but it asks for the maximization of an arcade-game-like score. The score is increased by finding interesting ways to kill the enemies, such as through particularly gruesome wounds or combinations of various tools, such as environmental hazards and a lasso-like leash that the player controls. On the surface, this stylistic gameplay initially seems more closely related to games like the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series (various devs. & dirs., 1999-2014) than to the most popular forms of shooters, such as the Call of Duty series (various devs. & dirs., 2003-2013), that Bulletstorm nominally calls its kin.

Bulletstorm is not the first shooter to center its premise on score maximization through killing technique, but it does notably diverge from past attempts. The Club (dev. Bizarre Creations, dir. Martyn R. Chudley, 2008), for example, attempted something similar, in which a score was maximized by maintaining a combo meter that only stayed active if a consistently quick pace of killings was maintained. This sort of score-earning structure, however, largely results in the same sort of optimization motivation that a standard, narrative shooter encourages. The player both scores well and progresses through the levels by quickly and safely eliminating all enemies. The aesthetic effect is the same old vague sense of tension and achievement. Bulletstorm achieves something different from previous score based shooters by asking the player to improve killing style rather than killing results. In this way, the combat becomes choreographed, with the player acting as a choreographer with the assistance of the the game's list of possible combos.

This style-optimization goal is further removed from result-optimization through several related design choices. The points scored by the player serve a secondary purpose of being a currency that can be used to purchase new abilities for the various weapons. Most of these weapons and abilities, however, are side-grades rather than upgrades, and points are accumulated quickly enough that all options can be easily afforded in a short amount of time. The abilities therefore serve primarily to increase the player's repertoire of moves available during fight "choreography" rather than to strengthen the player such that progress can be made.

The function of the leash is the second major design choice that encourages thought about the aesthetics of the kill. Notably, it is the one "weapon" that is incapable of directly damaging an enemy. Instead, the leash provides the opportunity to manipulate the positions of enemies such that environmental hazards, melee attacks, or weapon fire can be more elegantly combined in the enemies' destruction, especially when the melee kick attack is combined with the leash for more precise enemy positioning. Further, time slows for all game elements except the player avatar when the leash is in use, allowing complicated combinations of attacks to be executed while the leash and kick rearrange the enemies. The types of kills that these mechanics encourage are not the optimal kills from a purely narrative or game progression stand point; they are typically more complicated, riskier, and slower than a more standard direct confrontation of weapon fire would be. Our choreography of the combat therefore shifts our interpretation of the game and introduces new ways of relating to the game's characters.

The characters and narrative interact with these mechanics in a number of interesting ways. On the surface, the plot of Bulletstorm is fairly typical of other shooters in that an action hero player-avatar, Grayson Hunt, must defeat the bad-guy, General Sarrano, before escaping the war zone. Hunt, in command of a small squad of soldiers on board a small spaceship, initiates the plot by drunkenly attacking the spaceship commanded by Sarrano, Hunt's former commander, to attempt revenge for Sarrano's past actions. This attack results in both ships crashing to the planet below, killing most of Hunt's crew, except for his friend Ishi, who is maimed and converted to an unfeeling cyborg during an interrupted surgical procedure. The two soldiers, along with a woman named Trishka that they meet along the way, hunt down Sarrano hoping to defeat him and to use him to get back off the planet. The planet itself is an apocalyptic, abandoned amusement-park city, with several aggressive and monstrously deformed species of inhabitants that make up the bulk of the combat enemies throughout the game.

