The Weeknd In The Wasteland

Originally published on December 4, 2015, available at http://www.unwinnable.com. All rights reserved.

Anyone who reads a lot of criticism must learn to deal with friends who accuse them of ‘over-analyzing’ stuff. Granted, there are people in the world who’d love to hear me expound on the hidden meanings behind The Shining’s conspicuously-placed Calumet Baking Powder cans; many others, however, would find it tedious. I think it’s polite to read the room a bit before opening my mouth.

The Shining is one of those ‘complicated’ films, full of dark corners in which to build dense essays and hour-long YouTube analyses. I like complicated films! But I also appreciate those ‘CliffsNotes’ kinds of films: equally-great works that place their themes right out in the open. You rarely need an essay for those ones. Sometimes all it takes is one sentence. For example: I think the sled in Citizen Kane represents the protagonist’s childhood innocence. It’s not the most exciting thesis, but it’s concise, and it’s relatable, and that’s nice!

In the land of videogame criticism—which is my country of origin—we tend to get the worst of both worlds. While Kane spends its runtime showing us snowglobes and sleds, the time I’ve spent with Fallout 4 consists mostly of digging medical syringes out of garbage cans so I can use them to magically heal bullet wounds. It’s hard to decide what I think the garbage cans represent. I’m pretty sure it’s not my character’s childhood innocence.

The videogame industry would hate for you to ‘over-analyze’ these elements. Its spokespeople would have us believe that said elements don’t mean anything. They’d claim these elements exist simply to gratify: to be fun and exciting, rather than enlightening in any particular way.  Playing a videogame, by this mode of thinking, is essentially like receiving an impersonal blowjob from your computer. You’re there to be stimulated; you don’t much care for the company.

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Hard in the Hinterlands

Dragon Age: Inquisition is a very large, very long videogame. We in the business of producing such things use special lingo to express this: We say it features a great deal of ‘content’. We believe this to be a good thing. Unlike the film industry, wherein reviewers complain with equal frequency that this movie is too long or that one too short, the game industry is all about high volume for a low price. The formula is as follows:

value\propto\frac{{duration}\times{quality}}{price}

Just as we assess duration differently from the film industry, so too do we have a unique way of assessing quality. We tend not to care all that much about character, or plot, or tone, or Shakespeare’s 5 act structure. Videogames are about ‘gameplay’, yes? They’re about ‘fun’. We in the videogame business seek a compelling ‘core loop’ to which players will gladly return over and over (and over and over) again. In plainer language we might say we seek some series of rituals for the player to perform that never ceases to gratify her so long as we freshen it up every so often; something we can augment in subtle ways, say by changing the setting in which she performs it or the circumstances compelling her to do so. Dragon Age: Inquisition is about a few different things, but mostly it’s about murder. This is no surprise: Killing people is a popular component in ‘core loops’ all around the game industry on account of its versatility. You can kill them on a plain. You can kill them in the rain. You can kill them in a coup; you can kill them with a shoe.

This is how our ‘content’ avoids becoming tangled like the elements of an intricate plot often do, where nothing can move an inch without the whole thing collapsing. Our ‘content’ is a modular, fungible commodity. We can add or subtract it as we require and players can consume as much or as little as they please. It’s how we make 90 hours of near-identical media images feel novel and gratifying the whole way through. The Hollywood film industry does not operate in quite this way; I find it very interesting, however, to reflect on the fact that the porn industry is almost perfectly analogous.

The most common strain of pornography you can find on the internet features one female actor cast as the ‘star’ alongside one male performer cast as a sort of ‘cipher’ through which the viewer vicariously obtains access to this star. The ideological objective of these films is to render the star’s body and mind into a quantity of ‘content’ for the viewer to consume (vicariously, via the cipher) over the course of the next half-hour or so. To this end, the actors simulate a series of rituals by which the cipher gains access first to the star’s attention, then her company, then her clothed body, then her naked body and so on. The film’s dramatic climax (what people in my biz call a ‘boss fight’) depicts the cipher’s orgasm in excruciating detail; the narrative heralds this as the ultimate ritual by which the cipher/viewer finishes consuming the star’s ‘content’, signalling that she has supremely and comprehensively gratified them in that peculiar capitalist way familiar to anyone who has ever bought and completed a large videogame (which is to say ‘they had fun’). This is the ‘core loop’ of pornography; change up the actors, the venue and/or the wardrobe and you’ve got ‘content’ for days.

