Quite a bit of early (or at least earlier) videogame criticism strove to prove videogame exceptionalism. Videogames had a gift, and it was called interactivity. And while the concept of interactivity eventually proved more suffocating than liberating, for a time it felt like videogames actually were unique and by playing them players actually were using their time meaningfully (“Ye olde interactivity paradigm.” Normally Rascal. Jul 7 2014.). Of course, a game needn’t be interactive or even digital to be meaningful, and assumptions to the contrary no longer seem universal. Paradigms shift, thank God. Interactivity does not need to be prominent or even relevant for a game to work and often interactivity directly prohibits a player from connecting with a game (Filipowich, Mark. “Who Needs Interactivity?” PopMatters. Nov 26 2013.). If there is a foundation to experiencing games, it isn’t interaction, it’s abstraction.
Games communicate their abstractions through the player’s surrogate body; ideas are abstracted through audiovisual technology, writing and systems to provide narrative context for play inside a set of rules (Filipowich, Mark. “The Narration and Abstraction of Bodies in Games.” bigtallwords. Mar 5 2014.). Just as games abstract meaning through a digital avatars, they abstract meaning through a digital lens. Videogames, however, complicate vision in the way they interact with playable characters. The player dictates tone and subtext through their relationship to the game’s cinematic framing of the avatar and the camera’s direction further changes how a game can be understood. Visibility of a character can dissociate the player from their avatar or it can challenge the player’s relationship to the fiction (Trambley, Kaitlin. “First-Person Perspective and the Untroubled Gaze.” Medium Difficulty. Dec 22 2012.). Regardless of whether the player-character is actually a character or merely a window into the world, a player’s control of vision frames the world and informs the player what they are supposed to take from it. What the player is able to see and the lens they use to explore the world reshape the player’s objectives, their sympathies and so on. For instance, the degree to which the avatar is visible changes how the player relaters to it (Ruch, Adam. “First Or Third Person – What’s Your Perspective?” Kotaku Australia. Apr 18 2011.). Power and agency in games are connected to the camera as much as they are connected to the player’s behaviour in the game.
When Mario runs, the player’s perception runs with him. Even though Mario is a player’s virtual surrogate, a good deal of the player’s agency comes from control of the camera. Challenges are introduced at the pace of a camera that keeps Mario at the centre of the screen, keeping focus on him. The camera’s position relative to Mario associates the player with him: he is the literal centre of the world. The player knows to identify as Mario (or Link or Lara Croft or Wander or whomever) because the camera maintains constant focus on them and offers a player a panorama of their world. Centring the camera on this character grants them the player’s power to move the plot; focus and centralization is only broken to purposefully disrupt the player’s sense of efficacy (more on this in a bit). The player’s position as the avatar is even reflected in language. It’s perfectly natural to conflate the player with their character. When describing how to overcome a tricky obstacle, we refer to the one controlling the PC as the actor (You have climb that vine; I jumped over the cliff). The association between the player and PC is created by the player and their shared power of the camera. Enemies remain dead so long as the player’s powerful gaze lingers on their habitat, they are only able to respawn when the player looks elsewhere. However, since only rarely is the visual content of games based on a captured still or moving picture of material reality, players must instead understand images as abstractions fitted to suit the rest of the game’s content.
When a player walks through a town and sees only three houses with five non-playable characters repeating the same line of dialogue, that is not a true representation of a town or its citizens. Towns don’t exist in games, just as towns don’t exist in film either. Sets exist, and they’re decorated to not seem like a set, but game sets don’t have the virtue of replicating content from the physical world. Rather, the navigable and visible sections of a town in a game are the abstraction of information aesthetically important to the developer’s work. Similarly, the repeated lines of dialogue are not the NPC’s repeated speech: “what we are reading is not meant to be a representation of what they are saying as such, but an abstract distillation of the information they presumably impart when prompted.” (Fair, Zack. “A Functional Definition: 55 Theses on Final Fantasy VII.” Uninterpretative. Mar 9 2013.). The town is not literally three houses large, because the town is literally non-existent. The player is meant to understand the town as “the sleepy fishing village,” or “the proletariat factory district,” “the post-war ruin.” They use the camera’s abstractions as context for the current events of the plot, the creatures encountered at that place and so on.
Cinematography abstracts the player’s relationship to their character and to the game’s world and it has important directorial applications that colour how a game is understood moment to moment. The changing shots of the PC’s location and surrounding can make them seem small, or safe, or slow, or weak. Camera work in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons illustrates the titular brothers’ place in their world and the scope of their challenges (Swain, Eric. “Cinematic Framing in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.” PopMatters. Nov 5 2013.). In his article, Swain also cites Resident Evil and Silent Hill in his analysis as games that manipulate the camera effectively to communicate relevant context. In the first three Resident Evil games, the camera is fixed above or behind the player and cuts sharply as the PC moves from one location to the other. Movement is slow and controls are regularly hampered by jarring scene transitions. But since Resident Evil is a horror game that succeeds or fails by horrifying the player: limited control and fast, awkward jump cuts limit the player’s autonomy. The sense of horror is largely created by the player’s smallness and decentralized position on the screen. Likewise, the Silent Hill series typically submerges its player in a thick cloud of fog to obscure vision. Not coincidentally, the player’s lack of vision overlaps with a feeling of powerlessness because power is directly tied to the ability to see.