As we saw in Hero and other wuxia films, consideration of choreographed combat in a subjective, non-literal sense can reveal aspects of character perspective and motivation that may not be immediately apparent from a surface level interpretation of this rather standard plot. Indeed, Hunt's character development is fairly nuanced. Prior to his falling out with Sarrano, Hunt held a highly skilled, difficult, and important position as the leader of his squad. His self-worth was reaffirmed by society and peers through his work performance. But upon defecting from his position under Sarrano's command, he was made aimless, grasping at meaning through an ill-conceived quest for revenge. By resorting to alcohol, he creates a surrogate for his lost mechanisms for creating self-worth. He drinks because his skills as a soldier are of no further value in his everyday life. Increasingly, he his seen as incompetent by squadmates, which Ishi continually reiterates once they are on the planet. The artistic killing, then, acts as an escape and restatement of self-worth for Hunt. It now functions for Hunt much like the alcohol does; it is an ecstatic release that brings past achievements back to the present, affirming Hunt's value to himself. Hunt seems to recognize this aspect of his skills. In Act 4, Chapter 3, he gleefully shouts, "Badoom! Killing as an art form!" Ishi notably is unable to recognize the aesthetic achievements of Hunt's kills, perhaps partially because of Ishi's new cyborg form, but, luckily for Hunt, time slows during these kills, providing a respite from Ishi's criticism. (We might also read this divide between Ishi's and Hunt's perspective as a small statement on the valuation of non-technical skill in society. Ishi fails to see value in the beauty that Hunt can create with his combat skills.) By positioning the player as choreographer of Hunt's maneuvers, Bulletstorm is able to leverage the escapist nature of many video games as a way to induce empathy with Hunt's need for a way of dealing with his changing position in society.

It is hard not to also read Bulletstorm as a statement about how its genre can function as art (recall Hunt's exclamation: "Killing as an art form!"). It seems to want its audience to consider whether games can achieve the same level of meaning through combat that wuxia cinema has, or whether we must resign ourselves to brushing it aside as Ken Levine's statements seem to suggest. From the outset, Bulletstorm calls explicit attention to the common trappings of its genre and its own position as part of that lineage. In the midst of the earliest tutorial segments which introduce the standard controls of all modern FPSs, the dialogue ramps up to a hyper-masculine, crude, violent, and ridiculous register - an obvious pastiche of the similar language presented with deadpan sincerity in series such as Call of Duty. The game even threatens to continue in that direction, soon dropping the player into a flashback in a far more conventional FPS setting, complete with military-esque dialogue and a colorless office building setting, before it aborts that thread and brings us back to the bizarre planet on which Hunt is stranded.

That planet is a giant caricature of popular shooters. Within the narrative, it was once a resort planet, practically one giant amusement park. We see the abandoned rides, entertainment devices, and concession stands everywhere. All are either non-functioning or functioning in a pointless way, like the newsbots who spew news to no one. It is a visual metaphor, suggesting the state of this genre - a defunct amusement that longer functions in a useful way. (Yet this planet is also full of gorgeous set pieces, perhaps suggestion its aesthetic potential.) The savage enemies that Hunt and Ishi encounter are mutated humans that once lived on or visited the planet, and now fall into three distinct factions. These factions seem to be playing out their own shooter-game amongst themselves, as they can frequently be seen to be fighting amongst themselves. Their fighting is chaotic, inelegant, and perhaps without any purpose, in stark contrast to Hunt's ability to move among them through the use of highly choreographed fighting.

Other shooters, such as Spec Ops: The Line (dev. Yager Development, dir. Cory Davis & Francois Coulon, 2012), have questioned how a shooter can function thematically as art. But while Spec Ops merely points a finger at the questionable aspects and potential failures of the form, Bulletstorm suggests a way forward. By suggesting the use of stylized combat to functionally create meaning, much like the way that combat functions in wuxia cinema or song functions in musicals, Bulletstorm creates a cohesive thematic depth that exceeds that of most of its peers. Perhaps it doesn't go far enough, however. In the late levels of the game, Bulletstorm seems desperate to increase its difficulty in line with the typical difficulty curves of other shooters. It does so by throwing large number of enemies at the player, requiring more optimally and quickly executed kills and thereby removing much of the aesthetic freedom that it built up so carefully throughout the game. Perhaps if the Bulletstorm had committed just a bit more fully to its central conceit, eschewing any attempt at a typical difficulty curve or a sequel-bait ending, it might have drawn a bit more critical attention and had a bigger impact on the state of the genre. Nonetheless, it remains one of the most important formal experiments in the shooter genre to date.

