This post is coming a week late (I mention this because most people reading the post likely have an immediate familiarity with the relevant syllabus, if you get my meaning) because last Tuesday I was tasked with leading an in-class discussion on the chapter of our cyberspace anthology which deals with video games (a natural choice for me indeed). In going over the necessary articles, the one which stuck in my mind the most was David J. Leonard’s 2005 piece “To the White Extreme: Conquering Athletic Space, White Manhood, and Racing Virtual Reality.” This wasn’t because I liked the article; quite to the contrary, I found it pretty poor in most respects. Leonard’s reading of race and gender in extreme sports games was fine where it was obvious (women are indeed portrayed in a sexualized fashion in BMX XXX, go figure) and allowed him to make a few interesting points (it’s not uncommon for the games to portray black characters as shallow types), but for the most part it was tripped up by major flaws, including hypocritical descriptions of white athletes as a homogeneous group, constant failure to distinguish between different games, and startlingly poor research (Leonard erroneously claims that there are no female characters in the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater Games, and thereby lost a great deal of credibility in my eyes). As I have played many of the games Leonard discusses, I had to ask myself whether I had overlooked their racial elements, or whether Leonard’s reading went too far. I ended up settling on the latter explanation; virtual skateboarding in a simply-portrayed downtown Minneapolis, for example, cannot be equivalent to white men seeking to conquer the ghetto.
While most of Leonard’s claims could be dismissed quickly, one of his arguments has stayed with me somewhat longer: he mentions that “the emphasis on danger and conquering untamed space is particularly powerful” in extreme sports games, and that “masculine, frontier-related, rhetorical devices… frame virtual extreme sports as a battle between man and nature.” During the in-class discussion, it was agreed that this point is hard to get around in current games, as most of them really are about conquering and dominating space, be it natural or not.
One can certainly see that this spatial interest has long existed in video games. The urge to press on to “another castle” to find the princess indeed involves passing through the dangers of the intervening spaces. I would think that a strong argument could be made suggesting that video game controllers have nearly always included directional controls, and 360-degree control sticks of late, so that players could interact with virtual spaces. Taking a look at which games have recently won various game of the year awards, the likes of Mass Effect 2, Skyrim, Gears of War, Half-Life 2, Portal 2, and Red Dead Redemption are indeed all in the space-controlling mode. Even Flower and Journey, the recent offerings from thatgamecompany, a developer often praised for bringing games which are artful and non-violent to mainstream audiences, are indisputably about conquering space. In fact, those two games may seem so impressively simple, straightforward, and lyrical because they deal almost solely with the exploration and control of space; in Flower the player’s sole task is to control the wind and open flower buds across the spaces of various levels. While paring a game down to the exploration of space may make it seem like a quintessential video game, doing the opposite will often make games seem like puzzles or gimmicks, better suited for “casual” gaming audiences.
I’m not sure whether I take Leonard’s point that this way of dealing with space necessarily makes these games masculine in every case, but it seem to be an element that tends towards that direction. At the very least, it seems that games ought to be able to deploy other modes of game play; the predominance of game narratives which involve characters going on adventures and vanquishing enemies is surely related to games’ proclivity for the space-conquering mode. This is to say that, without finding other sorts of game play, games will have trouble engaging with other sorts of narratives. To see how this might be accomplished, I’ll take a look at Heavy Rain, a game that avoids the space-conquering mode, and Shadow of the Colossus, a game which successfully critiques the space-conquering mode from within.
I recently watched Yasujirō Ozu’s Floating Weeds from 1959, and many features of the film’s cinematography remind me of Heavy Rain. Floating Weeds takes place in a small Japanese town, but the film never lays out the spatial relationships between features like streets and buildings. Even when the characters parade through the town near the beginning of the film, the outdoor spaces are not ordered by wide establishing shots or clear cutting, and they are never connected to the interior spaces where most of the film’s action takes place. Even in these interior spaces the sets are fairly generic and the avoidance of establishing shots continues. Rather than explain these spaces, the camera focuses on the characters. Indeed if a space is broken down and understood at all (or even identified) it is only through the characters, through their movement or dialogue. The characters alone motivate the placement of the camera; the spaces they inhabit seem to be completely excluded from consideration. This, however, does not really make Floating Weeds hard to follow. The characters seem to anchor viewers’ attention just as much as they anchor the camera.
Heavy Rain presents a similarly character-driven view of events. It takes place in a city, but it really deals with various spaces: a police station, a suburban home, a shopping mall, a junk yard, a warehouse, etc. None of these are ever connected to each other, which is somewhat surprising given that the game’s genre of murder mystery/police forensic drama often favors clearer detail (and in other areas the game is very detailed in this way). A few of the game’s sequences even hinge on maps, but these are always read very abstractly, evoking investigative procedure and other drama in a general way, rather than dealing with nuanced spatial relationships. Comparing this with the very strict use of maps in other games suggests that Heavy Rain’s approach is indeed quite different. That Heavy Rain follows characters who generally lack control over the situations in which they find themselves helps too, but a character-driven treatment of space helps the game feel much more like a film that is focused on human interaction, rather than a game which is focused on killing things and taking their land. Of course, Heavy Rain’s branching storylines separate it from cinema in a major way, making it a game-specific and interesting take on drama.
Then again, as I think I have said in earlier posts, current games and game technology have a really hard time representing the nuances and fluidity of human interaction. This isn’t to say that making a game like Heavy Rain in 2010 was premature, each step towards representing human interaction in games need to be taken sometime, but it does seem that games like Heavy Rain can’t fully realize their ambitions just yet. This may be why Heavy Rain received positive reviews, but perhaps more enthusiastic hype and previews (then again, most major game titles get a lot of pre-release hype these days, oh well).
Alternatively, Shadow of the Colossus, which is often lauded as a truly artistic video game, had no trouble realizing its aims when it was released on the Playstation 2. This is largely because the game is about going around and killing big monsters, something video games have been able to handle for quite a while now. However, as is never the case in a typical game of this sort, killing the monsters of Shadow of the Colossus is a horribly depressing enterprise. The music is grave, the settings are foggy and solemn, the main character never speaks, and the monsters (or perhaps that’s a loaded term) are never bothering anyone until the player’s avatar comes along, itching for a tussle. Reviewers often described the game’s fourteen colossi as monumental puzzles which the player must climb and stab in particular weak points. This observation rings true in some ways, but it also seems too mechanical, as the colossi also bleed streams of black liquid and cry out when they are attacked. Their deaths are never quick or kinetic, as death is in so many games; here death is slow and gruesome.
Shadow of the Colossus justifies all of this destruction by saying that the killing of the colossi will allow the protagonist to bring his lost love back from the dead. This is perhaps a decent goal, but I didn’t find it worth the necessary harrowing ordeals, so I twice started playing the game and twice stopped playing around colossus eight. Maybe it would be better to finish a game before writing about it, but I’m okay with this outcome, it feels more honest. In a medium that almost always makes killing and conquering fun, Shadow of the Colossus deserves a great deal of credit for making conquest unbearable for those who are interested in empathizing with the game. If the space-conquering mode is indeed masculine, Shadow of the Colossus asks “What’s so great about being masculine? Aren’t these things actually unpleasant?” rather forcefully.
Once again I’ll avoid speculating about the future of games or the general potential of the medium at the end of a post, but it seems clear that these atypical directions (a fittingly spatial word to use) are available for games to pursue (and indeed to conquer and dominate!).