Deconstruct Your Cake and Eat It Too

Image 1: Ellie hiding under a car, The Last of Us 2

Games originally had no stories; they were toys, vehicles for play and levity. Things changed, as graphical fidelity rose and budgets rose with it, more ambitious (and often more ‘realistic’) stories began to emerge. In the space of 30 years we went from Mario the plumber to Michael the career criminal, a man who faked his death, who is estranged from his son, who is struggling through therapy, and so on.

This ambition didn’t stop at detail and spectacle, however. Games wanted to be about things – violence, depression, fear, guilt. If Contra was about shooting guns, Call of Duty wanted to be about what it means to shoot guns. So much so that between deaths the player is given a quote to ponder as the game reloads the level, featuring the words of Hemingway, Shakespeare, Gandhi and Robert E. Lee, to name but a few.

Eventually, that ambition reached a natural-and-inevitable question: what if games were about themselves? Not about the cost war, but the cost of virtual war. What if games questioned the player’s role in the story, their obedience or defiance, their expectations and their assumptions? What if games were postmodern?

But wait, aren’t all games postmodern?

Great question, thanks for asking. Postmodernism rejects the notion of a shared truth, of objectivity and absolutes; so it makes sense that games, with the chaos of the player, would be ripe for analysis under a critical lens. We can see from Ihab Hassan’s oppositional binaries – pairs of opposing attributes belonging to modernism and postmodernism respectively – there are some clear ‘postmodern’ traits that abound in games; purpose becomes play, design becomes chance, centering becomes dispersal (Hassan, 1993).

Image 4: Hassan’s oppositional list of binary categories.

Barry Atkins coined the term “the Postmodern Temptation” with regards to these critical analyses of games – the terminology certainly suggests that viewing games in a postmodern lens would be natural fit; simulacrum, hyperreality, hypertextuality. Atkins warns that “such terminology does not always survive its transportation to the specifics of that experience.” (Atkins, 2003, pg. 15)

If postmodernism is “an incredulity towards metanarratives” (Lyotard, 1984), what is the metanarrative of Pac-Man? Of Chess? Of Snakes and Ladders? Perhaps sometimes a game is just a game, a pipe just a pipe.

Image 5: The Treachery of Images (of sorts)

Ergodic Literature

So not all games are postmodern, but some surely are: The Beginner’s Guide is a game about game developers, where the player is directly addressed in narration. Super Hot VR ends with the player being asked to assassinate themselves. Metal Gear Solid 2 is famously absurd, confusing, and often intentionally frustrating – cited by some as the first true postmodern game (Walker, 2013).

What, then, makes a game postmodern? E.J. Aarseth provides some wisdom here, with the term “ergodic”, deriving from the Greek words for “work” and “path”.

“In ergodic literature, nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text.”

(Aarseth, 1997, pg. 1)

So some games are ergodic, they ask more of the player than others. That of course begs the question…

What are they asking?

Image 6: Ellie holding a soldier at knifepoint, The Last of Us 2

The Last of Us 2 is a game about revenge, hate, cycles of violence, and consequences. The player takes the role of Ellie, a survivor in a post-apocalypse, and is tasked with murdering their way up the west coast of the USA in search of revenge.

It was the highly anticipated sequel to a game beloved by millions, but it had a rocky reception to say the least. There are many (many) complicating factors that led to the backlash it faced, much of which was in bad-faith, but the most prolific reaction to the game among fans and critics is that it was just “emotionally draining.” (Myers, 2020)

To proceed through the game, the player will be frequently asked to commit murder. Slicing throats, throwing jury-rigged grenades, shooting, slashing, stabbing. When an enemy is shot, they will scream out in pain and beg for mercy. If the player spares their lives, they will immediately draw their weapon and continue fighting. The player is given dozens of different strategic options in combat, but mercy is never one of them.

Could this be called ergodic, then? The player is made to watch violence, or to commit it, without any chance at intervention or redemption. While the game eventually resolves with an overall message of anti-violence, forgiveness, and community, there is no room for traversal of the text. The player is forced to kill people (and dogs) for 25 hours, watching the characters descend into misery and despair, and when the protagonist’s redemption does finally come, it arrives without the player’s consent or control. The result of this is not a critique, it is a lecture. A lesson given to a misbehaving child, who is made to smoke an entire pack of cigarettes under the watchful, disappointed eyes of their parents.

Now what?

Is that all there is, then? Is postmodernism so tied to cynicism that there is no room left for empathy? For an industry defined by its propensity for violence, by its desperate attempts to distance itself from its origins as toys for children, is it possible to critique games without also critiquing violence?

I think not, hope not. Nihilism, cynicism, pessimism – I hope these are not the sum of postmodern critical theory, but simply the first, curious steps. 

Kindness and joy are not abandoned alongside objective truth. It is possible for games to acknowledge the player without hating them, to give them room to ponder without trying to lecture them – to both respect the player’s intelligence, and their quality of character. When a player is allowed to be more than just an audience, a game will become more than just a toy.

Bibliography

Aarseth, E. J. (1997). Cybertext: Perspectives on ergodic literature. JHU Press.

Atkins, B. (2003). More than a game: The computer game as fictional form. Manchester University Press.

Hassan, I. (1993). Toward a concept of postmodernism. Postmodernism: A reader, 152.

Lyotard, J. F. (1984). The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge (Vol. 10). U of Minnesota Press.

Myers, M. (2020). The Last of Us Part 2 review: We’re better than this. Polygon. https://www.polygon.com/reviews/2020/6/12/21288535/the-last-of-us-part-2-review-ps4-naughty-dog-ellie-joel-violence 

Walker, P. (2013). Japanese Postmodernism and Fandom: The Rise of Raiden and What Kojima Really Meant. Gamasutra. https://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/BrettFujioka/20130306/187916/Japanese_Postmodernism_and_Fandom_The_Rise_of_Raiden_and_What_Kojima_Really_Meant.php?print=1 

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