For reference, a (probably incomplete) critical bibliography of the Bulletstorm discourse follows. If you can point me to other discussions, I would love to include them.
  • Richard Clark used Bulletstorm as an example of an indefensible depiction of violence. As one can probably guess from my discussion above, I strongly disagree with this interpretation.
  • The same author took a similar view in an opinion piece at Gamasutra.
  • Craig Wilson notes the relationship (archived version) between Duke Nukem Forever's (dev. 3D Realms, Triptych Games, Gearbox Software, & Piranha Games; dir. George Broussard, 2011) ostensible style and the mechanics of Bulletstorm.
  • G. Christopher Williams discusses whether Bulletstorm sufficiently telegraphs its irony and camp elements to warrant a serious interpretation that relies upon them.
  • In comments made prior to the release of Bulletstorm, Gus Mastrapa observes that it could potentially function in a way akin to film's Starship Troopers (dir. Paul Verhoeven, 1997). 
  •  Over at The Mediocrity Codex, a piece discusses Bulletstorm's emphasis on score. I don't think this reading goes far enough. It identifies how Bulletstorm kinda pulls the rug out from under the concept of score, and in doing so reveals how standard FPSs work, but the author never notices that in doing so the aesthetic potential of the game is liberated.
  • Most mainstream video game review websites wrote about the game, and the ensemble took a generally positive stance toward the game. Though their commentary is typically fairly shallow, they represent an important record of social opinion toward the text.
on Thursday, December 5, 2013
Jeff Wheeldon recently published an article entitled, "Video Games, Texts, and Interpretation," over at Push Select. Its central thesis argues that the fundamental frameworks that we use for thinking about artistic works other than video games do not apply to video games because games cannot be treated as texts (where we are using the word "text" in the literary sense of a coherent set of signs original and inherent to an object of analysis). His argument wanders through Francis Watson's non-standard usage of the terms "work" and "text" and touches on the role of authorial intent before winding up at the main crux of the discussion. Wheeldon asserts that "a video game puts the player, the reader of the text, into the shared role of authorship." (Emphasis his.) Ultimately, he claims, this essentially renders the game non-static among players, and it thus cannot be treated as a text in the traditional sense.

This argument makes little sense. Indeed, the very act of aesthetic analysis implies a text that is the subject of the analysis. That statement, however, perhaps avoids Wheeldon's point, because one might better phrase his argument as saying that each game player is analyzing a different text due to their subjective experience arising from their "shared role of authorship." Such a claim, however, is really just an appeal to complexity. Wheeldon is mistaking the variable aspects of the subjective experience of a text, which exist when experiencing any sort of medium, for changes to the text itself, merely because there are a larger number of variables in the subjective experience of games than in certain other media.  This difference is perhaps easiest to see by way of examples in some of those other media.

Consider first linear, primarily narrative media such as feature films and novels. Wheeldon seems to easily identify these objects as texts when they are the subject of analysis. In these cases, the text is the synchronized and sequenced images and sounds in the case of the film and the sequenced characters and words in the case of the novel. All viewers and readers are attempting to identify meaning in these well-defined sets of symbols. Their experiences of these symbols, however, are not necessarily uniform. There are many obvious potential differences.  Viewing or reading locations may differ, changing the physical  and emotional state of the audience, or past knowledge and experiences may change what information can be gleaned from the text. Technical details like lighting conditions, font size, book bindings, screen size, page-turning speed, etc, will affect emotional impact. Though such experiential differences may affect any one audience member's ability to produce an analysis of the text or the emphasis of such an analysis, these are, for most purposes, clearly distinct from the text.

The scope of these experiential differences can be even larger for other media, though. Consider sculpture or architecture. The viewing patterns for these objects vary wildly with each viewing. In addition to many of the aformentioned complexities of the linear narrative forms (lighting, etc), we have 3-dimensional space with which to contend (note the similarity to many video games). Still, traditional criticism has had little difficulty analyzing such texts. We can enumerate endless other examples (music, poetry, performance art, etc) with their respective difficulties, but in all cases we have little difficulty identifying a text for discussion.

