Nothing says Durham like Robots, Japan and Video Games… wait a minute… Part Two

Posted: March 29, 2014 in Uncategorized
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Last Wednesday I took a day trip to Durham, primarily to attend a seminar run by the Inventions of the Text series  in the English Department [a department I was attached to, with the History, department for BA]. I saw BioShock and games narrative mentioned in one of the papers and we’ll, what’s an academic nerd girl going to do but turn up?

BioShock was one of the games that I had hoped to include in my PhD thesis before I realised that I just wasn’t going to have the words to do the research justice. As I am on a PhD by Creative Practice course my thesis is only 30-40,000 words, which is less than half a normal PhD thesis. My initial scope of film, anime and video games was a little over ambitious.

This doesn’t change the fact that the game BioShock fits all the criteria for my PhD research. It is set in a posthuman noir world with a very unreliable narrator/protagonist who navigates the gamer through the genetically modified nightmare of Rapture.

BioShock is a first person shooter game where the player inhabits the view point of Jack, a guy who is on an airplane that crashes in the sea near a lighthouse in 1960. On reaching the lighthouse Jack finds it is actually the entrance to the underwater city of Rapture, built by Andrew Ryan as a place where science and the arts could flourish outside of government control, or any control for that matter. Jack soon discovers that the citizens of Rapture made a breakthrough in genetic engineering through use of ADAM a substance harvested from sea slug, granting the citizens superhuman powers called plasmids.

 

As the trailer makes very clear this is a game which revolves around choices; the player’s, the characters’, the moral and the immoral decisions we will make to survive. This is what makes the twist and turns the player experiences as Jack all the more challenging.

Amnesiac playable characters are pretty common in computer games, they allow for important information about the world of the game to be explained to the gamer without it feeling too expositionally clunky. [NB – not always a successful strategy.] The first person shooter POV also places the gamer right into the view point of the character, usually with a pair of hands wielding weapons of mass destruction in front of you.

I’m not a huge fan of first person games, I think growing up playing Tomb Raider has made me feel more comfortable seeing the whole of my character on screen, from an over their shoulder P.O.V. But I warmed to BioShock because visually and narratively there was a lot of draw me in.

Now what makes BioShock different and unsettling is the twist in the identity of the unreliable, amnesiac protagonist. For two thirds of the game, you bomb along, following the directions of friendly rebellion leader Atlas, trying to survive the bat-shit crazy citizens of Rapture so you can escape to the surface and get your old life back. So far so ordinary for this type of game until the designers pull the rug from under your feet.

The fact that the playable character, the gamer’s identity within the game, is revealed to be false, a clone of Andrew Ryan who Fontane/Altas, designed to take out the king of Rapture, really sucker punches the gamer. Like the main character, the gamer believed they had some autonomy in the game world, they could explore where they wanted and could make large moral decisions like whether to harvest [kill] or free the Little Sister characters

But Jack, and the gamer, never really had any freewill and now ‘would they kindly’ play by the rules of the designers and die…

This brought the gamer to think about the horror of the game’s thematic concepts of brain washing, genetic cloning and control, but also to think about the process of playing videogames in general. Once you engage in playing a game you surrender your freewill to the game’s mechanics, don’t you? Or do you?

That issue was the crux of the paper given by Dr. Julian Reidy at the Inventions of the Text Seminar, titled “You just complicate the narrative!” Computer games as ‚Erzählspiele’ (narrative games). [That’s a quote from BioShock Infinite, by the way, Daisy Fitzroy shouts it at Booker in one of the alternative realities.]

Video game criticism usually falls into a debate between ludology  [it’s all about playing the game] and narratology [it’s the story, stupid]. Some critics feel that because the gamer is constrained by the rules of the game world, there is little room for the interpretation that occurs when someone reads a book or reads a piece of art and therefore games cannot exist as art in their own right. [I’m paraphrasing terribly and overly simplifying.] Needless to say this is something I disagree with.

Dr, Reidy posited a two way communication between gamer and game, demonstrating that narratives are developed from even the most simplistic game mechanisms, the gamer can’t help creating them; story cannot be cut from mechanism, they co-exist.

Moving on to BioShock Infinite he examined how the latest in the BioShock series [and the original game, in my opinion] draws the gamer’s attention to how they, and the playable character, complicate and reinvent the narrative—an attitude not much different from the way we engage with literature or history. Interesting, huh? And you thought it was all about mashing guys in the face with a skyhook…

Hopefully the article this talk was based on will be published and translated from German into English soon so that I can read and rethink the points raised.

[The talk also sparked a thought on my recent gaming/viewing.I’ve been revisiting the Silent Hill game series while watching Twin Peaks for the first time… Do we think Silent Hill 2 can be read as a game version of a Lynch film/show? I don’t know, but there are a lot of visual and narrative similarities.]

The second talk was given by a PhD candidate at UCL, George Potts, titled ‘You seen The Godfather?’ – The Sopranos and the postmodern gangster. The discussion revolved on the ways that fact and fiction inform each other.

The Sopranos exists in a modern world where the gangster characters would have seen films like the Godfather trilogy or Goodfellas. The show uses these already established media pieces to take apart the idea of the gangster, separating fact from fiction and howing the blurs in reality.

This got me thinking about my own creative work. How many times have I reacted to a horror movie by thinking ‘Why would they do that, haven’t they seen a horror movie before?’ I find characters who exist in ‘present day’ versions of reality who haven’t experienced the same cultural devices that we have stand out. It’s the same as writing a movie now without smart phones.

Any character of my generation or below—without a good excuse of growing up beyond the reach of electricity—would be hard pushed to not mention Tomb Raider, Indiana Jones, Uncharted or even Harry Potter when faced with an action adventure scenario. Are these references avoided because there is some copyright law doom looming or just writer oversight?

I reference the above Indiana Jones scene—the running behind the gong in the opening of Temple of Doom—when two characters in my adventure film attempt a similar trick to escape bad guys. “It worked in Indiana Jones, didn’t it?” says the love interest. “But that was a film!” the heroine retorts.

It felt natural that these characters, who were obsessed with archaeology, history and myth as kids, would have at least seen Indiana Jones movies. Movie referencing is part of our everyday slang, our short cut language of the twenty first century. I wonder if any character can feel realistic if they never reference games or films or tv shows? Is this any different from character referencing literature, poetry or myths?

I don’t know the answers, just ponder the questions…

So the seminar series did exactly what it should have, it provoked new academic and creative thoughts. It was an interesting, exciting and mentally stimulating evening.

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