Plights of Game Overs

Tons of scholars (that I can’t link to because of licensing issues with academic libraries) have argued that survival horror video games are the quintessential video game genre.  I’ve gotten into more than a few debates on this point.  While, yes, survival horror video games are a great genre, they aren’t necessarily the quintessential genre.  The biggest reason for this?  All video games are inherently survivalist. 

Now, this probably sounds like a bold claim, and your first instinct is probably going to be to rally against it. It’s not that I have anything against survival horror video games—I’m defending my master’s thesis tomorrow on the Silent Hill franchise. Survival horror video games only seem quintessentially video game-y because they consistently have a distinct lack of ludonarrative dissonance that other genres seem to dabble in a bit more. Perhaps that’s not really fair since Resident Evil gives you control of a special tactical force officer and he/she seems like quite the novice because of the game’s clunky tank controls. But disregarding this issue, the gameplay and mechanics of survival horror games are often consistent with another thematically. Players want to survive just as the characters want to survive and both are willing to do what’s necessary to continue surviving. This often relegates players and characters to running or killing monsters, but rarely humans (without good narrative cause, like for continued survival in The Last of Us).

But returning to the core concept that all games are inherently survivalist. Virtually all games require the player and protagonist’s survival for continued play until the end-state. While there are a few games that toy with this concept (I can only come up with the flash game Five Minutes to Kill Yourself and its sequels, but I’m sure there are more), almost all video games require survival up-to and through the narrative in order to initiate the game’s final end-state. Which may result in death itself, as with Journey, or may not. What matters though is not so much being chased by monsters or the protagonist’s realization that their survival is threatened. Instead, it’s the progression to that end state and the player’s desire to survive and avoid game overs as much as possible.

To prove this point, I’ll look at a few different games from various eras and genres: Pac-Man, Final Fantasy VII, and Grand Theft Auto V to show the supposed differences in these games, and how they actually function similarly.

Pac-Man is one of the greats, and it truly has a very simple formula: eat the pac-dots, avoid the ghosts, eat the fruit, eat the super pac-dots to eat the ghosts.  As the many game overs I got as a kid shows, the game pushes players into an end-state before forcing the player to begin again.  In a less narrative game, like Pac-Man, this isn’t the most terrible thing because it allows players to re-experience the game’s agenda of eating dots and running from ghosts.  Instead, the game over end-state renews the game.  For this classic arcade game, the lack of narrative doesn’t really punish players because it simply re-starts the procedure.  The player often doesn’t realize their goal is survival for two main reasons: one, it isn’t blatantly explained to players that they’re expected to survive, it instead becomes apparent through the game’s mechanics and continued play; and two, the (original) game does not have a successful end-state, but rather a kill screen that results in Pac-Man’s death and end of the player’s game.  They player guides Pac-Man around, helping him survive the ghosts to ultimately kill him anyway.  However, because of the skill required to hit a kill screen as the end of the programmable game, gamers find it

The second game I’ll look at is also very popular and well-known: Final Fantasy VII.  Unlike Pac-Man, FF7 has a very strong narrative that sets several goals throughout the game’s progression.  While the over-arching goal is to find and kill Sephiroth, there are more minor goals along the way that keep distracting the player from their mission, even as they feed into that same goal like collecting better weapons, more powerful materia, and many additional side quests as well.  The game does punish players with game overs if they fail in various fights, and forces players to pick up the plot at their last save point.  This could mean hours of game play for the less-responsible player, or sometimes just several frustrating minutes that are relived over and over as the player struggles to beat a boss (like me and the Demon Wall on my first play through).  With the exception of Aeris (who dies anyway), the entire game is centered upon the player’s ability to survive through the battles and complete the narrative tasks and events to finally make it to the final boss area and defeat JENOVA and Sephiroth.  Again, the game highlights the narrative quest’s goals rather than the mechanically functional goal of survival, but Final Fantasy VII is, at it’s core, a game about continued survival.

Contrary to these two older games is Grand Theft Auto V, which doesn’t punish player for dying and makes very little fanfare over death by simply dropping the protagonist (any one of three) outside the hospital with slightly less money in their pocket.  Also unlike the other two games, GTAV can be played with a narrative focus or simply goofing around and committing crimes for fun rather than following a specific goal.  With such a unique selection of options for game play, the player can do basically whatever, including cause as much mayhem to raise their wanted level to the maximum before the police finally kill them.  This is probably the most well-known stereotype of the GTA games, but even while playing in this way, players are expected to survive as long as possible—even if the end result is, much like Pac-Man, death.

Despite the thematic and narrative differences between these games, each game requires basic survival to continue progression, thus hughlighting one of the games’ true–but hidden–themes of survival. Most games don’t actively promote survival as the key component to making the game, but it is virtually always present as an expectation and pre-requisite for successful game play.

Playing the Message

When I first started reading Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message,” I had a hard time equating his article to more than strict formalism. He clearly states, “Indeed, it is only too typical that the ‘content’ of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium,” and much like his statement, his article left me blind to the relationship between form and content that I’m often much more concerned with (though you’d probably never guess it from this blog). My first thoughts for this post focused on the relationship between McLuhan’s concepts and those provided by Clint Hocking’s definition of ludonarrative dissonance in Bioshock. While I’m less interested in Bioshock (it’s a great game, but not something I feel like writing about currently), Hocking and McLuhan together pose the great debate of video game theorists—ludology or narratology.