The same is true of video games. In this case, we have a system of rules, video assets, and audio assets as our text, and the player interacts with that text just as the audience does in the case of any other medium. The veneer of agency that most games offer is not far removed from the other experiential differences that we have discussed. One explores a 3-dimensional game world as one would wander around a sculpture (imagine, for example, walking through Sandy Skoglund's "Fox Games"); one chooses levels or scenarios as one might choose the order to view a series of paintings (like, perhaps, Monet's Haystacks series). In all cases, the rules and assets were put in place by a developer as a set of signs that convey meaning to the player -- the definition of a text. That text is static among players, and it is the subject of analysis that we discuss when writing about video games.

It is curious that Wheeldon has chosen to argue against this paradigm. He mentions several times The Stanley Parable, which (in both its incarnations, the 2011 mod and the 2013 game) takes the non-agency of game players, and by extension the textual nature of games, as one of its central themes. Campster, over at Errant Signal, recently described this theme eloquently:
Players in game systems aren’t free, they’re exploring a text with rules put there intentionally by an author.  The Window Ending, for example, references how players will eventually explore both paths to consume all of the content: [example] The Stanley Parable posits that thinking a player’s choices signify free will in a game is like thinking fictional characters have free will over their own actions when the whole text is already written out before them.  Your choices in games aren’t decisive in nature, but instead they’re exploratory; you’re not making lasting decisions but you’re choosing a branch of possibility space to examine.  You don’t have the freedom of choice, you have the walls of rules and mechanics that give shape and meaning to the game even as they confine you.
As in all novels, films, sculptures, and other art, this is true of all games. Even the simplest games are texts quite dense with information, so it is easy to mistake the variables that create experiential differences among players for an authorial agency. But it is indeed a mistake, and games are texts like any other. Games criticism must integrate the unique aspects of these texts in a way that has not been done for other media, but it is an extension of other aesthetic theory, not a break (an idea that I have tangentially touched on in the past).
on Thursday, August 15, 2013
It would be very peculiar indeed if a critic were to publish an academic essay on an abridged version of Gravity's Rainbow or a version of Eraserhead with explanatory voice-over added. Not only would this hypothetical critic's experience be far different from that of countless other readers or viewers and thus not generally applicable, but he or she would be writing of a totally different work of art with an additional author other than Pynchon or Lynch. Let's eliminate this complication and assume that Pynchon himself abridged the novel and Lynch, in his odd drawl, added the narration to Eraserhead, both artists doing so to aid the less experienced audiences in understanding the work (perhaps because their distributor insisted on such a version). We would still have a problem with these secondary works and their use in the critical discourse on the primary works. Part of this problem is just the aforementioned issue of disparate experiences, but there is a second issue related to the artists' decisions when creating the works. At least one of the two different (hypothetical) versions of each of these works must not be the maximally effective version for conveying the artist's themes. We tend to recognize this immediately with abridged versions of novels, because large swaths of content and style, which the author clearly intended to be a contributing factor to the interpretation of the novel, are missing. We could argue that something similar happens with the voice-over example, but in this case it is an issue of excess: every part of the work is not contributing maximally to the thematic content, and some pieces may now even be subverting or distracting from it.

Gravity's Rainbow and Eraserhead are, of course, quite difficult texts. They are not suitable for all readers and viewers because it takes a certain familiarity with the grammars of their respective mediums to make meaningful sense of them. As such, they are inaccessible to most of the populace. Few people take issue with this fact, though.  We accept that certain artistic achievements require some amount of training to apprehend. We work up to them, and we train our children with simpler works. At times we may use abridgement or adulterated videos as teaching aids, but we do not view these teaching aids as an end in themselves. We accept that an artists work, with each element chosen to be maximally effective in service of its themes, may naturally present a certain amount of difficulty, which may be large or small, to its audience.

Why, then, do we insist on multiple versions - that is, multiple difficulty settings - of each video game?

