Walking simulators (a reclaimed slur), also known as ‘experiential’ (Brendan Keogh) or ‘wandering’ games in Melissa Kagen’s phrasing, were invented – as she observes – when gaming’s supreme power-fantasy, the first-person shooter like Doom with its penile gun jutting obtrusively and obstreperously ahead and destroying everything in sight, was altered in one fundamental way: the gun was subtracted. No wonder some were furious – feeling castrated? – in Gone Home or Firewatch, you do see through the protagonist’s eyes, but with no weapon to shoot up the place, what are we to do instead? It is as if, with the evolution from first-person shooter to wandering game, that act of legislation much called for in the US, yet impossible to achieve, finally occurred (Dear Esther, initiating the genre, had a British developer). But in these games the violence, observes Kagen, hasn’t disappeared – it has already occurred. We, no longer the carnage-mongers, turn up afterwards to sort through the rubble and piece together what happened. It is detective work. Archeology. Or voyeurism? 

This changes the gamer’s role. What Keogh calls ‘systems mastery’ – where we become increasingly adept, augmenting our armory, fine-tuning our fast-twitch reflexes – is replaced with the active passivity, the reflective absorption, associable with books, drama, film. Iris Murdoch observes that children in an art gallery – this is why we provide them, alternatively, with gamified quests, screens, plores – are asked to behave counterintuitively: to contemplate an object without doing anything with it. Impulses are to be held in abeyance, and it is out of such abeyance that the aesthetic experience coheres.  

Teaching ‘video game storytelling’, I tell students at the outset I’ve no problem with mainstream titles. At times, video game scholars sound like conservative fearmongers, ascribing real-world violence to upticks in gore-laden systems mastery. I’ve reservations about the idea implied by Keogh and Kagen’s otherwise brilliant studies – that one can extrapolate from a hacker ethos a retrograde ideology amenable to critique. (Gamergate is one thing – the political toxification of white male angst – but single mothers, disabled people, multiple minorities play Doom too.) Assumptions from literary study reappear with a special intensity when it comes to video games. Playing them, we are actively involved in a bodily way, and would seem to identify with the characters we control. So the idea that (this form of) art is directly, not complexly, linked to politics, is readily asserted. Sometimes through such paranoid reading as those writing about books – some of us – would move beyond, or at least nuance.  

Gamers are, today, literate individuals capable of different ‘tiers’ of engagement. To cite David James: 

There is something uncomfortably condescending about assuming that readers are incapable of recognising the imaginative refuge of art for what it is, without romanticising it as a cure, and without assuming that their embrace of an enchanting text will durably appease either the material costs of social dispossession or the mental costs of psychic deterioration. If consolation is to have any explanatory power for criticism, we need a different notional reader in mind, one for whom captivation and peril, immersion and alarm, seduction and scepticism, relief and aggravation, or redemption and despair in practice coincide to produce a complicated, perpetually sliding scale of multitiered responses to a given work.

Consider Anna Anthropy’s short Flash game, Dys4ia, which narrates one trans person’s discovery, partly through medical intervention, of who they really are. In this case, the literate gamer’s dealings with otherness aligns with an awareness of allusions to canonical games. We’re asked to experience graphics and sound both viscerally and reflectively, as simultaneously entrancing and disturbing. The bright, flashing colours that summon the Pride flag make the game look exuberant and unashamed; but those same colours hurt your eyes, their strobing is suggestive of states of confusion. When a person is pictured as a changing shape struggling through a hole in a wall, we get the point about not fitting into cis society, but are also reminded of Tetris. The thematic neutrality of the Tetris block evaporates: apparently abstract protrusions and cavities allude to a trans body struggling to reconcile itself to social norms. Dys4ia’s allusions, its shifting of the visual language of Tetris toward the travails of a minoritised identity, is provocative – it has, I think, a grim, resilient humour to it, and also the feeling of something shared, as perhaps the trans experience cannot be: more of us know what it’s like to play Tetris, than what it is like to experience gender dysphoria – Tetris is an institution, a universal language. The in-the-moment adjustments that a Tetris player makes from second to second don’t equate with, but do map onto, the experience of adapting to a series of identity-challenging struggles every day.  

This isn’t a one-to-one mind transfer: a game about minoritised experience cannot work through full identification of the gamer with the avatar-protagonist. Instead, we require a reader (I don’t think I’m misapplying this word) who experiences, following James, what the text offers with multiple layers of self-consciousness. Shifting, perhaps, between amused recognition (of elements borrowed from Tetris and other games) and that disturbing quantity we designate – though all the terms are vexed – empathy or sympathy or pity or solidarity. 

And so, to return to such Columbine-era thinking as links the vanquishing of hordes of demons with carnage offline feels naïve. Playing a game in which one is always becoming bigger, faster, stronger, one does, yes, activate paradigms of power and economics, but a poetics of video gaming would look beyond surface characterisations, and consider rhythm – troughs, plateaus, peaks, micro-experiences of surprise, contentment, of tension increased or decreased. 

Teaching that course on ‘storytelling’, I was, am, haunted by the sense of having misdescribed my fascination with games. Was it really the stories games told that constituted what was innovative? Or something else that narrative only happened to, sometimes, make possible; something locatable, anyway, in games often more fun to play than those outright emulous of fiction?  

My students rebelled at Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture – set in a Shropshire village, in the eighties – as a walking simulator too far. And these games can be tedious. Pretentious. Dear Esther has its narrator morosely declare: ‘I saw you waiting at the roadside, one last drink in your trembled hands’. Trembled? This isn’t Keats’s ‘Ode to Psyche’.  

