niedziela, 4 czerwca 2017


But now, O LORD, you are our Father; 
we are the clay, and you are our pot­ter;
we are all the work of your hand.
~Isaiah 64:8
One of the most evoca­tive analo­gies for human change in the Hebrew scrip­tures is found in Isaiah, the oft-sung pas­sage por­tray­ing the deity as crafts­man and His peo­ple as clay. It must have been, and still is, an inti­mate image for Abraham’s descen­dants — that a divin­i­ty might tug upon our very selves, shap­ing us into beau­ti­ful, last­ing forms is flat­ter­ing, and it inspires feel­ings of safe­ty and hope that hear­ken back to the story of cre­ation, when Adam was fash­ioned from the earth. But it also clear­ly rel­e­gates the human body to a sub­ject role; the clay has no power to influ­ence its own cre­ation. Of course, since Darwin, we have known that evo­lu­tion is a con­ser­v­a­tive, ran­dom process that oper­ates (if it can be said to oper­ate) toward the goal of repli­ca­tion, and is cer­tain­ly not the pur­pose­ful artist that the author of Isaiah imag­ined.  But this image still had weight, since we were sub­jects in the con­tin­u­al re-creation of the human race, not agents. But now, that too is chang­ing. This image becomes less and less applic­a­ble as we con­sis­tent­ly gain greater abil­i­ty to become our own crafts­men. Now we can mold our­selves and mold oth­ers, and the promise of fur­ther influ­ence over the body gleams on the hori­zon.
Of course, just because we can doesn’t mean that we should. Deus Ex: Human Revolution is trans­fixed on the tran­shu­man shift that begins even now, and exam­i­nes many of the boons and pit­falls that com­mand over the flesh might entail. The nar­ra­tive begins in a time when aug­men­ta­tion of the body has become stan­dard fare, if not com­mon­place, but soci­ety hasn’t yet accli­mat­ed to the change yet, either. Augments are still very much attached to issues of class in Human Revolution’s imag­ined future, and so the play­er gains insight into how this tech­nol­o­gy might gen­er­ate soci­etal ills even as it simul­ta­ne­ous­ly enhances indi­vid­u­als.
Human Revolution is smart in its approach; it puts the play­er in the role of an indi­vid­u­al that was aug­ment­ed out of neces­si­ty, not out of choice, and this frees the play­er to explore the issue through a char­ac­ter that, like any nat­u­ral­ly evolved crea­ture, didn’t ask to be what he has become. As the nar­ra­tive plays out, Human Revolution treats Adam Jensen as a micro­cosm with­in which the explore the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of aug­men­ta­tion tech­nol­o­gy. One of the best, and most sub­tle, meth­ods it uses is con­scious­ly draw­ing on two opposed myths — the Icarus myth and the Adam and Eve myth — to exam­ine whether tran­shu­man­ism will be remem­bered as a Fall, or as a Rise from old lim­i­ta­tions.