My comparison of video game difficulty to literature and film is certainly a highly flawed one. I am comparing apples to oranges in that video games alone offer relatively simple routes for the author to implement variable difficulty within the primary work. Further, difficulty is rarely used as a direct mechanic in any medium other than games; in other media, it is usually simply a by-product of a particular stylistic technique. This is a very significant difference because it suggests the possibility of variable difficulty being a device that can carry thematic meaning in and of itself. But my comparison to literature and film still has some suggestive relevance to video games because the majority of games, especially narrative-driven games, are not using variable difficulty as a direct mechanic, but, rather, include menu-based difficulty settings to maximize the appeal of the game to a variety of audiences. This use of difficulty settings implies that game designers are not typically using in-game difficulty with thematic purpose, but instead, they are injecting it for some tangential purpose, such as consumer demands or mere tradition.

In April and May of 1842, Edgar Allan Poe published a pair of reviews in Graham's Magazine of Nathanial Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales. These reviews would go on to become quite well-known and influential pieces of literary criticism owing to their careful delineation of the significance of the short story. Poe celebrates the short "tale" as a genre, particularly because of its ability to sustain a "unity of effect" owing to its total consumption by the reader within a single sitting.  He notes that such a unity of effect requires of the author that "there should be no word written" which does not contribute to the "pre-established design." Most video games, of course, are not consumed in a single sitting and thus do not sustain a single unity of effect quite as Poe imagined for the short tale (though Poe might well have been impressed by our ability to serialize such effects as we do with modern TV and games). Nonetheless, his concept of the unity of effect is an instructive one.

At every point in the creation process of a work of media, the artist is making a representational choice with every piece that goes into the work. Likewise, the audience is making an interpretive choice at every moment in the experience of that piece. Each aspect of a work of art is a tool for creating meaning in some way, and something like Poe's unity of effect is achieved when all of these pieces are used together effectively in service of theme. If a game designer abdicates responsibility for feelings of frustration or achievement and tense focus or casual relaxation, then the designer is abandoning a portion of the thematic control the medium offers. No longer does the designer have any information about the emotional state of the audience at any given moment, and thematic meaning through game mechanics may be lost. There is no unity of effect, for at any point various aspects of the game may be working against each other emotionally. For these reasons, I suggest that it is not enough to simply take user-controlled difficulty settings as a given necessity and merely discuss various attitude toward them (as people have done, for example, here, here, and here). Instead, designers and critics must address this problem more fundamentally. They must ask what difficulty means in a given game, and seek to wield it as a tool for creating meaning. At times, this may mean removing control over such aspects from the audience.

I imagine that many players and designers would view the sacrifice of such user control as something that approaches sacrilege. To anticipate some of the objections, I note that I am not advocating a wholesale abandonment of variable difficulty - I am advocating its careful application with artistic purpose over haphazard adherence to convention, which at times, especially in some narrative-driven games, may mean abandoning difficulty settings. Perhaps it is no accident that many of the most artistically acclaimed games, such as Braid or Ico, lack the community-mandated difficulty options menu. Others might object to a lack of user-controlled difficulty settings from a more practical angle: customers expect them, so their removal might be a financial mistake. I suspect that this objection rests on faulty assumptions, because I doubt that any reliable statistics exist regarding how this would affect sales. Still, if it is an issue, it could be easily mitigated. In Valve's multiplayer shooter, Team Fortress 2, the default settings cause a warning to pop up if a player tries to join a server with more than 24 players. The message warns that the game has been designed for 24 or fewer players, and may not create the same experience with more than that. Because it is relatively simple to implement features like reduced or increased difficulty, designers could accompany alternate settings with a similar warning.

The demand for players to have endless control over their in-game experience in all cases, such as with difficulty settings, is a symptom of how much of the populace views video games. In demanding such features without regard for thematic meaning, we are treating games as consumer products rather than artistic media. Surely some aspects of consumer demand inform all media, but I would prefer that we treat games more like we treat film and literature and less like we treat microwave ovens and lawn mowers. If we are to move in this direction, we must view every game design decision in terms of its artistic meaning and its effect on the player. Re-evaluating how and when we utilize variable difficulty may be an important part of such a refinement.
on Friday, July 26, 2013
There is a peculiar, though perhaps not wholly unexpected, trend in the way many people view and describe the experience of video games: players are demanding "immersion." Though this word is often ill-defined, it usually refers to something like the player's ability to fully identify with their avatar to the point of "losing themselves" in the game.