Jon Stone suggests (in a monograph with a great title, Dual Wield) that the structured and stylised repetitions within game-worlds are best compared with poems, not stories: 

We find significance in patterns and parallels, in coincidence and contrivance, in rhyme and repetition, rather than (or as well as) in chains of logic and causation. Video games rely on repetition as a device for training players […] Formal repetition has, after all, long been a feature of the video game, most conspicuously for reasons of hardware limitation. Sound and image alike must be repeated and reiterated […] Poetic devices such as the refrain, anaphora, epistrophe and homeoteleuton are forms of literary repetition that could be realised through the recycled surface textures, objects and player actions within the world of the game. 

Stone shows that the old divide in video game scholarship between narratologists and ludologists was always sidesteppable. For there is a genre, called poetry, in which content and form are enmeshed, and, alongside it, a critical vocabulary as well as a distinctive attitude of regard (which, together, comprise a poetics) partially portable to video games. Let’s apply Stephen Booth’s open-minded and multi-directional savvy, approaching the sonnets of Shakespeare. He aims ‘not to give a reading of the poems but to discover what in them or about them results in the reading experience they evoke’, staying alive to ‘how a reader’s mind moves from one system of relationship to another just as it does when it contemplates physical experience’. This psychophysiological weave is especially applicable to video games that enlist physical skill as a means of their realisation. 

Games do not amuse, signify, persuade, only through their surface content (in ways that socially-minded critics often take to be predictably ideological), nor do they affect us only through the interlocking of their systems (in ways exalted by some as utopianly unpredictable). That content and form are mutually interpenetrating and illuminating is the fundamental insight of poetry and poetics. 

Repetition gets a bad press. Freud thinks it to do with wanting to be dead. We’re not meant to repeat ourselves, but we do – choosing, for instance, one bad relationship after another – trying to master our traumas by revisiting them, and implicating others in our cycles of pain. To do the same thing over and over is, it appears, to fail to grow, to become dully homeostatic. I love Japanese RPGs, which are immensely repetitive. One grinds, fighting the same enemies over and over and often with the same tactics. Long stretches of gameplay can be phoned in – I’m playing, perhaps, while minding my four-year-old, which is at least better than doomscrolling on my phone. 

For Graeme Kirkpatrick, repetition is the ‘defining feature of the video game which […] constantly eats away at their capacity to tell meaningful, self-consistent stories that live in the minds of players.’ Even in walking simulators, where we open cupboards, turn over items and discover secret notes beneath, or return periodically with the press of a button to the map screen, or activate a radio to speak with another character. 

But repetition is also a core value within poetry and poetics. Repetition is incantatory, revelatory, it is about – argues Søren Kierkegaard – apprehending reality at a new level of consciousness.  

Here is the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins – whose theories, wildly ahead of their time, have also been taken up by Fred Moten, to diagram a Black jazz poetics –   

Repetition, oftening, over-and-overing, aftering of the inscape must take place in order to detach it to the mind and in this light poetry is speech which afters and oftens its inscape, speech couched in a repeating figure and verse is spoken sound having a repeated figure. 

Hopkins’s ‘inscape’ evokes the unique shape of one thing or event – a branch, sunset, mountain. But this uniqueness can be riffed upon. It is repetition with alteration that makes for art: the rhythmic interplay of sameness and difference. How might the repetitions of video games redeem themselves? A poetics of video games would recognise that within this art-form, as in any other, there is no pure repetition, only rhyme: repetition with a (haunting, pleasurable, challenging, affirming) difference. 

The usual term is ‘gameplay loop’. As Daniel Cook explains, ‘the player starts with a mental model that prompts them to… apply an action’. They then ‘receive feedback’ that updates this model ‘and starts the loop all over again. Or kicks off a new loop’. We gain in ‘wisdom’, a ‘holistic understanding of a complex system’: 

These loops are fractal and occur at multiple levels and frequencies throughout a game. They are almost always exercised multiple times, either within a game or by playing the game multiple times. […] Nested, dependent loops yield complex feedback loops and unexpected dynamics. Loops tend to deliver value through the act of being exercised. Thus they are well suited for mastery tasks that involve trial and error or repeated exposure. […] The player ends up with a mental model that contains a thousand branches, successes, failures and nuances that lets them approach new situations with confidence. 

In Doom Eternal, for instance, most monsters are vulnerable to a specific weapon, so you dash between them cycling rapidly through the guns available to you; when your ammo is exhausted, chainsawing cannon fodder makes more spill out; requiring armour, you set creatures on fire first, and day-glo pick-ups fountain from their squealing bodies. Both the chainsaw and the flame thrower need fuel, so you also roam the arena looking for power-ups, zipping at speed over and around obstacles with the aid of grapple bars, teleporters and boost pads, in a sort of desperate (and deeply enjoyable) parkour. It is cyclical.  

Once you’ve emptied an arena (John Romero, the franchise’s creator, said it was really about tidying up), you might solve a puzzle to open a gate through which to proceed, or experience elements of the genre known as the platform game, leaping between debris floating in space or islands of rock divided by lava to reach the next arena. So the combat loop is subsumed within a larger loop: combat – puzzle/exploration – combat. Rhythms, and rhythms within rhythms, are fundamental, and incorporate story beats.  

‘Mastery’, critiqued by Keogh, makes an appearance in Cook’s explanation of loops, and also in the phrasing of David Sudnow: 

If you engage a human body through eyes and fingers in a precisely scripted interaction with various sorts of computer-generated events, what seem like quite complex skills are rapidly acquired by regular repetition. Sequences of events can be scheduled into readily mastered routines of progressive difficulty, and a program of timed transitions can be organised, programming you, in turn. 