Yet here is where my problem begins. I once heard a former porn star compare the sensation of having sex on set to massaging one’s back teeth with one’s own forefinger. For her there was no libidinal aspect to it; it was just arbitrary physical exercise. I’ve also watched documentaries in which male actors describe the difficulty involved in obtaining and sustaining an erection on command; often they come to rely on erectile dysfunction medications to help them. I must therefore conclude that porn actors get to have sex all day in the same way QA testers get to play videogames all day, which is to say they don’t really get to do so at all. The actors do not truly gratify one another in the way these films suggest the characters do; the sexual component of their interaction is, of course, the product of a dramatic performance.

This all leads to a funny moment near the end of the video, just as the cipher is on the verge of performing his orgasm. The star is usually in the midst of pantomiming whatever sex act the director chose for the climax, panting in the way pop stars do after they’ve been singing and dancing on stage all night. Then suddenly the cipher shoos her away from his genitals so he can focus on the task all by himself. You see, a good cipher is a reliable cipher: He must deliver his performance regardless of who his partner is or what they’re doing. As such, he has learned which precise sequence of mental, physical and chemical auto-stimulation he must now perform. The star needn’t know anything about this; her contract does not require her to assist her partner with his erection and no one expects her to do so. In truth, her presence makes no actual contribution towards the orgasm about to take place. Yet there she is, feigning enjoyment in very close proximity to her partner while being careful to avoid distracting him. And there he is, blithely ignoring the presence of the partner who in the plot represents the bestower of and sole impetus for his orgasm. What brilliant irony!

I need only consult Gamasutra’s blog section to confirm that the most notable difference between videogames and other media (such as hardcore pornography) is the fact that games are interactive. I have read over and over again that this unique quality changes everything about how we should approach our little medium. Well, okay: Let us then claim that games like Dragon Age: Inquisition are distinct from porn in that they cast me, the player, as both viewer and cipher simultaneously! Not only is it my job as viewer to become gratified by consuming the game’s ninety hours of ‘content’; as cipher I must also perform the rituals by which my character shall obtain the power they require to save the fictional realm of Thedas. I’ve noticed the game’s boss fights are ironic in the same sense as the money shots I just described. There I am, perched over Dragon Age: Inquisition with controller in hand, furiously repeating the combination of magic spells and deadly swordplay I know will gradually reduce the boss’ life to zero. And there is Dragon Age: Inquisition, doing its best not to distract me with any of its extravagant voice acting or lavish scenery. In truth the boss does not even resist my efforts to kill them, as the plot suggests they should; instead they strive to provide a strenuous yet ‘fun’ encounter, tacitly assisting me in my epic quest to perform the same repetitive hand movements over and over again until they are dead.

A question, reader: Were you weirded out just there, or in any of my preceding paragraphs, by the casual association of sexual favours with acts of murder? If so, I might cautiously infer you either haven’t played a lot of large videogames or you’ve played far too many. Nowhere is our culture’s bizarre conflation of sex and violent conquest more apparent than here in videogameland. Consider that as developers we intend for our games to foster collaboration between the player and her computer; indeed, we spend boundless energy ensuring that as a performer she feels comfortable and unconfused while as a viewer she experiences the gratification we promised her in our marketing materials. Suppose for a moment that I am an uninitiated observer. Should I not have every right to expect software whose stated purpose is ‘fun’ to have far more to do with sex than violence? (Is this not why Gamasutra, our foremost industry trade site, thought to name itself after a manual for sexual endeavour?) Why, then, does the plot overlaying my frantic hand gestures concern itself so deeply with violence (combat, war and diplomacy) instead of collaboration (sex, friendship and trust)? This is the fundamental problem we encounter whenever we attempt to borrow the viewer/cipher/star dynamic from other media: While in movies I might only observe a violent encounter between human and Abyssal High Dragon, in videogames I must simultaneously don the silly motion capture suit and perform before a greenscreen. In games, as on stage, I sense the virtual dragon waiting politely for me to finish.

