I’ve been considering how space makes meaning in games. I’ve been considering this not only in response to my past writings, but also to some amazing responses from some of my favourite games writers. Earlier this year I wrote down a bit of my own stumbling through the dark in pursuit of how games focalize and abstract through the avatar and the lens (“Narration and Abstraction of Bodies / the Camera in Games.” bigtallwords. Mar 5 / July 25 2014.). I think that I might be on to something but I’ve been working it over in my head after both Zolani Stewart and Stephen Beirne contributed their own voices to the topic (“Expressionism and Sonic Adventure 2.” The Fengxii Box. Nov 7 2014; “Framing Identity – or: How Can I Be Both Lee and Clementine.” Normally Rascal. Nov 11 2014.).
In an effort to summarize my admittedly disorganized and largely informally built writing: a game focuses and creates perspective through the camera, similar to other visual arts but with the player contorting the gaze to their own whims, while the avatar creates perspective and focus into a game’s fiction. To varying degrees, the camera and the avatar subjects the player while also allowing them to enact subjectivity. The eye produces subjective power in the player by allowing them to control what is seen while the body limits subjective power by constraining what is possible in the systems of play. The body makes action in response to the player’s eye, and often the player and player-character are alienated from one another; abstractions of meaning are communicated by systems and aesthetics, they then shape how the player views and behaves. Like I said, it’s messy and I’m working on it but this is a blog so let it go.
Space, then, becomes important because it mediates subjectivity through the player’s ability to act: the player controls their gaze and their avatar responds to button presses. Example: in Left 4 Dead, I am a floating eye who can move anywhere, sit and wait forever, control the focus of what I see, scream “Molotovs! Molotovs over here! Molotovs! Hey there’s a Molotov!” until none of my friends will look me in the eye anymore. I am not Louis, but in moving him and seeing the world through his eyes I dictate what his values are. I frame the world for Louis and therefore compose what makes Louis Louis by envisioning the world around him. However, my actions are limited to shooting a gun, smacking things with a gun and throwing those fiery bottle things, whatever they’re called. Louis becomes independent of me in the limited ways his body can function in the game’s space. I cannot break down barricaded doors or light a signal fire on a roof any more than I can stop the zombie apocalypse by performing the dance in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, no matter how much I want to, because Louis’s scope of behaviour is limited to his gun. I am alienated from Louis because I don’t know how to shoot a gun and he doesn’t know how to choreograph the undead.
Maybe (and I’m sticking with maybe because this is my blog and I can do what I want and you’re not my real dad), the relationship between the player’s powerful gaze and their alienating body can be mapped onto structure (langue) and praxis within that structure (parole) in the way that language exceeds its use through use. (UPDATE: meh. Maybe not).
Space becomes increasing meaningful in a game like Left 4 Dead because of how it is designed to be viewed. I just said that, as Louis, I can control how he views the world but that’s only sort of true. Left 4 Dead demands speed and efficient movements. If I stop for too long, a horde of infected swarms me and my team. If I break from the standard path I am punished: if I focalize (that is, view as an agent) the world how I want to focalize the world, not asLouis should focalize the world, we are both punished by hordes of infected punching us in the back of the head. We must be quick. If we look into a room it must be for one of a very small number of resources. These resources are highlighted white with big tutorial boxes telling us to grab them while Louis boasts, “grabbing a molotov!” When rushing from room to room, Left 4 Dead‘s level design is impressively detailed and realistic. The apartment buildings, suburbs, hospital wings and so on are representative of what one could expect to find in reality. But looking up close, the walls are too bare, the floors too clean, even the streets and blood stains and bodies strewn about are decoratively sanitized and anaesthetic. There’s no room filled with Larry Adamson’s collection of Magic: the Gathering cards or photos from his traditional Scottish wedding or his framed GED and paralegal certificate hanging on the wall. There no sense of humanity in the space.