This sounds vaguely unpleasant – robotic. Could a poetics centering rhythm change how we consider gameplay loops? We do play games for the sense of power they grant us, and to experiment with such economistic reasoning as capitalism makes unavoidable. Communities online share tactics for min-maxing as if offering financial advice. But is there an alternative apprehension of the nourishments of game rhythm, predicated on variance, nuancing, surprise? 

Two Zelda games, Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom, have transformed how we think about open-world, or sandbox, titles.  

In Tears of the Kingdom, one hunts – it’s reminiscent of Assassin’s Creed games, but also modelled on ancient hill-figures, like Wiltshire’s White Horse, or the Cerne Abbas Giant – enormous figures inscribed on an ever-varying landscape, and visible clearly only from above, as you sky-dive from sky-islands, or rise from the cel-shaded plain in a homemade hot-air balloon. Each is marked with a tear-shape. Get close and it transforms to a pool of water, granting a vision of the past. Afterwards, a drop of water – the actual tear, falling – reverses in slow motion out of the pool it has created, forming momentarily (exactly as in Harold ‘Doc’ Edgerton’s famous photograph of spilled milk) an ephemeral crown. A clue as to whose tears these are. 

When all the geoglyphs are found, there are no more tears. It is repetition in a limited series, activated by the player – when they choose to seek out another glyph – within a world defined by other repetitions: the defeat of bokoblins, the creation of usable devices out of scattered parts, and most obviously the shrines dotted around, each containing a puzzle to be solved. Tears of the Kingdom provides an affectual space created by the interlayering of many kinds of repetition, comparable to what we experience while reading an epic poem like John Milton’s Paradise Lost, following the plot (the outlines of which are, as with Zelda, already familiar) while engrossed – ideally – by overlapping patterns of syntax, verse-sound, and imagery, not in turn but simultaneously. One difference (I realise there are many ways this comparison fails, but a comparison is not an equation): in a game, the player generates – to some extent – their own rhythms, prioritising some discoveries over others.  

Each time we solve a puzzle shrine, Link arrives at a stone altar to the previous king and queen of Hyrule. With his palm he activates a green, floating glyph. With a satisfying chime, it dissipates into so many firefly-like streaks of glow. A stone panel slides down, revealing the sculpture of Rauru and Sonia, and releasing a mild explosion of green symbols, like sparks escaping a fire. We receive the same message as every other time, about purifying an ancient evil, and the shrine is added to our collection. This is repetition as progression, augmentation, as in all sorts of video games. But, thinking of Steve Swink on game ‘feel’ – ‘the tactile, kinaesthetic sense of manipulating a virtual object’ – we may recognise every sonic and visual detail as crucially important. The interaction of solid, apparently ancient stone, with the protagonist’s wishes – having inherited Rauru’s hand, he is the hero for whom this place has been waiting, with a unique power to bring history to life – and with something less material and more luminescent, a technology that, transcending the resistance and delay of solid matter, responds immediately to a single touch, summons a network of desires and satisfactions embedded in contemporary culture. High-tech, glass-dominated, through-shine architecture; devices in the palm of our hand, as instantaneously responsive as the ideal mother; auto-closing, even, doors and kitchen cupboards that slow liquidly to a halt as they nestle back into place. 

We talk about gamification: Disney, Uber, exploiting ludic structures to keep workers working. But video games, in turn, transform into, absorb the structures of, work: Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing reproduce – to borrow Ian Watt’s interpretation of, perhaps, the very first novel, Robinson Crusoe – a capitalist fantasy of building one’s own empire from scratch. (Eric Hayot: ‘any understanding of video games that does not include the novel – or that treats them as a radically new form of culture untouched by the vast histories of storytelling and play that precede it – will necessarily be incomplete. But the reverse is also true.’) ‘The default of many games is capitalist,’ writes Chris Karnadi: ‘money, and the accumulation of it, is often core to a game’s mechanic’ – which applies to more games than those increasingly disfigured by microtransactions. Games stimulate patterns of addiction by emulating work and the sensation of accumulating profit. They tap into values that we have internalised simply through living under capitalism. They provide a sort of pleasure that has to do with power, and the search for both novelty and financial security, reactivating within the domain of play – the virtual world – motivations we’re groomed to obey within the actual, working world.  

The idea that it is immoral not to work, that productivity is a means of redeeming, giving meaning to, one’s life, has so infected us that many of us cannot switch off. (Oscar Wilde: ‘To do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual.’)  We feel guilty for playing video games when we could be improving ourselves, gaining new abilities, earning money. So it’s not surprising that video games would suck us in, by providing the illusion of just these things. But if video games can simulate work, and work’s rewards, in a way impossible to any other art form, I also believe that, for this reason, we may look to them for – above and beyond other art – the most searching analysis available of the capitalist binary of work and leisure, where the latter, as Theodor Adorno notices, is frequently considered as subordinate, and in terms only of recharging oneself for the sake of greater productivity. 

Here’s a thought. It is often impossible, or at least incredibly difficult, under capitalism, to replace alienation with freedom and genuinely empty our minds of work-related thoughts to do with getting on in the world, amassing resources and connections, advancing one’s career (experiencing, that is, time only as a distorted species of money). But where mindfulness fails, perhaps video games may succeed, in not erasing but redirecting such impulses. 