The Fall

Human Revolution starts in the office of an unnamed busi­ness­man, who stands before a stat­ue of a winged man (the first instance of the Icarus motif) in a tower over­look­ing a sky­line and then turns to con­verse with a host of face­less, name­less indi­vid­u­als speak­ing via voice mod­u­lat­ed path­ways about a broad con­spir­a­cy appar­ent­ly affect­ing a wide pop­u­la­tion and which will run through the rest of the game. What has this cabal wor­ried is the new dis­cov­ery that Megan Reed, a sci­en­tist of Sarif Industries, is poised to reveal the very next day in Washington. The scene then shifts to a news broad­cast of Eliza Cassan, who is report­ing on anti-augmentation pro­test­ers who are protest­ing (in advance) the news that Megan Reed intends to share with Congress, that she has found a way to make aug­men­ta­tions “avail­able to all.” The scene pans back to encom­pass Dr. Reed her­self and the new head of secu­ri­ty of Sarif Industries, Adam Jensen, who is the player’s avatar. There are a few moments of con­text; the play­er can eas­i­ly pick up that Jensen and Reed have an inti­mate his­to­ry, but then the nar­ra­tive plows along and Sarif calls Adam up to see him.
The game then places the play­er in Jensen’s shoes, and he, like the play­er, is new to the flur­ry of work at Sarif Industries. What’s more, it’s clear that he has doubts about the ends of the research being done at the com­pa­ny. Reed accus­es him of over-thinking things; she insists that “The work we’re doing is good. We’re help­ing peo­ple over­come their phys­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions.” Adam coun­ters by point­ing out all the Department of Defense con­tracts that Sarif Industries has run­ning, and while Reed insists that they also work with teach­ers, doc­tors, and con­struc­tion work­ers, the play­er is then treat­ed to a demon­stra­tion of the Typhoon weapon sys­tem, a 360 degree radius attack sys­tem that lev­els every­thing around the indi­vid­u­al deploy­ing it. Reed con­tex­tu­al­izes it as a sort of “deal with the devil,” in that the defense con­tracts keep Sarif Industries afloat and helps fund tech­nol­o­gy that helps peo­ple, such as neu­ral enhance­ments that helps one think faster and react quick­er. There’s then a def­i­nite con­fir­ma­tion that Megan and Adam have a roman­tic past, but then they sep­a­rate so that Adam can con­tin­ue on to speak with Sarif. As for Sarif, he’s aglow with the new break­through that they’re going to reveal tomor­row, and the play­er gets a glimpse of just how con­vinc­ing Sarif can be. He specif­i­cal­ly claims that they are in no way tam­per­ing with the nat­u­ral order; instead, Megan sim­ply unlocked what was already there inside human DNA, thus allow­ing for a safer method than what tech­nol­o­gy that’s already preva­lent on the mar­ket allows for.
This is the per­fect way to intro­duce the game. It quick­ly estab­lish­es the set­ting, attrib­ut­es voic­es to the sides of the debate that will be explored in the nar­ra­tive, illu­mi­nates the themes of the work, and begins to char­ac­ter­ize Jensen. The nar­ra­tive kicks into action dur­ing the meet­ing with Sarif; an assault begins on Megan’s lab, and Adam rush­es down to inves­ti­gate and do what he can. Jensen engages or avoids the armed men mur­der­ing their way through the labs, and in the process catch­es sight of a few heavily-augmented sol­diers. One turns invis­i­ble; anoth­er is essen­tial­ly a walk­ing tank; and the last of them grabs Jensen and throws him through a wall, and doesn’t stop his assault until he has pul­ver­ized Jensen’s limbs and organs, and final­ly puts a bul­let through Jensen’s skull. And Jensen? Jensen is help­less dur­ing these pro­ceed­ings; again­st this sin­gle aug­ment­ed sol­dier, Jensen, a tough, trained, for­mer SWAT mem­ber, is utter­ly inef­fec­tive.
We are then treat­ed to a won­der­ful cut-scene that inter­spers­es slightly-stylized, ele­gant dia­grams of the mod­i­fi­ca­tions being done to Adam’s body and inti­mate, ultra-precise images of var­i­ous aug­men­ta­tions being installed with sce­nes from Adam’s mem­o­ry, specif­i­cal­ly of Adam mak­ing love to Megan. We hear her voice, say­ing, “I love you,” and whis­per­ing Adam’s name. This is a bril­liant scene for a cou­ple of dif­fer­ent rea­sons. First, the soft orange and yel­low hues that are so promi­nent in the cut-scene imply warmth (and indeed, the tight focus of many of the shots are near­ly womb-like; they are less clin­i­cal and more inti­mate), but also nos­tal­gia; it is this mix­ture of life begin­ning and life past. Second, we are get­ting a glimpse at what makes Adam tick. In his near-death state, his mem­o­ries are of lov­ing Megan Reed, and this glimpse at his moti­va­tions and desires coin­cide with our inti­mate glimpse of Jensen’s body. Finally, the images of this re-birth are mixed in with images of what Jensen is los­ing. The mem­o­ries of mak­ing love to Megan are phys­i­cal mem­o­ries, so tight­ly wound in with the body that he is los­ing now and forever. And so the play­er receives this dis­so­nant clash of ideas that simul­ta­ne­ous­ly show us who Adam is and who Adam is becom­ing; what Adam is gain­ing and what Adam has lost; death and re-birth. It effec­tive­ly estab­lish­es the ten­sion at the core of the game: what does it mean to be human? What are the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of what Adam has become? What does Adam rep­re­sent?