In some discussion forums, this word pops up in nearly every discussion that makes value judgements on games. For example, as of 2013-06-26, about 5% (360 out of 7260) of posts on Reddit's TrueGaming subreddit, which purports to be dedicated relatively serious games discussion, take "immersion" as their subject, and the subject arises in thousands of other posts in the comments sections. Authors of games criticism often take immersion as an a priori desirable facet to any narrative game, as Stu Horvath did in a recent lamentation of his inability to feel the frailty of the characters of The Last of Us. This assumption seems faulty, and I suspect that games criticism is doing itself a disservice with its obsession with 'immersion.'

But before we get to that, it's perhaps best to clarify the concept of immersion a bit. Players are not referring to the "immersion" of typical academic discussions of art, which is characterized by maximal illusion of reality (i.e., attempts at virtual reality; see, e.g., Grau's Virtual Art). Instead, when players talk about immersion, they are really referring to an aspect of narrative distance, to use more standard literary terminology. In narratological studies of literature (and, by extension, other narrative texts like film and games), narrative distance refers to the 'separability' of the narrator's point of view from the story presented. Put another way, it is the extent to which the audience feels directly involved in the narrative - does the narrator place the audience's perspective directly into the story or is the perspective removed from the action? To a large extent, narrative distance is a stylistic choice of the author, but it is also impacted by the audience's approach to the text, as Film Crit Hulk illustrated in a recent article about audience reactions to spoilers. So far, there hasn't been all that much talk about these concepts as they relate to games in formal sense, although Matthew Schanuel almost hit upon upon it over at the Ontological Geek, albeit in a rather limited sense.

The issue with gamers' obsession with immersion is that it is formally limiting. It is a similar to the problematic nature of discussing game in terms of how 'fun' they are, as Campster over at Errant Signal discussed last year. Briefly, Campster takes issue with 'fun' as a critical term for games both because it is ill-defined and implicitly excludes a wide variety of modes of engagement with the player (e.g., can a game convey feelings of suffering, rage, or cautious reason if it strives only for an ill-defined 'fun'?). These same issues arise with the term 'immersion.'

To begin with, the term is presently far too ill-defined to be useful critically. A simplistic reading of 'immersion' suggests that it is increased by minimizing narrative distance. Taken most literally, this suggests that first-person games rendered realistically with no HUD, cutscenes, or menus should be most immersive and, if immersion is a priori desirable, most successful. This definition excludes much of the term's usage, though. Engrossing third-person RPGs and MMOs (and even, sometimes, 2D platformers like Limbo) are often held as pinnacles of immersion, as a quick Google search will readily demonstrate. And while many players disable HUDs to increase immersion (indeed, many PC games have modifications available that remove HUD elements), it is not self-evident that this tactic actually does increase immersion in the sense that many players mean. Roughly aiming a gun in the real world, for example, is relatively intuitive even if one is not looking down the sights, thanks to our natural spatial awareness of our body parts. In a first-person shooter, the crosshair usually acts as a crutch to simulate this awareness. Removing it may counter-intuitively decrease immersion by forcing the player to more consciously consider the aiming mechanic itself. When using the term 'immersion' critically, these alternate interpretations are not usually made explicit, so the term loses any explanatory force.