Games, by anticipating and reproducing with a creative difference the rhythms of work, can get us out of, or at least remold, the productivity-bind, by replacing worldly goals with virtual (and more creative, unexpected, life-enhancing) ones. ‘In the transition into game playing,’ writes C. Thi Nguyen, 

we have actually changed our motivational structure to some significant degree. If we didn’t accept the possibility of some degree of agential layering and immersion in alternative agencies, we would have a hard time explaining the psychological shift between the motivationally scattered experience of ordinary life – full of its thousand competing purposes – and the pleasing single-minded motivational clarity of game life. That change is well-explained by ascribing to ourselves an ability to set up an alternative agency and temporarily submerging ourselves within it. 

The game that dramatises, and in fact critiques, this escape into ‘alternative agency’ best is Firewatch. In the prose prologue, we learn that the protagonist’s wife has dementia and he must choose whether or not to put her in care. He escapes from this decision to a summer-long post in a firewatch tower in Wyoming, and builds a relationship with a woman he can only reach over the radio. They become paranoid and think they’re being surveilled – when he finally goes to meet her, she has already left. His real life awaits at home. This was all a distraction, a game; he has been LARPing a conspiratorial fantasy, like others separated in space and only technologically connected, in a way that makes them peculiarly vulnerable to mutual fiction-building (QAnons, for example).  

If the line separating real from virtual is thinner than we’d like, this is not only a feature of the modern world of deepfakes, fake news, and video games of terrifying graphical fidelity. In Advaita Hinduism, everything and everyone is an aspect of god – Brahman – engaged in divine play. To re-envision what appears serious as a cosmic game allows us to step back from the clinging, striving, all-competitive ego, and to understand what would be frictive and rage-inducing encounters as (just as Nguyen observes of agonistic games) opportunities for self-expression. We may even come to empathise with our opponents, realising – in some circumstances; I don’t mean to obliterate genuine political concerns – that we and they are playing the same game, or being played by it. And on this note, I find more than amusing – it is enlightening, it challenges us to live differently – Charlie Brooker’s joke about social media providing a type of  ‘massively multiplayer online game in which you choose an interesting avatar and then roleplay a persona loosely based on your own’. 

For Johan Huizinga, whose Homo Ludens originated game studies in 1950, ‘the magic circle’ of play distinguishes circumscribed, often ritual practices from real life; yet it is also true that in all societies, the real and the virtual commingle. ‘Does civilisation ever leave the play-sphere?’, he asks, given that –  

the spirit of playful competition is, as a social impulse, older than culture itself and pervades all life like a veritable ferment. […] [Civilisation] does not come from play like a babe detaching itself from the womb: it arises in and as play, and never leaves it […] The nearer we come to our own times the more difficult it is to assess objectively the value of our cultural impulses. More and more doubts arise as to whether our occupations are pursued in play or in earnest, and with the doubts comes the uneasy feeling of hypocrisy, as though the only thing we can be certain of is make-believe. But we should remember that this precarious balance between seriousness and pretence is an unmistakable and integral part of culture as such, and that the play-factor lies at the heart of all ritual and religion. So that we must always fall back on this lasting ambiguity, which only becomes really troublesome in cultural phenomena of a non-ritualistic kind. There is nothing to prevent us from interpreting a cultural phenomenon that takes itself with marked seriousness, therefore, as play. 

Much is written about a crisis in the humanities. We struggle to theorise a meaningful relation between the virtual and the real. The scholar as a practitioner of critique – as, even, an activist – may refuse to characterise art as amusement. (That would feel like escapism and an acceptance of the status quo.) So art must – Rita Felski’s is a recent exposure of this logic – only be understood as challenging, medicinal, deconstructive, subversive, and the rest of it. This eliminates the play-function: academics often write as if one could redact social policy directly from a four-hundred-page novel. Play, by these lights, belongs only in the nursery. But art can never be separated from play, and any theory of art’s relation to the social and political world should accept this, and describe capaciously what the experience of reading a book or watching television or a film or a play, or looking at a painting or sculpture, or playing a game, is actually like.  

In a way that perhaps isn’t the case for those supposedly pledged to books, people who write about video games still experience them as intensely pleasure-giving and central to their lives. Few literary critics would react as Steven Jones does when discussing Katamari Damacy, in which one rolls an ever-growing ball of objects around cluttered Japanese life-spaces: 

Clearly the Prince can be read or interpreted as an enslaved consumer […But] that is to miss what is most compelling about playing the game, the joyful irony or ironic joy with which fans (and I include myself) play it. 

It isn’t that the ‘enslaved consumer’ interpretation is incorrect. It is, rather, that literary scholarship has tended to compress into one thing its often esoteric extrapolations of what a text might mean, and what it is like to livingly encounter that text. Is it because fewer and fewer people genuinely read and love books? Video games criticism, happily, must contend with gamers whose affective engagements with the material simply don’t match up with counterintuitive or rebarbatively historicised or theorised proposals. 

Graeme Kirkpatrick goes so far as to assert that ‘choosing to play video games still has the power to annoy and to cause controversy and can be a form of deviancy or norm-subversion. But this choice remains purely gestural […] and politically inconsequential.’ Whether or not we agree with him, it’s worth asking: how many scholars of literature would express themselves so directly and bravely? 

‘Irony’ is a difficult term to use of video games. What does it mean to speak of levels of meaning within a text taking weeks or even months to complete? Can there exist, given what playing games is actually like, a meaningful discrepancy between what a game says and what it means (as if saying and meaning were adequate terms for how games function)? 