New Man

The rest of the game takes place six months after this rebirth, as Adam attempts to con­tex­tu­al­ize and dis­cov­er the truth behind both his own “death” and the mur­der of the woman he loved, let alone the many, many oth­ers that died in the attack. The play­er only ever knows him as an aug­ment­ed indi­vid­u­al from that point on. Most of his body is mechan­i­cal now; the game wastes no time in giv­ing the play­er a glimpse of Jensen’s sleek new body, which is designed to look as “human” as pos­si­ble in mus­cu­la­ture and form (in notable con­trast to near­ly all of the other aug­ment­ed indi­vid­u­als he encoun­ters). Even before we see the changes beneath Jensen’s cloth­ing, we expe­ri­ence the inside of Jensen’s head; where before the play­er had a clean, vacant view of the world, now there is a HUD over­laid, keep­ing track of Jensen’s vitals and offer­ing assis­tance in obser­va­tion and com­bat. Most of Human Revolution is set in first per­son, but occa­sion­al­ly the cam­era pans out onto Adam, usu­al­ly when he is doing some­thing intense­ly phys­i­cal, when Jensen him­self would be espe­cial­ly aware of his new body. Two notable exam­ples occur when Jensen engages in phys­i­cal com­bat with an oppo­nent, or takes cover in a fire­fight.
The changes to Jensen’s body are incred­i­bly ben­e­fi­cial for the actions the play­er is expect­ed to per­form, but it isn’t long before Human Revolution asks the play­er to think about Jensen’s new body.
In an early con­ver­sa­tion with Jensen’s pilot, Jensen is asked what he thinks about his new aug­ments; it’s a pow­er­ful moment for the play­er, who has just fin­ished up his or her first mis­sion and is prob­a­bly a lit­tle giddy, hav­ing just received the first chance to upgrade Jensen’s aug­ments (my Jensen had just become capa­ble of becom­ing invis­i­ble, and I was itch­ing to try it out). But then Faridah asks Jensen how he’s cop­ing, and the play­er is given a cou­ple of options, includ­ing a rather angry respon­se that reminds the play­er that this new body was forced on Jensen, no mat­ter how nec­es­sary or pow­er­ful the aug­ments were. This sen­ti­ment is dri­ven home to the play­er when they return to Jensen’s home; no mat­ter how the play­er had Jensen answer, a shat­tered mir­ror in the bath­room shows that Jensen has most def­i­nite­ly had trou­ble cop­ing with the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of his fail­ure.
It was a fas­ci­nat­ing dis­cov­ery, one that I can’t recall hav­ing with any other game. When Faridah asked how Jensen was, I answered that he was fine; his body had just come in handy. It had saved lives, in fact, and it seemed silly to begrudge it when it was so help­ful and had accom­plished so much good. But when I saw the mir­ror, I real­ized that Jensen (the Jensen that exist­ed between my choic­es and the char­ac­ter that the game pre­sent­ed) was lying, per­haps even to him­self. The arti­fi­cial body must serve as an ever-present reminder of what Jensen has lost. In a later scene, Jensen might admit that “Every time I touch some­thing I won­der — just for a sec­ond, every time — if what I’m feel­ing is real.” Jensen’s fail­ure and loss is total­ly embod­ied; Human Revolution is nuanced in that as it pro­vides the play­er with astound­ing, fun abil­i­ties, it reminds that the cost is Jensen’s peace of mind.
Jensen serves as the pro­to­type “New Human” for the play­er, and his own strug­gles with his iden­ti­ty is mir­rored in the wider soci­ety. Jensen’s stance on what he has been made into is ulti­mate­ly up to the play­er, but he can be por­trayed as angry and bit­ter, cold and detached, or as most­ly recov­ered and warm­ing to the ben­e­fits of his aug­ments. Society con­tains those voic­es and more, and they are por­trayed in the midst of anti-aug riot­ing in Detroit, in the broth­els of Hengsha, in the lit­er­al tow­ers of aug­men­tat­ed cor­po­rate exec­u­tives and in gangs that har­vest aug­ment­ed limbs from the liv­ing and the dead. Humanity is on a brink; there are those who are opti­mistic and excit­ed about the poten­tial of aug­men­ta­tion, but there are many who express fear at the obso­let­ing effect of aug­men­ta­tion, since aug­ment­ed indi­vid­u­als are bet­ter than non-augmented indi­vid­u­als in a phys­i­cal, vis­i­ble way, and at what some might say is a per­ver­sion of the sacred, nat­u­ral body.
Law is still in the process of defin­ing the role that aug­men­ta­tions will play out on a glob­al scale, and the play­er receives the rea­soned extremes of the argu­ment about the imple­men­ta­tion of aug­men­ta­tion tech­nol­o­gy via Jensen’s dis­cus­sions with David Sarif, who is both Jensen’s employ­er and the man who foist­ed the suite of aug­men­ta­tions onto Jensen’s dying body, and Bill Taggert, an anti-augmentation lob­by­ist whose wife was killed by a man suf­fer­ing from augmentation-related ill­ness. Sarif speaks con­vinc­ing­ly of an unreg­u­lat­ed future for aug­men­ta­tions; he por­trays him­self unflinch­ing­ly as a pio­neer explor­ing and widen­ing the bound­aries of human capa­bil­i­ties. Sarif is a vision­ary fig­ure, and fits the bill quite well. He total­ly believes in the cor­rect­ness of his posi­tion, even as he acknowl­edges its occa­sion­al unfor­tu­nate down­side, a “bro­ken egg” here or there. He is no saint, ask­ing Jensen to break the law on mul­ti­ple occa­sions, but he is a true believ­er. Taggart stands oppo­site, and acts in a con­sid­er­ably more oppo­si­tion­al role through­out most of the game, but he is an explic­it­ly polit­i­cal foe. One of the best sce­nes in the game has Jensen con­fronting Taggart in front of a live tele­vi­sion audi­ence over the involve­ment of one of his organization’s impor­tant mem­bers in a mas­sive kid­nap­ping job. Taggart always aims at Jensen, claim­ing that the trau­ma of loss and then aug­men­ta­tion has made him unsta­ble; it’s a tense, won­der­ful scene, but most­ly por­trays Taggart as savvy politi­cian. Taggart’s more nuanced argu­ments are hint­ed at via e-books found in the game (and com­piled for your ben­e­fit here).
Between the poles of these two men, the play­er and Jensen nav­i­gate whether the promise of aug­men­ta­tion tech­nol­o­gy is worth the cost in human lives and, poten­tial­ly, the human spir­it. Having estab­lished that, let’s move into an inves­ti­ga­tion of the two cho­sen myths.