Perhaps the more worrying aspect of the immersion obsession is how it limits the formal options that we tend to assign to games. Let's return to considering literature and film, for a moment. Most bestsellers attempt relatively low narrative distance. The work of Dan Brown or romance authors typically places the reader close to the action, taking omniscient points of view while emphasizing the physical and sensory aspects of plot advancement. Similar approaches exist in blockbuster films. This approach is obviously quite successful in terms of interesting consumers, and it can create great empathy with characters. If we widen our net a bit, however, other successful options become apparent. In the canon of classic literature and film, many of our most revered texts are those rife with formal experimentation. (We will not mention other media, such as poetry and sculpture, that typically make no attempt whatsoever to create anything like immersion.) A work like Joyce's Ulysses, frequently considered among the greatest novels ever written, is hyper-allusive, carefully structured, and full of word-play. In short, it employs many techniques that require a large narrative distance to fully appreciate, and it thoroughly discourages long-term immersion despite the elaborately realized world that it creates. Even more extreme is something like Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler, which alternates between the second and third person points of view, telling the story of the reader's attempt to read various novels. This novel self-consciously plays with point of view and narrative distance to examine how the reader-author relationship informs the act of reading and how that, in turn, affects our lives. Immersion is acutely broken in these works in service of their themes, and the effects achieved by doing so could not have been obtained through other means.

By implicitly asserting that immersion is always a desirable quality, we are discouraging the analogous formal avenues in games.  While there will always be experimentation in the independent game development sphere, the obsession with immersion likely limits the ability of more mainstream development to use new and experimental devices in their game design. Perhaps more troubling, this tendency toward the praise of immersion limits the directions that we take in the critical discourse on games. We should not always be asking how a particular game could be made more immersive. We should not take immersion-breaking devices to be flaws in a particular work. Instead, we should be asking how different devices and narrative distances function within a given game. These are choices that game developers must consider when creating their game. If immersion is broken, we should not discard that as mistake but instead seek to understand how it alters the creation of meaning for the player by the game. If we encounter the game-equivalent of If on a winter's night a traveler, we must ask why the game is calling attention to our gameplay, not ask for a different game.

Games certainly have a unique ability to draw us into their worlds. That ability to create immersion opens up thematic pathways that are closed to other media, and that feature is often rightly praised. But surely games can also do other things. We already see this experimentation popping up in a range of recent titles, from the frenetic jump-cuts of Thirty Flights of Loving to the direct address of dys4ia. Let us not dsicourage the spread of such experimentation, and let us not do a disservice to games that do experiment with narrative distance by doing them a critical disservice.

For additional interesting reading on the concept of immersion, see Jamie Madigan's article over at The Psychology of Video Games or the High Level Storytelling Design article at Frictional Games's blog.
on Thursday, September 27, 2012
Sexism in gaming is most frequently discussed in terms of objectified women in scant clothing that pervade action games. But let's not forget other, arguably more insidious forms. Like this deal from Amazon: The Viva Big Bundle of Games for Girls. Because girls certainly only care about Riding Academy 2 or the classic, My Boyfriend. Anyway, here's a screenshot of this wonderful collection in case the promo page gets taken down when the sale is over:

I find it pretty awful. Why not just call it something like the Kids Animals Pack or something and omit My Boyfriend?
on Tuesday, September 11, 2012
A recent paper by film critic Thomas Elsaesser (Elsaesser, T. 2011, New Review of Film and Television Studies 9, 247) offers an interesting take on how certain Hollywood  movies invoke interpretation in the spectators. (You may want to at least skim it before reading this post.) He posits that a new sort of auteurism ("post-auteur") has arisen, and he discusses it by analyzing the work of James Cameron, especially his Avatar. In short:
This (for lack of a better word) post-auteur authorship can usefully be discussed in the case of Cameron under several headings: auto-representation and personalized narrative, affective engagement with diverse publics, ambition to effect through technology a change of paradigm. The first I shall discuss as 'control through access for all', the second as 'control through switches of premise and double binds', and the third as 'control through performed self-contradiction'.
The control that is essential for any auteur theory is thus manifesting itself in a new way. Without reiterating the whole analysis, Elsaesser argues that Cameron carefully systematizes control of the audience's reactions by presenting mixed signals that induce cognitive dissonances. These dissonances "provoke the spectator into actively producing his or her own reading, in order to disambiguate the 'mixed messages' or to untie the knot of the double bind." Each spectator, then, arrives at a reading of the text that is at once at odds with the film and other readings but which results in a stronger "'ontological commitment' on the part of the viewer to his or her particular interpretation – a commitment that works in favour of the affective bond formed with a given film."