In a remarkable interview with RockPaperShotgun, Jeffrey Yohalem, writer of Far Cry 3, says yes. Okay, he says, he has written a white saviour narrative. It’s tasteless. The characters are stereotypes (‘you’re called Snow White, the people are called the Rakyat, which means “the people” … they’re not real, they’re a metaphor’). The setting is a ruse (‘Do you know what the name of the island is?! It’s Rook Island! Which means to fraud people!’) But don’t you see, it’s meant to be ironic? ‘It’s supposed to be an exaggeration of things you do in other games. It’s supposed to make you uncomfortable.’ 

No, I don’t believe violent games lead to real-world violence. But I also find it hard to believe that one can shoot hundreds of henchmen in the head, while hunting and skinning endangered animals, in a perpetual state of disenchanted awareness. The moment of ‘discomfort’ simply cannot be stretched over the twenty to thirty-hour timeframe of Far Cry 3. Yohalem’s interpretation of the narrative is that of someone pressured both to create a mainstream title that will sell countless copies (which seems to mean, reproducing and indulging stereotypes), but will also, in some untestable and ultimately bogus way (he sounds like an academic) challenge or disturb or destabilise the gamer away from enjoying such things at face-value.  

We have, perhaps, two options: an experience that really does indulge in, become hypnotised by, the story’s clichés; and withdrawal from the uninspired content into a sheerer and purer engagement with game mechanics. Some players might skip the cut-scenes. And zone out, into the purer ‘dance’ of one’s fingers over the input device (keyboard and mouse, or gamepad) suggested by Kirkpatrick, and marvellously limned by Keogh’s prose – I’m deeply indebted to his book – when he discusses Super Mario –  

Combining taps and holds of various buttons on the gamepad with one or both thumbs is as fundamental to performing more complex actions in gamepad-controlled videogames as being able to press multiple piano keys to produce a chord is fundamental to performing a piece of music or stringing together different modulations of the human voice is fundamental to producing a word. By ingraining complex gestural patterns, I can do things while doing other things and build up a repertoire of combined behaviours and abilities […] More complex still are the small, proprioceptive adjustments I make with each of Mario’s jumps as I become attuned to his body and its capacity for movement. I do not always jump Mario the maximum possible distance but learn to release A at just the right time to have him land on a precarious floating block or on an enemy’s head or perhaps even to have him shift directions midjump from right to left to slow the jump’s momentum. I cannot say, however, for just how long one must hold each of the buttons to make the jump that I make perfectly every time. I cannot answer the question ‘How high can Mario jump?’ even as my body knows precisely when to release A. 

The plotting of Mario games is minimal. But denser game fictions remain subject, through their intricate choreography, to a structural irony Kirkpatrick calls ‘corrosion’ –  

Games need meanings; fictions and resemblances are integral to them, but the activity of playing games is powerfully corrosive to these fictions and analysis of these processes undermines the idea of mimesis in the video game object. Moreover, it reveals that the process of corrosion, of dispelling meaning, is essential to gameplay. 

One might contend that in some games, a genuinely mimetic relationship develops, linking our proprioceptive investment in the game with character arcs and story beats: at the end of this essay, I’ll suggest one game, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, where this, to my mind, occurs. But Kirkpatrick’s account does match my experience of many other games – most recently, Diablo 4, which my wife and I are playing co-op – where intensely repetitive gameplay (and teeming side-quests) push the story out of mind.  

I’ll differ from Kirkpatrick in insisting – and this is part of what I mean, by a poetics – on the crosscurrents, the contradictions, even, within the experiential duration of play. Corrosion isn’t linear, but one aspect of a rhythmical process situated in and around a game’s systems of repetition: a diastolic withdrawal from the game’s surface meanings, into a type of purer play with its systems, followed by a systolic return, in due course, to a fuller engagement with plot and theme and characterisation and world-building. Not just corrosion, then, but correction. The rhythms of corrosion and correction could be diagrammed within the overall experience – understood, that is, prosodically – through a form of reader-response criticism. 

The Return of the Obra Dinn provides a rich, discussable example of a game’s style, mechanics, and narrative coming together as one plays and in a meaningful way.  Plot-wise, it is residually orientalist: the magic, the danger, derives from far-off lands. But to linger over this seems crude, when the game’s true argument (again, insofar as an artwork can be said to have such a thing) is with economic reasoning. 

Conor McKeown’s essay describes what the game is, and what it isn’t: 

Return of the Obra Dinn tasks players with exploring the wrecked trading ship (or ‘East Indiaman’) in the year 1807 when it suddenly reappears in the docks at Falmouth, England, after it was mysteriously lost five years prior […] Players must use deductive reasoning to guess the names of the crew and clarify the circumstances of their death. […] To someone who has not played the game, Obra Dinn may sound like an engaging adventure filled with murder and piracy. However […] unlike in similarly nautically themed games, such as Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Return of the Obra Dinn does not place players in control of another swashbuckling pirate, out to solve a mystery for treasure, love, or the pirate code; the player does not take part in swordfights, sailing ships, or any form of ‘pillaging’. Rather, in Obra Dinn, players take control of an East India Company inspector working within the insurance and claims office. Their motivation (the avatar is either male or female) for undertaking this enterprise is that they received a letter from their employer, asking them to carry out a full inspection of the ship. 

As an art-form matures, its works define themselves against their predecessors. They announce their autonomy by frustrating consumer expectations shaped by more piddling, conservative objets d’art that came before. This dynamic plays out in video game culture today (see Yohalem, arguing that his game reproduces norms but in a deconstructive way). Sometimes a game can come close to only signifying as a subversion of previous norms. Obra Dinn tries to critique ideas it still depends on (the racial hierarchy onboard is made painfully clear), but only a poetics alive to how form and content come together not once and for all, but rhythmically, can get at what is most artistically innovative in it. 