There is no personality in this space because this space is representative of actual space. We aren’t in an actual farmhouse, we’re in the representation of a farmhouse. It’s impressive because it is designed to be viewed through a dim flashlight as zombies flood through windows and broken doors. Just as set designers in film, theatre or photography design only what meant to be seen to represent the ideas of their images—or writers will only describe setting insofar as it is meaningful to other pieces of narrative data—a game set holds meaning in how it is designed to be seen. A player’s subjectivity is limited by the actions they are compelled to take. A depersonalized setting works for Left 4 Dead because the world is a playground. There are no people except those who must be shot, and the infected really aren’t people, are they? There are traces of other people in notes, pictures and memes scribbled on the walls of the safe room or in the soft rattling of machine guns in the distance (that this sound is almost comforting in the quiet moments between events means more than I want go into now, but still: food for thought). The safe house gives the player the only space where they are asked to stop and look at something, the only moments of humanity are scrawls from faceless players playing in a depersonalized world of moving targets. The only time where the player is encouraged to embrace their subjectivity is in the tiny breaks in the safehouses, where they might find distant traces of other survivors all doing the same thing as them in some untouchable reality.
Contrast it with the camera and body in Curtain (Dreamfeel. 2014.). I’m going to ask you to stop reading here and take the 30 minutes needed to play Curtain before you read on.
Curtain puts the player in the role of an independent rock musician in an abusive relationship with their alcoholic, insecure lead singer. The creators describe the game as lo-fi, which is true but it understates the beauty of the colours and sounds of the game. It is not photorealistic, but its abstractions make it more representative of its subject and subject matter. The game takes place in the shared apartment of the player, their girlfriend and their drummer. The player begins with an approach to their building, trawling through the indistinguishable apartment doors until they find their own. Their own space, their home, is blurry and uniform. But in closely inspecting the bottles along the counter, the pizza boxes on the coffee table, the instruments leaning against the wall, and on and on, the player opens text boxes from their girlfriend, who comments on their life through their shared space. The apartment, as it taken in through the player’s gaze, becomes the player themselves. Importantly, the player is just an eye into a home, without a body to express independent subjectivity; just as importantly, their only mode of interaction with the world is through the comments of their disembodied, abusive girlfriend. Yes, the player holds subjectivity in viewing the world at their leisure, but it is the girlfriend’s voice that composes how the player-character is seen and how she understands her world.
As the player walks between two experiences of abuse—the experience of a manipulative lover promising that things will get better and the experience of that same lover turning on and dehumanizing the player—they finally leave their girlfriend. However, they only leave after the girlfriend has said all that she is going to say, after her voice has defined the player-character’s sense of self and sense of home. They leave after the girlfriend’s abuse has defined the player-character. The game ends with the player looking into a mirror for the first time and seeing nothing. The player, though they have the power of the gaze, has no body, no means of action, no separate agency because they are defined by the emotional abuse of their ex-lover. When given the chance to focalize and to be the object of focus, the player and player-character see nothing because abuse lingers even after the abuser is gone.
This all takes place in the context of the home. Where Left 4 Dead‘s setting is representative and detailed at a distance and in motion, Curtain‘s setting only comes to life under a microscope. Curtain makes home dangerous and lonesome at the same time in the same ways as the kind of abuse it wants to talk about.
Of course, both of these games only deal with the player as focalizer, not as focalized. They do so to remarkably different effects, but they illustrate differences in being a subject in a system and subject to a system. In both, the player is able to control how the game is taken in and their player-character’s values through the data they absorb. But in both cases, that same data only holds meaning when the player accepts the system and takes in the data according to the system they’re participating in. Furthermore, this is only scratching the surface of how ludic actors break away from the player’s subjectivity through the limited ways they are capable of acting.
Like I said, this is just a blog post. Some of my thoughts on a subject I have wrestled with for some time now. It’s a conversation I find deeply fascinating, and maybe even useful so I hope more discussion continues. I would like to pursue this deeper but for now I’ll leave this here and hope that more become involved.
Further reading: Polansky, Lana. “The Edge of The Ocean.” Bit Creature. May 9 2014.
Bull, Iris. “draft – to proceed: an exploration of games and learning.” Feminist Games. Nov 12 2014.
Beirne, Stephen. “Project Zero 2‘s Projector Room.” Normally Rascal. Oct 31 2014