Icarus — Rise, then Fall

The core of the Icarus myth is Daedalus’ and Icarus’ attempt­ed escape from Crete via wings that Daedalus fash­ions for him­self and his son. Daedalus warns Icarus not to fly too low or too high, but Icarus, either out of ambi­tion or the joy of free­dom, doesn’t lis­ten; he flies far too high, and the sun melts the wax of his wings, and so he plum­mets into the sea and drowns. The myth inter­acts with the themes of ambi­tion and power, and shares the same sort of struc­ture that is com­mon to the “Playing God” sci­ence fic­tion trope. Its main dra­mat­ic beats are a rise from impris­on­ment, but too far a rise, so that it ends in a sud­den fall. If Human Revolution is “read” as an Icarus anal­o­gy, then tran­shu­man­ism, espe­cial­ly aug­men­ta­tion, are the wings. All of human­i­ty acts as Icarus, but again, Jensen serves as rep­re­sen­ta­tive to human­i­ty in Human Revolution. But what exact­ly does “soar­ing too high” trans­late into, and what fall is feared?
Well, the flight of Icarus is eas­i­ly trans­lat­ed into the sheer capa­bil­i­ty of aug­ment­ed indi­vid­u­als. Human Revolution express­es this most clear­ly through the game­play. As Jensen unlocks more and more of the poten­tial of his aug­ment­ed body, he quick­ly becomes capa­ble of sneak­ing through or assault­ing heav­i­ly defend­ed instal­la­tions, or hack­ing any com­put­er in less than a min­ute. With very lit­tle effort, Jensen can become excep­tion­al­ly social­ly adept, obser­vant, and able to emit mood-altering pheromones, mak­ing him a very per­sua­sive indi­vid­u­al. Jensen is sim­ply bet­ter. This is true through­out the game, except in the instance of boss fights again­st the three mem­bers of Belltower’s “Tyrants” unit, the heav­i­ly aug­ment­ed indi­vid­u­als that Jensen sees in the last min­utes of his healthy, unaug­ment­ed life. In fact, there’s a real rever­sal of role every time Jensen enters close com­bat. Even trained sol­diers don’t stand a chance again­st him; with a sin­gle press of the but­ton, the play­er can mur­der or sub­due one (or even two) oppo­nents in a recre­ation of Jensen’s own “death.” Jensen has become just as unstop­pable because he was so bru­tal­ly ruined.
The boss fights are uni­ver­sal­ly con­sid­ered one of Human Revolution’s few fail­ings. They are so dif­fer­ent in form and con­tent that it feels like you’ve start­ed play­ing a dif­fer­ent (and worse) game; they were even designed by an out­side com­pa­ny. All the skills that you’ve been devel­op­ing sim­ply don’t hold true in these boss fights, and the play­er sud­den­ly finds them­selves up again­st an oppo­nent that will glad­ly eat their bul­lets and which they can­not avoid or talk their way through. If any­thing, this just under­scores how “nor­mal” the aver­age sol­dier that Jensen leaves bleed­ing or uncon­scious in his wake is, and how much of an impact these hyper-augmented sol­diers could have in a mil­i­tary envi­ron­ment. The three times that Jensen fights a foe that is as heav­i­ly aug­ment­ed as he, all the rules change.
It’s also worth not­ing that all two of the three boss fights are again­st oppo­nents with sig­nif­i­cant­ly less ele­gant chas­sis than Jensen’s; I bring it up because the mat­ter of design is impor­tant to the Icarus myth, and because Jensen’s advance through the ranks of the Tyrants is as much an aes­thet­ic move as a mil­i­tary one.
The first boss, Lawrence Barrett, is clear­ly suf­fer­ing from aug­men­ta­tion rejec­tion (in the skin where the metal ends on his jaw), and his com­plex­ion has start­ed to turn metal­lic. Moreover, the build is unnat­u­ral­ly heavy, with flanges and other defen­sive instal­la­tions, and one of his arms actu­al­ly hous­es a gun, mak­ing Barrett impos­ing, but cer­tain­ly not beau­ti­ful:

The sec­ond boss, Yelena Fedorova, has less obvi­ous defor­mi­ty, but her chas­sis is vague­ly non-human; the sharp edges of the torso are unap­peal­ing, and the scale of the body isn’t quite anatom­i­cal­ly right. It doesn’t show here, but her legs bend the other way as well, cre­at­ing a rather unset­tling effect:

The bod­ies of these first two boss­es are clear­ly unnat­u­ral. There is less fusion of form, so their limbs feel like addi­tions rather than part of the body, and they can­not be mis­tak­en for “nat­u­ral” humans, even with cloth­ing on.
The third boss, Jaron Namir, has a body that is clear­ly based on human mus­cu­la­ture. Only two-toed feet and an espe­cial­ly thin torso break from the nat­u­ral build:

While this bio-mimesis inspired body is very human in form, it still feels unfin­ished, since there is a star­tling lack of skin. Compare to the body of Jensen:

Jensen’s aug­ments are matte black and smooth like skin, but clear­ly have def­i­n­i­tion. What’s more, they have not replaced all of his body so much as fused with it, and the end result is that it feels nat­u­ral, and fin­ished. With each new boss, it’s as if we see the next design rung up the lad­der of aug­men­ta­tion tech­nol­o­gy, and Jensen’s tri­umph over his oppo­nents cham­pi­ons his nat­u­ral­is­tic aug­ments over their unnat­u­ral bod­ies. Jensen is at the apex of aug­ment­ed design — his aes­thet­ic is clean, smooth and inte­grat­ed, and in form he can pass as human.
In the Icarus nar­ra­tive, the design­er of the wings is not the ambi­tious char­ac­ter; in fact, Daedalus urges cau­tion. It is Icarus that pur­sues greater heights, and Icarus that falls. In Human Revolution, David Sarif is the most ambi­tious char­ac­ter, and he acts as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the parts of human­i­ty that also pur­sue the full poten­tial of aug­men­ta­tion. Nearly every encoun­ter with Sarif sees him reit­er­ate his vision of an improved human­i­ty, a pas­sion he no doubt received from the father-figure in his life. That role is filled by Sarif’s men­tor, Hugh Darrow, cre­ator of aug­men­ta­tion tech­nol­o­gy, who fills the role of mourn­ing father quite well.
Just as Jensen uncov­ers the Illuminati’s plot to con­trol all mechanically-augmented indi­vid­u­als, Darrow acti­vates an alter­na­tive sig­nal that dri­ves most aug­ment­ed indi­vid­u­als into a hallucination-fueled mur­der­ous fren­zy. He does this not as an evil mas­ter­mind, but because he seeks to prove the dan­gers of aug­men­ta­tion to human­i­ty. Like any phil­an­thropist, Darrow hoped that his tech­nol­o­gy would grow to help peo­ple, includ­ing him­self, but the inverse of his dreams were real­ized. Instead, his genet­ics made aug­men­ta­tion impos­si­ble for him, and the Illuminati and oth­ers had fash­ioned aug­men­ta­tion into a means of con­trol over the poor­er and weak­er. Now dis­il­lu­sioned, Darrow want­ed to break humanity’s enchant­ment with the tech­nol­o­gy that he made, and fash­ioned an atroc­i­ty to that end. Darrow sees his “child” soar­ing high­er much faster than he had hoped, and fears what will hap­pen, so he does some­thing that Daedalus could not: he engi­neers a less-fatal fall to cause human­i­ty to cast off its wings. It’s worth check­ing out the con­ver­sa­tion that Jensen has with Darrow at the end-game; it’s one of the best sce­nes in Human Revolution, and cap­tures a lot of the themes of the game.
As an Icarus tale, Human Revolution steps in right before the fatal fall. Humanity’s future rela­tion­ship with aug­men­ta­tion is uncer­tain, and so it is unclear whether aug­men­ta­tion will keep human­i­ty fly­ing, or whether it will just enable human­i­ty to plum­met from even greater heights. Darrow would cut off the wings to keep us safe, while Sarif push­es us toward the heav­ens, and Taggart urges cau­tion.