We realise at the end that, despite its extravagant visualisations of the sailors’ deaths (none of which feels relevant now), this game’s really about money: the colonialist exploiters at the East India Company want to check on their investment. This shift from magic to economics – from the romantic idea of the seafarer exploring uncharted waters in which there may be dragons, to a newly mapped world of trade routes and British dominion over the resources of the Global South – responds to developments in the nineteenth-century global economy. In this the game resembles 2008’s Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, whose real villain isn’t Davy Jones, that much-tortured, literally heartless (magically bound to his ship), octopic monstrosity, but Cutler Beckett, representative of the East India Company, who announces that in modern sea-trading ‘the immaterial has become immaterial’.  

In other words, ghosts and magic and other things that can’t be computed through the capitalist lens (that which is ‘immaterial’, in the first sense) has become ‘immaterial’ in the second sense of that word: irrelevant and to be discarded. Max Weber observed the coming together of ‘disenchantment’ with the rise of money-imperatives. The Company is interested in coin, tradeable goods, human (that is, enslaved, or indentured) cargo that can be touched and handled and manipulated to extract the maximum profit. In this respect, the world of money is also the developing world of empirical science: of actual observable phenomena. For the capitalist, 1+1 always and only equals 2; cost-benefit analysis can predict the best fiduciary outcomes; uncertainty, mystery, the supernatural are to be expunged from a world understood in terms of products and profits. The Company would rather, opening a chest, find it full of straightforwardly investable gold, rather than use it as the magic container (there is one of these in Obra Dinn, too) of Davy Jones’s heart. He is a means to an end. 

The same tension between mystery and instrumentality lingers over the game’s central repetitive act. McKeown: ‘players have at their disposal an enchanted pocket watch that allows them to observe the final moments of the deceased’s lives: on approaching one of the game’s many corpses […] players can listen to the last words (or, in some cases, sounds) of a crew member’s life, before they are given the chance to explore their last moment of life, in the form of a tableau, frozen in time.’ The Memento Mortem, as it’s called, is a magical device used as a means to an end: it acts, paradoxically, like scientific equipment verifying what happened. At least, this is how the player’s avatar, the insurance inspector, uses it. Our experience is potentially in tension with his or hers. Each time a memory is activated – projecting a three-dimensional snapshot of the moment a life was lost, be it to gunfire, sword, or the pincers of a supernatural crab-creature – we are invited to narrativise, to make history come alive. 

Peter Brooks explains that the sudden excess of narratives, of stories being told – and not only by novelists, but historians and scientists and economists now ready to understand the world in these terms – had to do, in the 19th century, with secularisation. As in Obra Dinn, the player reconstructs the stories of the vanished crew, two ways of looking at the world collide: the capitalist-empirical perspective, and the magical. Its graphical style is more than relevant. Wishing ‘to make a modern 3D game that looked like the old 1-bit games [he] played on [his] family’s Macintosh Plus’, Lucas Pope used black and white and (dithered, eye-created, out of dots of black and white) shades of grey. Working with little dots creates a curious sort of three dimensionality. The effect is archaicising: it’s as if we’re looking at historical footage in black-and-white. Throughout the making of the game, Pope worried about the legibility of its style: would we be able to make sense of it? For this is, precisely, a game about the process of making sense of the past. It is a game about the material and the immaterial, and how those worlds shimmeringly and devastatingly collide, at a particular moment in history that the game’s graphics do so much to evoke. 

I am analysing the game’s graphics as one might analyse a poem, allowing for a mimetic relation between form and content while also lingering over textures for their own sake. The alternations of exploration and memory-playback within Obra Dinn can also be considered prosodically. As with poetry analysis (it isn’t true, as Wordsworth claimed, that ‘we murder to dissect’), it’s about drawing our attention to rhythms that shape our experience in an arguably more felt than reflective way. Though the forcibleness of an artwork may reside in its refusal to countenance such distinctions. 

With Obra Dinn, such hyperscrutiny seems to fit with the game-experience itself, as we’re asked, tasked, to pay attention to those resurrected flashes of the past. Encountering each frozen moment, we may pause simply to wonder, appreciate; may pause on the brink of actualising our scrutiny as the first step towards discovery – a re-entry, that is, into the process of playing the game. (Remember those children mentioned by Iris Murdoch, struggling in a gallery not to touch a painting.) In this way, Obra Dinn continues a trend relevant to other games as diverse as Life is Strange, Hollow Knight and Hyperspace Drifter, where we are encouraged to merely and sheerly exist within a moment of stilled contemplation, of an often stylised (pixelated or cel-shaded) game-world – a release from the existential and economistic grind, of always doing things and ploughing ahead. (Since games are often played on the move, we also have the situation where, on my commute, I might find myself not staring out of the window of the train, but pausing to admire the sun setting over a lake in Red Dead Redemption.) We are given temporal control over our experience, and in Obra Dinn this combines two ways of experiencing creativeness: the contemplative and the heuristic.  

Our avatar was commissioned to find out how each crew member died. But performing this task, reducing a previously magical world to names and numbers in his account-book, we find ourselves arrested, astonished, by the wonders revealed to us by the Memento Mortem. We enter another realm, of non-monetary value – which aligns with orientalised magic but also with the realm of art, of aesthetic experience. The monochromatic, 1-bit, dithered art-style would seem to present a scientific-empirical view of the world as a realm of observable particles adding up to concrete objects: pieces of the past that can be recorded and reviewed to assemble factual narratives that make sense of things. At the same time, this style is perpetually suggestive; as its black and white atoms add up, repeatedly and marvellously, to more than the sum of their parts, the style paradoxically suggests the need to move beyond a simplistic, black-and-white view of reality. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in an insurance adjustor’s actuary. 