But what does this have to do with video games? It strikes me that this is essentially a description of how interactive media functions with its audience. The narrative contradictions that create this effect – dubbed "cognitive switches" by Elsaesser – manifest themselves in games as player choice. The dissonance that a filmic auteur like Cameron can choose to create in his audience is inherent to all interactive media by virtue of the changing experience from play-through to play-through. While Avatar induces different experiences in the spectators' minds, interactive media makes these differences literal in the text. While an author of interactive media may be able to achieve a level of control that fixes the number available readings, the default mode of creating meaning is one of these cognitive switches because the player is forced to make ontological commitments toward a particular reading with every interactive choice.

Game critics often compare interactive media to filmic media, and we often interpret games using cinematic modes of thinking. Game developers, too, clearly follow many cinematic conventions in structuring their games. Most commonly, this approach manifests itself as a straightforward discussion of narrative structure and visual presentation. These modes of interpretation lie squarely within the bounds of classical narratological arugments and types of spectatorship such as the voyeurism of feminist film theory. But these methods are clearly inadequate for games, which require ludic approaches as well. In games, the spectator is empowered, so we cannot, either in design or interpretation, use only passive approaches in our thinking. We cannot apply passive film theories to active games.

What film critics like Elsaesser make clear, however, is that filmic media, especially within certain recent trends, also create meaning within an active context analogous to that of games. We see this spectator empowerment emerging prominently with the rise in popularity of "puzzle films" or "mindgame films" (see, for example, Puzzle Films: Complex Storytelling in Contemporary Cinema, 2009, ed. W. Buckland, West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell for an extensive treatment or the extensive bibliography over at Film Studies for Free). Auteurs such as Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, Charlie Kaufman, M. Night Shyamalan, and others are disorienting spectators in ways that reward detailed pattern recognition, and they are crafting films with viewing experiences that are substantially different on subsequent viewings. To extensively quote Elsaesser from his chapter in the aforementioned Puzzle Film edition,
[T]he main effect of the mind-game film is to disorient the audience, and put up for discussion the spectator–screen relationship. The notable emergence (some would argue: reemergence) of mind-game films since the mid-1990s would be one sign of this "crisis," to which they are the solution at a meta-level.... [T]he mind-game films set out to aggravate the crisis, in that the switches between epistemological assumptions, narrational habits, and ontological premises draw attention to themselves, or rather, to the "rules of the game." These rules, in addition to what has already been said about them, favor pattern recognition (over identification of individual incidents), and require cinematic images to be read as picture puzzles, data-archives, or "rebus-pictures" (rather than as indexical, realistic representations).

Thus, what appears as ambiguity or "Gestalt-switch" at the level of perception, reception,and interpretation is merely confirmation of strategy at the level of production and marketing: with the mind-game film, the "institution cinema" is working on "access for all," and in particular, on crafting a multi-platform, adaptable cinema film, capable of combining the advantages of the "book" with the usefulness of the "video-game:" what I have called the DVD-enabled movie, whose theatrical release or presence on the international film festival circuit prepares for its culturally more durable and economically more profitable afterlife in another aggregate form. Which would lead one to conclude that the mind-game films make "mind-games" out of the very condition of their own (im)possibility: they teach their audiences the new rules of the game, at the same time as they are yet learning them themselves.
We thus see that recent films have activated the spectator by changing their artistic mode, and that this style is partially driven by the multi-platform, database-like way that we now consume media. Just as cinema has so informed how we structure games, there is little doubt that games have changed how we consume cinema.

What I hope to accomplish with this post is to demonstrate that filmic media, especially in the last few decades, activates its audiences in ways apart from narrative and cinematic images, which are the typical, but insufficient, points of comparison to games. These films empower the spectator to discover their rule-sets and make ontological choices, not unlike players do in games. The grammar of film studies is well-developed, but critics are just beginning to grapple with these new types of active interpretation and consumption. As game critics grappling with the same difficulties, we would do well to understand how an active audience informs our understanding of film, because that will certainly inform our understanding of interactive media as well.