Adam and Eve — Fall, then Rise

The moniker of the avatar char­ac­ter, Adam, is a clear nod to the clas­si­cal Christian cre­ation myth, and it bears a few clear signs of fit­ting. Mythical Adam was the first man, and Human Revolution’s Adam sim­i­lar­ly acts as the source of a “New Human.” What is inter­est­ing is that this new peo­ple will not spring from Adam’s loins (at least, not pri­mar­i­ly), and Adam does not offer a gen­e­sis of new life; instead, Adam offers a solu­tion to a prob­lem in the lives of those who have already become “New Humans.” Specifically, aug­ment­ed indi­vid­u­als face prob­lems with rejec­tion of arti­fi­cial limbs and organs, a total­ly plau­si­ble bio­log­i­cal respon­se to what essen­tial­ly amounts to an alien, non-self enti­ty. White blood cells are sure to hate that new spring-laden steel leg, regard­less of its util­i­ty. One of the cen­tral objects of worry in future Detroit is the lim­it­ed avail­abil­i­ty of the drug Neuropozyne, which stops the even­tu­al build-up of glial tis­sue around aug­men­ta­tions. Adam, how­ev­er, doesn’t seem to need the drug; he suf­fers no ill effects from his aug­men­ta­tions.
This is because the source of the dis­cov­ery that result­ed in the attack that starts off the nar­ra­tive is Adam’s DNA, which does all the things listed in Patient's Book X (Subject X is Adam Jensen). Even the lan­guage in that entry (from in-game) begins to depict Subject X as a new being, total­ly match­ing the tran­shu­man­ist ideal and expressed in the nat­u­ral aes­thet­ic of Adam’s new body. The ner­vous sys­tem and the aug­ments become indis­tin­guish­able, since Adam’s biol­o­gy strength­ens rather than degrades the con­nec­tion with aug­ments. What was once two become one. Adam rep­re­sents a new level of fusion between tech­nol­o­gy and human­i­ty, a total incor­po­ra­tion of the machine into flesh. As such, he fits the role that his name opens. Adam is not only capa­ble of expe­ri­enc­ing this sym­bio­sis him­self, but also con­tains what is nec­es­sary to bring the rest of human­i­ty into a sim­i­lar sym­bi­otic rela­tion­ship with aug­men­ta­tions.
In part of a side-mission that is some­what dif­fi­cult to gain access to, the play­er might dis­cov­er that the peo­ple that Adam thought were his par­ents were not his birth par­ents at all. In fact, the ori­gins of Adam’s life is shroud­ed in mys­tery. Dr. Reed admits to being curi­ous about whether or not Adam’s unique DNA is the result of ran­dom evo­lu­tion, or is a pro­duct of human design; the game offers no clear answers, but due to his unique biol­o­gy and the cir­cum­stances of his child­hood, human design seems the most like­ly answer. At first glance, the age and overuse of the engi­neered man trope might blind the read­er, but the way that Human Revolution employs it makes a great deal of sense. If Jensen is, in fact, the pro­duct of human hands, then even the incep­tion of this new human­i­ty is a self-produced gen­e­sis. He is an Adam fash­ioned not from the dirt, but from the labs of men, and this fits very much with the game’s themes.
Also com­pelling is view­ing Megan Reed as Jensen’s Eve. They were lovers at one point, but again, it’s not Adam’s actu­al chil­dren that form this gen­e­sis. In an inter­est­ing turn, instead of tak­ing Adam’s rib, she mere­ly takes his DNA in order to bring about new “life.” From the per­spec­tive of the Illuminati, as pre­sent­ed at the begin­ning of the game, this dis­cov­ery can­not occur; Megan has eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, and in order to keep her from shar­ing that knowl­edge, the Illuminati step in to “exile” her. The Illuminati does have a few traits that resem­ble a Hebraic notion of God. It has the appar­ent best inter­ests of mankind at heart, and knows bet­ter than the indi­vid­u­al human what traits to cul­ti­vate. Moreover, it’s absolute­ly inter­est­ed in this “new race,” but it seeks to guide the direc­tion of that growth. At the start of the game, the Illuminati is the human deity watch­ing over the human birth of a new human­i­ty, and is still fash­ion­ing the leash to hang around its neck.
As for Adam, he has already left the prover­bial gar­den by the time the game hits full swing. He has already expe­ri­enced his Fall, and the rest of his action through­out the game is his Rise. The game con­tin­u­al­ly inves­ti­gates what Adam has lost. In the cre­ation myth, there is a trust bro­ken between God and human­i­ty; the Fall shat­ters the world, let­ting in death, but every­thing beyond that moment is a move toward recla­ma­tion of what the Garden con­tained, inter­pret­ed as a pur­suit for life with­out death, par­adise, or a healed rela­tion­ship with the divin­i­ty. Jensen acts this role well; when he dis­cov­ers that Megan is still alive, he does every­thing in his power to find her and heal the “sin” he com­mit­ted in allow­ing her to be taken. But just as he is on the cusp of find­ing her again, Adam has an encoun­ter with Jaron Namir. Upon defeat­ing the mer­ce­nary, his final words for Jensen are: “Men like us… we never get back what we love.” Namir is right; things are hard­ly the same, but the game doesn’t give much time to explore what the future of Jensen’s and Reed’s rela­tion­ship might be. Regardless, there is no ques­tion that Jensen can’t go back to how things were. He has lost his body, and with it he loses the poten­tial of return­ing to igno­rance of his own ori­gins and is ren­dered inca­pable of reclaim­ing his past.
Indeed, as much as Adam might recov­er in the nar­ra­tive, there is no going back to the gar­den, espe­cial­ly by the time Human Revolution has con­clud­ed. Adam’s DNA is enough for him to fill the “Adam” role, but that role is inten­si­fied when, as the game hits its denoue­ment, a huge deci­sion is placed in Adam’s hands. The truth of Darrow’s plan isn’t wide­ly known, and it is up to Adam to decide what mes­sage is broad­cast to the world. He can cham­pi­on Sarif’s visions and inspire the world to explore aug­men­ta­tion to its full, lis­ten to Taggart and encour­age restric­tions on the growth of aug­men­ta­tion tech­nol­o­gy, or ful­fill Darrow’s wish­es and scar humanity’s rela­tion­ship with aug­men­ta­tion. In this action, Adam truly acts as the head of this “new human­i­ty.” He decides what lim­its are placed on it, and he decides whether it should exist at all. He is also given a fourth option: to shirk his role as the Adam of tran­shu­man­i­ty and silence every­body who knows the truth (includ­ing him­self), allow­ing human­i­ty to choose its own path.
Ultimately, Jensen serves as an icon­ic man in Human Revolution, act­ing not only as the player’s avatar, but as an avatar of the human race. He is in a posi­tion to decide whether the world should be made in his own image. If the Illuminati play the role of God at the begin­ning of Human Revolution, by the end of it Adam has attained that influ­ence for him­self.