Economistic reasoning is never far off: much games discourse is about playing as efficiently as possible. And yet, cultures of speed-running are remarkable in this regard, since the challenge to finish games fast has repeatedly, hearteningly, been turned into charity work, where trying to reduce the minutes and seconds on the clock increases the number of dollars raised for good causes. People get together to play games against the grain – as they were never meant to be played – refashioning, making contingent, their systems of imperatives, rewards and repetitions. Many of my students prefer not to play at all, but experience games in a mediated form – watching playthroughs on Youtube or Twitch streams. Untitled Goose Game, on my syllabus, is, as Ian Bogost observes, a game more talked about, Twitter-cited, memefied, than played: but any title can be experienced at a remove. 

What interests me as a parent gaming on their Switch in the spaces opening up between work and caring responsibilities, are rhythms of attention and investment that don’t answer to traditional emphases on immersion, or wholesale absorption into fictional worlds: such overheated descriptions as belong really to marketing, not critical discourse. (We might say, that the maturing of an art-form requires the evolution of a language for discussing it, and appreciating it, separated more or less decisively and irreversibly from – what came before – the language of commerce.) 

It is how the broken, interrupted rhythms of gaming are overlaid on the multiplicity of rhythms, also to do with repetition, of the other strands of my life. Playing this way does often mean playing efficiently (Link is already airborne, so I might as well scan the landscape below for geoglyphs), but it also means becoming the opposite of the completionist gamer, who must finish every subquest and locate every collectible to feel they’ve tasted and tested all the game has to offer (a way of insisting, if you like, on treating games as products judged by their value for money, rather than inexhaustible texts in which there is always something any one reading must miss). 

There is a peculiar bittersweetness to coming up against the limits of a game-world: to discovering, for instance, returning to Jon Stone, ‘recycled surface textures’ (books on bookshelves receive very little, I’ve found, attention to detail from developers), or observing that all the jarls in Skyrim lounge on their thrones in exactly the same posture. We could call it fatigue – a word applicable to both the game and the gamer, at that moment when we cease to be surprised, and the rhythms of discovery are replaced by less inspiring repetitions, and we seem once and for all to have plumbed the heart of a mystery. 

The opposite: a feeling of mild, but real, wonderment at a game’s world continuing beyond anything I have been able to discover. The sense that it’s larger than my particular traversal of it, with by-ways and secrets and mechanics that, having finished the game, I read about online and do not wish to go back and activate myself.  

Some of the most affecting moments in a game may arise when we fall not into, but out of alignment with its designated story beats. Playing Fallout 4, and being generally disappointed (the newly-voiced protagonist shrinking the possibilities of dialogue; the inability, as in many games, to create a convincingly South Asian avatar, etc.), I was betrayed by Danse, the synth-hating Paladin, and had to kill him – ending any possibility of completing his sub-quest. Characters in games are often completely visible to us: we know their stats, get to alter their combat styles and armour, and order them around however we wish. There is very little characterological opacity.  

But having killed Danse, I go, as usual, to loot his body, and discover a ‘synth component’. It turns out he was, all along, one of the robots he loathed. As often in video games, the twist is not original, it is borrowed from other art-forms (games often remind me of Hindi, or Bollywood films, in this way; they provide a subculture with its own – in this case playable – version of something enjoyed elsewhere). After going to the wiki and reading of the plot strand I’d bypassed, it all seemed so hackneyed: the homophobe who turns out to be queer all along … 

What I was searching for was a renewal of the more immediate feeling of loss, of falling through a trapdoor in one’s own stomach, that is created by a real plot twist – such as I felt on finding that component. If I’d played through Danse’s narrative, I doubt I would have found the reveal anywhere near as affecting as that moment of discovering on his corpse a bit of detritus pointing to content, and interiority, at which I hadn’t guessed. It was the feeling of missing out, but in a good way; of being genuinely surprised; the game world, again, extended beyond my particular inhabitation of it, reminding me – and this goes against the plot-arcs of such games – that perhaps I wasn’t the centre of everything after all.  

There is far more pathos to a synth-hating synth who dies – at the gamer’s hand – without ever knowing what he really is, than there is to the familiarly agonised and self-hating and conflicted individual that Danse becomes, should we play through his subplot. That would be the experience of the game we’re playing coming, reassuringly, to coincide with the expected unexpectedness of narratives we’ve all experienced before. But only a game can give you that special feeling, of having made a decision that rules out interaction with part of its content; that curiously, again, bittersweet sensation of gazing at Danse’s corpse. 

An experiential approach that emphasises – like a Modernist novelist –moments of being, may (as well as sounding fatuous: ‘with the AK in my hands, I dart and weave down the corridor’…) become overly collusive with game developers who also think in terms of big moments, constructing set pieces before hiring narrative consultants to belatedly suture them together. 

But to me – perhaps because of the bitty, broken way in which I now play – it’s hard to get away from this, since when I think of my most powerful gaming experiences, it is in terms of moments. Perhaps one difference is that those moments, for me and others, are often peculiarly emergent, tied to my own encounter with the game rather than the idealised playthrough envisioned (I imagine) by the game’s writers and directors. This, again, brings gaming (both portable and not) close to reading, which is similarly hostage to circumstance in all sorts of ways. 