I believe it is for these reasons that I enjoy Inquisition most whenever sex, friendship and trust advance to the foreground; when I’m shooting the shit with Bull and his mercenaries, or wandering the wilderness listening to Sera embarrass all our mutual acquaintances. These are the performances I wish to deliver on behalf of the game’s protagonist, and so I am put off each time it insists my primary purpose within it is to pantomime murder over and over again. I resent the market forces that drove Bioware to inlay my favourite scenes between swathes of banal violence stretching beyond the horizon. I resent the quantification of all things into obstacles to crush and spoils to obtain in the name of a vain and transparent ‘core loop’ whose underlying ideology I find toxic. If there is to be room in my life for huge videogames I must ask them to do more than incrementally enhance the resolution and scope at which I view and simultaneously pantomime the penetration of my character’s enemies. They must stop attempting to gratify me in this way; frankly, I’d be thrilled if they sought to do literally anything else.

Blowjobs, Loneliness and Glitchhikers

Glitchhikers is a game by ceMelusine, Lucas J.W. Johnson, Andrew Grant Wilson and Claris Cyarron that you can read about and play (for free!) on their website.

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In Glitchhikers we follow our protagonist, the Driver, down some lost highway late at night. We may use the keyboard to change lanes, to accelerate or decelerate, and to look out the side windows. These mechanics provide no ‘utility’ in the sense we typically associate with videogames. They do not advance the player towards victory or defeat, nor do they compel her to spend money via microtransactions. They provide no gratifying feedback; there are no excruciatingly-rendered speed lines that spew onto the screen as the Driver accelerates to 120, nor does some down-pitched ‘whoosh’ effect from The Matrix fart out of the speakers every time she slows to 90. She is not competing against some artificial intelligence to snag the most victory tokens from the highway’s three lanes. There are no conspicuous resource crates scattered about for her to collect, no thousand-headed hydra of  ‘mission objectives’ snapping at her from the corner of the screen. It is impossible to crash the car.

There is a school of thought in game criticism, which I have labelled The Cult of the Peacock, that doesn’t know what to do with Glitchhikers‘ game mechanics. It looks upon them with a screwed up face and, before making any other comment, utters something to the effect of “the driving controls don’t do anything!” It considers this to be a useful and valid criticism because it regards videogames as designed works whose purpose lies in some distant and mysterious dimension we call ‘fun’. It judges that since these mechanics do not immediately dispense ‘fun’ nor teach the player some skill with which to acquire ‘fun’ they must be superfluous, implicating their designers in the commission of some cardinal design sin. It insists these mechanics will make players confused and disoriented; that any cause not immediately followed by a gratifying and explicative effect is an act of heresy that must be purged from the product in service of clarity and craft. The customers have come to have ‘fun’, it believes, and so it seeks as its righteous purpose to deliver them unit after unit of fungible, systematized, thoroughly user-tested gratification. In other words, this school of thought believes that the purpose of a videogame is to perfect and perform ad infinitum the world’s most prolonged and least eventful blowjob.

Glitchhikers, for its part, is not particularly interested in exchanging gratification for money. It does not regard the player as a ‘John’ the way certain videogames do (either in the sense of “a prostitute’s client” or “a vessel for excrement”). Instead it regards her as one of many tiny inhabitants in its surreal virtual cosmos, imploring her to observe rather than affect; to interact rather than subjugate; to hold a memorable conversation with the world rather than merely ejaculate into it. The game does so, of course, through the very mechanics I’ve been describing, which far from being superfluous are essential to the form of the work.

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