Smart games are often a rar­i­ty, and so it is incred­i­bly encour­ag­ing to see a game cre­ative­ly rein­ter­pret icon­ic sto­ries and carry as much rich nar­ra­tive con­tent as Human Revolution does. It does an incred­i­ble job of mak­ing every part of its play­time, even side-missions, work toward inves­ti­gat­ing its core themes and cre­ates an open field for the play­er to decide whether or not human enhance­ment is a future we should seek, and even then caus­es us to think about what we can do to avoid the sometimes-bleak future por­trayed here.
Good on you, Eidos. And as always, I am eager to hear your thoughts, dear read­er.

niedziela, 14 maja 2017

Skyrim is Gonzo Pornography

After 70 hours or so of play, I finished the main quest line of Skyrim. By this point I had completed the Thieves' Guild quest line and a smattering of other quests from all over the map. I had discovered dozens of dungeons, slain many dragons, and finished more petty side-quests than I care to admit. When I decided to stop wandering the map and focus on finishing the central plot of the game, I was able to complete my remaining tasks in a couple hours, kept slow by my insistence on playing as a Bosmer archer instead of using any of the many methods of combat that render encounters trivially easy to complete. As the dragon-god Alduin evaporated in a shiny flash of elaborate death animations, I didn't feel like a hero. I wasn't even sure I had actually finished the main questline, there was so little fanfare. What I did feel like was that I had just finished a cheap porno, and that I should probably start playing something else before someone noticed me.
Why am I comparing a game that I enjoyed for 70 hours to grotesque sleazery? Essentially, I couldn't come up with a better comparison. The key features of an Elder Scrolls game, Skyrimin particular, seemed to match up quite closely to the most prominent qualities of gonzo pornography:
  • Highly visually glamorized characters and scenery (It's Sexy!)
  • Shallow details giving the illusion of coherence (It's Fantasy!)
  • Self-paced and finely categorized consumption (It's Yours!)
  • Exaggerated and unwavering mood (Hit Me Baby One More Time!)
I'll elaborate a bit on what I mean by each of these headings in their own heading.

Why Gonzo Pornography?

Pornography is a fascinating industry with an immense vocabulary of ludicrously specific jargon for things which most people would probably prefer never had names. In porn, the term 'gonzo' refers to a particular method of production that emphasizes first-person style camera work while eschewing such trappings as dialogue, costuming, plot, or other features common to virtually any genre of film. It's all about cutting right to the heart of what the consumer is looking for without any of the additional features one might search for to ameliorate one's guilt about consuming the thing. It doesn't pretend that you want to know that the man in question is a plumber or that there are quite believable reasons for him to be having a threesome with those sorority girl roommates; it's simply the rawest, most base form of a product that could otherwise be delivered with niceties to assuage the conscience of the viewer.
So. How is Skyrim like gonzo?

It's Sexy!

Twenty minutes of playing the game will leave you floored at the visual quality of  the presentation. Every flower is beautifully placed. Every stone is elaborately crafted to be geologically convincing and topographically novel. All the bodies in Skyrim are crafted to represent idealized hard-bodied northmen, hardy and lovely women, and anatomically improbably lithe elven folk. While the idealization of bodies is hardly unique to Skyrim, it's just one example of a broader maximalist aesthetic. Every element is designed to be as exaggeratedly beautiful as possible.The sheer pervasiveness of the same level of detail across the whole setting is just stunning.
In fact, it's so stunning, you eventually lose the sense of wonder at how gorgeous the whole thing is. Your aesthetic standard is almost polluted with beauty. Your innate need to have something unbeautiful to contrast it against starts nitpicking details the same way the gonzo consumer begins deconstructing his or her experience. The Skyrim player gets irritated at two people sitting at a table using the same shuffling animation, and the gonzo watcher becomes dissatisfied that the actress isn't wearing heels in this one. In Skyrim, every book full of unique stories rapidly becomes a vacant prop that is to be ignored; in gonzo, the actress from the aforementioned threesome becomes background noise once she becomes familiar to the viewer if she isn't the direct focus of attention. Simply due to direct and constant exposure, what can be a compelling and enthralling display rapidly becomes banal and insignificant by being presented as the normal and commonplace.