There is a curious freedom here. But also a sort of unfreedom that goes with the recognition that the sensations of enlargement and empowerment games provide are always predicated on the following of certain rules; the internalisation by the gamer of circuits of desire such as the game in hand can reliably mobilise and then satisfy. The ideal of ‘interactivity’ is, writes Bogost, often misunderstood – it, too, is a marketing, not an analytical, term –  

Sometimes we think of interactivity as producing user empowerment: the more interactive the system, the more the user can do, and the better the experience. For example, many players and critics have celebrated Grand Theft Auto III as a game that allows the player to ‘go anywhere, do anything’. This sentiment is flawed for several reasons. First, the game does not actually allow the player to ‘do anything’: rather, in the words of one reviewer, ‘GTA III lets you do anything you wish, within the parameters of the game.’ The ‘parameters of the game’ are made up of the processes it supports and excludes. For example, entering and exiting vehicles is afforded in GTA III, but conversing with passersby is not. 

There’s a clip from the sequel, Grand Theft Auto 4, that I meant last year to show my students, but when I got to the point of pressing play, I didn’t. It’s simply too awkward, too, somehow, embarrassing (I feared that situation, where you show a friend a song on Youtube, and it seems to last forever, and then they force a smile). Our protagonist, Niko Bellic, walks through a hyper-realistic recreation of Times Square, but with virtually every building is closed to him, and, adorning the skyscrapers, commercials for products he cannot buy.  

An overpowering loneliness. What is the game telling us – despite itself – about the promise of infinite choice, possibility, power, held out by consumerism and yet contradicted by our actual experience of being in the world; is Niko Bellic depressed? 

The only moments of (possible) social contact, of interactivity as in intersubjectivity, occur when Nico’s cousin Roman phones the player to arrange a meet-up, and is put off; and when, halfway through his forlorn trudge through the centre of commerce, a sad little message arrives in the screen’s top left quadrant: [Press E to buy a soda]. 

I’ll end with another button press, a moment when economistic reasoning did feel exceeded, through a rhythm of cunningly interpolated repetitions. It compares to the twist at the end of a tv show or film, where a director must carefully stage-manage the pacing of the flashback-laden montage connoting a character’s sudden recognition – because the viewer’s arc of astonishment must match that of the character, the revelation must materialise without jarring or residue. 

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, published by Starbreeze Studios in 2013 (and recently remade) isn’t particularly original. It seems indebted, in particular, to the sublimity of Ico’s landscapes (shades of Turner’s ‘Snow Storm’, as the protagonists dwindle into specks dwarfed by vast panoramas) as well as that game’s companion-dynamic, where Yorda, previously savable from danger and tediously tugged by the arm round corners and helped up ledges, comes to help Ico in turn.

That so many video games are unoriginal, and sometimes extraordinarily, shamelessly so – look, another Metroidvania roguelite Soulslike! – means that repetitions also occur, strongly, between games: one reminds us of  another. Brothers reminds us, then, throughout, of Ico: it is a less rebarbative, more colourful, saccharine Ico, with a clearer narrative. Two brothers in a fantasy world risk being orphaned: their mother has already died of drowning, and their father is mortally ill. They set off for the cure. On the way it becomes clear – and this is fresh – that they are small, largely powerless beings, crossing for instance a landscape strewn with dead giants by a conflict of which they know nothing. (Freud said that with his own discoveries added to those of Copernicus and Darwin, we have suffered three great blows to our picture of ourselves as the most important, the most special, the most intelligent, beings in the universe, but video games usually pretend this isn’t the case.) The older brother is killed and the young brother must return with the cure, but without his sibling. 

Throughout the game we meet with fast-running, dangerous water. The brothers topple over a waterfall into a nightmarish undersea realm (where they confront their mother’s ghost, or a tortured memory of her); they are carried pell-mell down rapids and almost die. The younger brother can only swim rivers with the older boy’s help (the game was originally designed for just one player to play on the Playstation, controlling each of the brothers with a different thumbstick). Returning alone with the cure, the younger brother must cross one more river. He can’t. You try the button over and over again. Perhaps, because this is a game, you assume that it is broken, has glitched. (Compare this to today’s titles, so anxious to prevent us ever being stymied – so before you have time to puzzle out a puzzle, the voiced protagonist or their sidekick is there, providing hints you never required.) Until you realise you must press the button previously assigned to the older brother – who is now dead – at the same time as the younger brother’s button, to get him through the water. He has gained, internalised, his older brother’s strength.  

If this is a moment that could only occur in a video game, it also requires a post-Freudian gamer, who understands trauma, has heard Nietzsche telling us that whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, and is capable of a solution different to the usual sort of puzzle-solving – the manipulation of items in an inventory, say, or the pulling of such switches as, elsewhere in Brothers, lowers ladders and draw-bridges to grant access to new areas. It builds out of another series of repetitions: our experience of, so many times, crossing rivers with both brothers, and pressing both buttons simultaneously. At the critical moment, haptic memory comes together with psychological savvy, to make possible a type of embodied recognition that is also a deepening of plot and characterisation.  

The game makes us think – considering Joseph Campbell, and the hero’s quest that defines so many games, that are about risking one’s life for a boon received, or in this case a cure obtained – about the thin line separating loss from gain. What do we want most in life, and what are we willing to give up to get it? If, in most video games, the player character gets stronger and stronger, then Brothers both alludes to and challenges that logic. The younger brother has learned, as one often does in video games, a new skill. In Metroid, Samus can’t access certain zones until she has learned, for instance, how to compress herself into a ball, or destroy special walls. Brothers features just this one moment where a player-character gains a new skill, but not through the usual process of finding a magic orb, or purchasing it with experience points. Instead, the younger brother’s gain in strength and daring comes at the most terrible cost: he has had to get stronger, because his sibling can no longer look after him. 

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