About a week ago, Kirk Hamilton writing for Kotaku posted a link to a video essay called “Keep your politics out of my video games.” I don’t usually pay attention to this sort of thing, but Kirk Hamilton is one of the smarter regulars writing for Kotaku (though Leigh Alexander is also a favorite of mine). I wasn’t as interested in the video portion, good as it was, as I was in what he had to say, and in a few short days I’d watched a good deal of what he’s posted over the last few months (he does about one or two video essays a month, it seems, and collaborates on live commentary on some of the sites he links to).
I just wanted to say this. There are a number of people writing about games and their cultural importance. These people are smart, and talented, and worthy of your time. I’ve already mentioned Alexander and Hamilton. Below you’ll find a link to Kate Cox’s page. I think you’ll agree that no one is writing more intelligently about the Mass Effect series. Add to this short list Chris Franklin, an independent game designer, who has a lot of surprising opinions about games and what’s good and what’s not. I don’t always agree with him, and from time to time he gets details wrong, though on large-scale issues he is rarely less than spot-on. And it doesn’t matter that I don’t always agree with him. It’s hard to be this interesting, this often. I’m guessing he already gets lots of web traffic, but for those few of you who have never heard about him, go listen to what he has to say.
More than this Errant Signal has presented me with a chance to revisit (and I hope correct) one of the dumbest things I’ve ever said on this blog. In my series on Indoctrination Theory, I made the grave error of adding a footnote where I write the following:
[G]ameplay is about as important to the actual narrative of the game as the quality of the paper is to the narrative of a book. [see “Indoctrination and its discontents: Part II”]
I remember this phrase stuck with me, mostly because I think even then I had a notion that I was dead wrong. When you consume enough of Franklin’s work, say about four or five of his essays (they’re pretty long, so make sure you go to the bathroom before you hit play) you’ll eventually come to the same conclusion. My statement is dumb and it’s incorrect.
Let me explain why. A careful viewer of cinema knows that the thing that brings a motion picture to life is not the actor’s movement within the frame, but the movement of the camera from shot to shot, and that montage functions as a kind of visual language that can create a number of effects, the most familiar of which are probably suspense and vertigo. Even if you don’t believe this statement at face value, think of the way a film or TV show directs your gaze toward what it wants you to look at, the way footage shot and performances given out of sequence are fitted together to make a whole. The way these things are stitched together means something.
Consider for a moment the sequence in the first episode of Breaking Bad where Walter White collapses. A moment later we see him in the ambulance, exchanging a look with the paramedic. You can see in the paramedic’s eyes that something is about to change for poor Walt. The very next shot shows him being fed into an MRI machine, only the camera shows him entering upside-down, from the top of the frame. This image continues into the next shot, where we see Walt’s reflected image in the shiny surface of the doctor’s desk, and doubled again, as the camera pans up to show Walt sitting there, listening to the doctor speak. The meaning couldn’t be more clear: the reversal of direction in the MRI shot suggests death without saying it; the double image of Walt in the next shot appears to suggest that Walt is in fact hovering between these two states: he’s alive for now, but ultimately he’s a dead man. As the show progresses we’ll come to understand that there are a number of other ways of interpreting the image (i.e. the doubling suggests, for instance, the two personalities contained in that one body: mild mannered Walt, and his criminal alter-ego, Heisenberg).
In a game the player’s gaze is only semi-directed. A designer can suggest where we might look through disposition of objectives, or enemies or loot, but during gameplay where a player looks is largely up to their own desire. Thus our gaze is only part of what creates meaning in the game. How else then can a game create meaning? How does a designer make us feel something, other than the tension of surviving to the next checkpoint?
Well, through gameplay, says Franklin. If a film can suggest meaning through montage, then a game must do it through play, meaning the way that a player (and their on screen avatar) interacts with the constructed environment. For instance, one game that gets this relationship wrong is The Last of Us, a good game where the narration only takes place during cutscenes, which is to say that instead of allowing gameplay (the ludic mode) take on some narrative duties—through many different means—the designers instead turn to the cinematic mode instead. Franklin sees this as a mistake, though not one that makes the game unworthy of our interest. Another example might be the way the marines that accompany you in the Halo series can be killed. One of the more memorable experiences for me in playing those games was the way a crowd of voices would slowly (or sometimes quickly) fade away into silence. I often remember getting chills, realizing I was alone.
For better examples of what I’m talking about, I’d suggest you simply stop reading and just navigate over to his site. You’ll find a link to it above in this article, and below in the blogroll.
I think you will be happy you clicked the link.