Blog Post

Less Simulacra, More Rock

Masterpiece indie game designers Superbrothers made a recent foray into trying to understand the video game as media and find out why, despite the massive budgets and even more massive fanbases, Final Fantasy and Metal Gear Solid are so bad.  Well, maybe I'm letting my own feelings on the subject bleed into their explanation, entitled Less Talk More Rock and originally delivered at whatever passes for an independent game developer conference these days.

Most interesting to me is the idea of the less texty, less reality-grounded videogame as somehow more pure than the typical expository Super Famicon-type that supplanted them (referred to as Hyrule games, after the mythical land found in the Legend of Zelda series, which is held up as the texty evil twin of Super Mario Brothers).  Superbrothers blames this on committee:

Meanwhile, our modern day Hyrule videogames, well, there's a sadness here isn't there? The sadness is that the man who pioneered all this rock has allowed committees and middle managers and random stakeholders to choke these videogames with needless, often incoherent, and always disruptive talk.

Sometimes there are spaces where the old magic exists, when you are seeing things, hearing things, spotting patterns, flowing through spaces, experiencing moods and locations. But often our experiences are pierced by disruptive, dissonant elements: overlong and condescending tutorials, over-explained idiotic stories and a million other stupidities.

These kinds of things stir our intellect, forcing us to switch gears and pay attention, but what they have to offer generally isn't worthy of our attention. To me these kinds of things are repulsive, evidence of a deficient imagination or a lack of videogame literacy on the part of the creator, or simply evidence of a committee. These things break the spell, they're an invitation to quit, and they exist in 99% of the videogames I've played.

The entire thing is an unintentional recapitulation of Baudrillard's argument about simulacra, even down to how the simulation of the thing that never existed (and here we can firmly put Italian plumbers jumping on evil, walking mushrooms while fighting a giant, evil turtle for the hand of a fair princess, all the while trying to knock coins out of bricks with their heads) is divorced from the simulation of the real, which still exists within the pre-modern power structure despite its hollowness.  I wonder if Ico and Super Mario Brothers and the like could be considered the hyperreal.  It's all made me pick up a fresh copy of Simulacra and Simulation and try to understand how our mixed system of simulated real things and simulated unreal things interact and affect the way we deal with our (semi?) real lives.

Also, the Superbrothers reference an interview with Jordan Mechner (whose Prince of Persia is about to become a big budget movie, though cast with caucasians and set in a generic, fantasy, polytheistic Persia--the original game was never as captivating as the stark, nearly storyless and emotionless Karateka) that can be found here.

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2 comments

Very interesting, Elijah, as always. My first response (to the Superbrothers) is, "Have you not played Bioshock yet?" While it's just one counterexample, Bioshock is one of at least a good handful of games that are built on "the old magic." Think, perhaps, of Portal, Psychonauts, Heavy Rain, and others before we even need to go back to Super Mario Brothers, Karateka, and their ilk. And what about the Zork series, A Mind Forever Voyaging, and the other all-text games that predate the Nintendo generation?

But what really gets me - and always has - is Baudrillard's insistence on labeling everything as simulation. I've always felt that to be misleading at best, and often disingenuous and downright demeaning. Of course, I've also always felt that Baudrillard intended to demean modern society and technology. The idea of "the simulation of the thing that never existed," seems to minimize the presence and value of narrative. Similarly, the elements that "break the spell" for the Superbrothers, those things that they dismiss as "repulsive, evidence of a deficient imagination or a lack of videogame literacy on the part of the creator, or simply evidence of a committee," could simply be seen as less-than-perfect attempts to include narrativity. These creators are trying to tell a story, if you will, and they get tripped up by the "telling" part, not realizing that there are other ways to tell stories (especially if we think about the "show, don't tell" maxim taught in creative writing).

But narrative is important. It's important to gamers, to developers, to human beings in general. If it weren't, game creators wouldn't bother with their clunky attempts at it. As Marie-Laure Ryan writes in her book Avatars of Story:

“It may be objected that creating a narrative is not the point of adventure/action games. Computer games are mainly played for the sake of [achieving various goals], and not for the purpose of creating a trace that reads as a story. The drama of most games is only worth experiencing as an active participant; it is meant to be lived and not spectated. Yet if narrativity were totally irrelevant to the enjoyment of games, why would designers put so much effort into the creation of a narrative interface? Why would the task of the player be presented as fighting terrorists or saving the earth from invasion by evil creatures from outer space, rather than as ‘gathering points by hitting moving targets with a cursor controlled by the mouse’?”

This isn't to say that narrative is or should be the sole aim of games; if it were, we would need only stories, not games. But I find Baudrillard troublesome because of his general dismissal of narrative in the name of re(-)presentation and simulation (McLuhan and Derrida are sometimes in this boat, too).

Rather than going to Baudrillard, it seems to me that the Superbrothers are really complaining that the narrative portion of too many games is clunky or less-than-artful, but they unwittingly and ungenerously dismiss this as the work of "committees and middle managers and random stakeholders" rather than a sincere artistic struggle with storytelling in a relatively new medium. Sometimes the suits do get in the way, but for an industry whose technologies, rules, and aesthetics are always in flux, that's hardly a fair or useful criticism to level at everyone.

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While I keep telling myself I'm going to try out Superbrothers' game when it arrives, I find that the only games I've played in the last few years are roguelikes and interactive fiction and "texties" (you know, the old Sierra and Lucasarts classics, before the mouse-interface ruined my abilities to type "ask about antwerp" and "play astrochicken").  I think, rather than textual narrative breaking the spell (and here I think that we need to focus on textual narrative versus linear narrative, as Superbrothers game has all the signs of being extremely linear, like Super Mario and the many other games held as examples of 'rock', just without any text), it's just as you say, that textual narrative brings with it all the drawbacks of writing, or maybe just the one drawback of writing: that there are very few good writers.

I find myself re-reading, re-playing and re-considering Zork almost incessently these days.  It's tiny, silly, unsophisticated, and yet, I really think there's something beyond nostalgia that draws me back to it.  I had the same experience with Karateka and Seven Cities of Gold, despite the vast dissimilarities between those three games.  On the other side of things, I see Nethack and the almost-not-games that populate the roguelike universe, and I wonder how all this emergence and linearity can be reconciled and whether the purely textual and purely symbolic games overlap in some basic configuration of story and narrative.  I suppose that the same thing that bothers you about Baudrillard draws me to his theories.  I think that it is all simulation, or all systems or all one thing in a variety of permutations that we arbitrarily subdivide and name.  The interesting thing about software, and games especially, is that we can so visibly define these different organizations of the world, using radically different ontologies, and see how it affects the end product.  The drawback is that it may be the system running the software acting as stipulation that makes it all look so similar. 

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