Admittedly, I’m somewhat a novice in this area. Like many media forms, there exists a rigid boundary between how to look at games. Ludologists find themselves concerned with how the game functions and its playability while narratologists focus on the content of the game itself, such as the characterization, themes and narrative. There is much heated debate between the two camps, and while some argue that both should function in tandem, games have difficulty successfully bringing the two together to create an effective, meaningful and fun experience—hence the overwhelming existence of ludonarrative dissonance.

While some games successfully navigate this relationship (Klankstatic suggests Journey as an option by using mechanics as metaphor), others just can’t quite seem to get it. By no means does this mean a game is unsuccessful, bad or simply not fun, it just means that McLuhan would likely argue that the message has failed the medium’s presentation of it. He claims, “Many people would be disposed to say that it was not the machine, but what one did with the machine, that was its meaning or message,” and many games, like Hocking’s Bioshock example, can’t reconcile this; neither the game’s mechanics nor narrative is really affected by how you play it. Sure, you get a different ending—but that ending is merely one part of the narrative and not the point of the narrative.

Take Spec Ops: The Line, which rather effectively uses its mechanics as metaphor by creating internal panic within the player through both the game’s ludology and narratology. Captain Walker and his partners are on a mission to locate survivors in Dubai following a devastating series of sandstorms that completely destroys the city. However, as they travel farther into the city they are bombarding with soldiers as they press deeper into the city in search of survivors—killing hundreds in the process.

This game’s greatness rests in more than its ability to illicit emotions through the narrative. Instead, its such a perfect game because it makes the player feel guilty for the act of playing by accepting and participating in its method of hailing you (Althusser’s “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” but that’s a much longer blog post) by doing exactly what it tells you to do. No actions change the overall outcome of the game, Captain Walker is basically always going to have irreparable psychological damage, when you’re given an option of what civilian to save they all inevitably die. Often, it’s Walker—and therefore you as the player—ordering and causing their deaths anyway.

The most memorable game sequence for me, and many others I’m sure, is the white phosphorous scene. In order to pass an area full of “insurgents,” Walker and his men locate the deadly chemical weapon.

The following moments involve tense conversation between the three men before exiting the cut-scene and returning to gameplay. Players are rewarded for accurately raining the incendiary upon what you moments later discover are civilians. While it sounds as though these events—the player intentionally acting upon such violence as opposed to the personal enjoyment at succeeding the mission—are at odds, they work so effectively together to combine the ludology and narratology. In this instance, the player’s guilt is built entirely upon the action of playing, of causing the horrific pain and suffering that splashes all over the screen a mere seconds after successfully completing the mission. Spec Ops: The Line’s place as a member of the video game medium is the message, just as much as the narrative itself creates meaning in Walker’s actions.   Watching this as a film or cut-scene would easily instill fear or disgust, but guilt can only occur as a result of causing it.

Benjamin and Beginning the Blog

For our first session, my professor and I discussed Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” While I’m still struggling to find a voice for this blog, please humor me with five thoughts that crossed my mind as I re-visited this text. First, do video games have an aura?

For Benjamin, “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (38). The authenticity of a work is entirely dependent upon its origination; this makes perfect sense. Original works, the true originals at least, have a distinct uniqueness to them that Benjamin refers to as the “aura” of the work. However, modern video games ostensibly have no “original” form—as in, there is no one true copy of the video game itself.

What we players get instead is a copy of the work for our own enjoyment, to play at our leisure. Although new historicists and many others can obviously argue the game does have its own place in time (just look at any modern shoot’em-up), there is no modern concept of the “original” in video games anymore—but there used to be.

Take the classic arcade cabinets of the Golden Age: Space Invaders (1978), Pac-Man (1980), Centipede (1981), Donkey Kong (1981), and that’s naming only a few. Each of these games had hundreds of game cabinets produced and probably nearly as many refurbished at this point. However, did these classic games emit an aura in the way Benjamin suggests a work of art should? Do they still?

It’s hard to say. I know, that’s a cop-out answer. Historically, video games, like film, began as a social and communal act. Friends would gather at an arcade and consume the games just like the machines were consuming their pocket change—quickly, with an insatiable hunger. The cabinets themselves were viewed as entertainment, much like modern video games. But these cabinets offered the unique experience of interactively creating individual entertainment within a community. Each game had its own aura; players developed preferences between dodging barrels and shooting centipedes (or that damn spider, I hate that spider). Players and non-players enjoyed the games in multitudes of venues and were regularly enthralled with the technology in front of them.

Contrary to Benjamin’s claim that “by making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence,” mechanically reproducing more cabinets only enhanced the game’s experience because it opened it up to a larger audience. Although this is typically regarded as a positive aspect of mechanical reproduction, it does seem to infringe upon the aura of the original in some regards. But here’s the beautiful thing about video games—the originals are never truly available for the public, so it is never threatened by reproduction; rather, mechanical reproduction enhances it because more people can experience it.

The aura of the game, unlike other media, exists in the idea of the individual game, rather than the game itself. This is unlike the artworks Benjamin considered, but if the aura rested with the original game itself, it’d be a buggy mess that no one could make sense of. Instead, the aura rests within the player’s experience of the game and interactively making the events unfold in the final, finished version that is immediately distributed to the public. As a twenty-something that was born after the Golden Age of arcade games, I still feel giddy and excited when I walk into my local arcade and stand in front of that Centipede machine, which is nestled between both Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man. This is exactly why each of the big game companies offers a backlog of the classics for digital download (another form of mechanical reproduction, somewhat unique to video games, that we’ll discuss in part two). This is exactly why used game stores can still exist. Players love the experience of these classics, of actually playing them.