A similar dynamic occurs with Metal Gear Solid‘s isometric perspective which, while hardly conducive to gunfighting, emphasizes Solid Snake’s greatest danger: being seen. The player’s avatar is always visible and their own visibility is severely limited. When Snake is outside of cover, the camera shrinks Snake to a tiny splotch scuttling from cover to cover, preventing the player from seeing any distant enemies and limiting their effectiveness in a gunfight. From cover, however, the player is able to see long stretches of distance while keeping out of sight. Visibility alternately isolates and endangers the player and empowers them against unsuspecting NPCs. The camera is both a weapon for and against the PC and constantly shifts the sense of power and anxiety in the flow of the game.
Stealth games operate on the player’s ability to remain outside the enemy’s vision. There’s perverse power in viewing somebody without their knowledge and more than any other genre, stealth games exploit this (Filipowich, Mark. “Voyeurism in Stealth Games.” Joystick Division. Jan 17 2012.). Note how often in a stealth game (or even a stealth segment of a non-stealth game) the player is able to see a nameless NPC going to the bathroom, or read their personal journal or listen in on a private conversation. It’s rare for games to show bathrooms or toilets at all because normally the abject qualities of life aren’t shown unless they serve a purpose (Tremblay, Kaitlin. “Abandonment Issues and Abject Subjectivities in Borderlands 2, Bioshock 2, and Baldur’s Gate, Too.” Medium Difficulty. Jun 1 2013.). Remember that visuals serve as an abstract representation—a set, which only reveals what needs to be seen to serve a purpose. Toilets are a reminder of unpleasant realities of the human body, yet Metal Gear Solid, Goldeneye, Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive, Deus Ex and several other stealth games or stealth sections involve viewing an NPC using a toilet. The reason is that stealth games deal explicitly in the power of vision and they use it to capture an unnamed person in an undignified position to convey a sense of voyeuristic power. Moreover, the objective of a stealth game is to remain unseen, to prevent the powerful camera from objectifying the PC.
There’s an established connection between viewing and power in fictive art. Sauron in The Lord of the Rings takes the form of a towering, all seeing eye; the advertisement of Dr. Eckleburg has faded completely but for a pair of bespectacled eyes looming ominously over The Great Gatsby; In Breaking Bad, Walter White keeps an eye removed from a stuffed bear for several seasons so it can menacingly stare into the audience. Likewise games use the gaze as often to empower as to unsettle (Brown, Jef. “Think the NSA is bad? Games are masters of surveillance.” Kill Screen. Jul 21 2014.). The stealth sections of Batman: Arkham Asylum and its sequels are thrilling in part because they come with the voyeuristic pleasure of seeing people who can’t see you back; meanwhile Portal dehumanizes the player by lining the walls of Aperture’s test chambers with obscured glass offices and frosted viewing windows. The subject-object relationship of the gaze dramatically alters the narrative qualities of a game.
Take XCOM for example. The player is referred to clinically as “the commander.” The XCOM facility has heads for its scientific and engineering division—respectively Drs. Vahlen and Shen—as well as a general overseer who is so personality neutral I’m not going to even bother looking up his name and instead call him Doug. The three managers are the main characters of XCOM while the voiceless, bodiless player is not actually a character at all. The player is a disembodied eye with total vision of the facility and its staff, assessing statistics in combat and organizing tasks for the human personnel working for XCOM. Characters will refer to the commander in cutscenes as if they aren’t there, even though by virtue of watching the cutscene the commander must clearly be somehow be present for the conversation. Therefore, I submit that the player in XCOM is not actually a person, but rather a program or an AI developed to organize and assess the alien war—more an eye than a person.
This has small but meaningful implications in reading XCOM. The paramilitary spy agency is guided by a detached watchful program, not a human being. Dr. Vahlen’s cruel pragmatism in devising new methods of killing and Dr. Shen’s moral quivering take on new meaning when understood as reaction to a machine’s consultation. The player has no tangible presence in the world; rather they juggle resources and probabilities from between the facility’s walls and above the battlefield. For all that the aliens relish in the uniqueness of the human race as the galaxy’s pinnacle of psionic talent, it’s actually the player—an eye managing the organization’s dice rolls—who brings the humans through the war. Intentional or not, it’s not human psychic potential or technical versatility or military experience that win the day: it’s the commander’s ability to watch.
Games aren’t special. Sometimes interactivity has an aesthetic effect and sometimes it doesn’t. But as works that deal often in the fantastic and the surreal, games communicate more in how their representations are abstracted for the player. Representations can be communicated by the player’s influence on the game, but power dynamics remain dependant on the camera’s language. The camera does as much to provide context as the player’s own body in a videogame. Most of what goes on under a videogame’s surface is influenced, if not determined outright, but the way that the camera frames the player’s behaviour.
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Law, Alex. “Player-Character Dynamics, Identity, and Sexuality in Video Games.” Nightmare Mode. Jul 13 2013.
Megill, Anna. “A Guide to Video Game False Equivalence.” Anna Megill. Dec 10 2013.
Alexander, Mitch. “Queer Mechanic #5: Queering the Male Gaze.” Gay Gamer. Mar 3 2014