It's Fantasy!

Skyrim lets you do exactly what you want in a game world. Do you want to cook? Create potions? Hunt bears? Lounge in the library of the mages' college reading story books? Climb a mountain? Pick pockets? Save the world from a risen dragon-god bent on bringing about the end of the world as is his sworn duty? No matter what sort of high-fantasy activity you've dreamed of doing, Skyrim helps you do it in fine detail.
Compare to pornography consumption. Do you want one actress or three? Blondes or brunettes? Leather or lace? First person or third person? What positions and props? The menu of options is staggeringly huge and specific to a degree that makes your average movie categories seem woefully inept in comparison. Once you've made your selections, the details will be trotted out in the same form as any other gonzo piece. Posing, teasing, stripping, sex acts to match your specific order, and, finally, the ever important finishing shot.
In either case, the whole parade displays an astonishing degree of care and attention paid to the specific demands of the current audience. They don't really need to fit into anything larger than their existent focus, they exist as self-contained motes of perfectly-packaged experience to satisfy a highly-specific appetite. The alchemy table is strewn with arcane goods, and your character diligently grinds mysterious things with a mortar and pestle while combining their magical ingredients. The gonzo camera moves to the perfect angle to expose exactly the view of human flesh performing exactly the motion you desire in the colors requested.
Do the props really enhance the whole? Do you really find Skyrim more compelling because you can actually read every god damn book in the game? Do you really find the gonzo cheerleader more compelling because the actress threw some pom-poms away before otherwise occupying her hands?
I finished the game having cooked exactly once, for the sake of getting an achievement (a statement which, in itself, probably deserves an article). Every activity in the game exists because someone might want it, not because it enhances something bigger than itself. The pieces don't necessarily come into conflict with each other, but the fact that everything is optional in the game leads all the pieces to feel unimportant. Compare this to Arkham City, where every gadget you find adds a new dimension to combat, opens up new areas of the game world to explore, has unique puzzles that can only be solved by using that gadget, and is likely an essential piece of a unique and thrilling boss fight. Everything is necessary and everything has a purpose, yet you still have choices about how, when, and whether you accomplish them.
Am I wrong to think the Arkham City approach is better?

It's Yours!

An essential part of the Elder Scrolls experience is that you be rewarded for seeking out the specific subcategory of the game's options you want to pursue at that moment. Skyrim lets you do anything you want to attempt at any time. There's no need to prioritize. You control exactly what you want to focus on at any time, and you get the appropriate reward for what you choose to pursue at no detriment to any other goal you could be striving toward.
Compare to a gonzo porn: all the pieces you might want from it at any time are there, and can be accessed with no detriment to the whole piece. While it would be fruitless and confusing to skip halfway through any Hollywood blockbuster, gonzo doesn't care what you're there for. If you want to skip the striptease, or put a particular scene on loop, there's no integrity there for you to damage.
If I started listening to random clips of narration from Bastion, I would have no bleeding clue what was going on. There'd be no coherent plot, no drama, no tension, no mystery, no satisfaction when a hidden truth came to light. If I started jumping to random scenes from The Prestige, everything would be meaningless and confusing, and the delightful surprise revelation of the movie would be lost in a nonsensical jambalaya of film.
Structure for these experiences enhances their quality. Bastion has a superb array of decisions built into it, such as what weapon loadout you want to use, what upgrade paths to choose, and what order to complete the map in, but it nests all of these in challenges and narrative points that lend them all a beautiful poignance. Skyrim simply unzips its fly and says "Go nuts!'

Hit Me Baby, One More Time!

This last point is more of the aggregation of the above points. When your senses are assaulted constantly by something with hyper-glamorized visuals, highly specific content segregation, and no penalty or reward for jumping immediately to the portion most appetizing to your basest appetite, what does this make of the whole? A solid block of raw, homogenous stimulus, carefully engineered to over-stimulate your most fundamental lizard-brain pleasure centers.
Nothing in Skyrim is special. No one in gonzo is loved. Either one satisfies your immediate and specific appetites, but are you enriched by either? Or do you walk away from both feeling like you've consumed something that has altogether diminished not only you as an intellectual and moral being, but also reduced a potentially edifying activity to a degrading parody of something good? They satisfy your crudest desires but also mock genuinely enriching media by mimicking their trappings while failing to use them in any meaningful sense.
When my dragonborn was in Sovngarde, letting loose the arrow that slew the god-dragon, the experience held so little drama that I wasn't sure that was all the battle and story had to offer. The combat had taken maybe 80 seconds of plinking on a bow-string while Alduin munched casually on one of the three Nord warriors assisting me in the battle. Some wooden characters stood perfectly still around me and played sound bites about how I'd be celebrated as a hero in the mortal realm. When I got bored staring at the pretty aurora in Sovngarde, I was sent back to Skyrim and told by Arngeir, spokesman of the Greybeards, that I was now free to choose my destiny.
It was roughly as thrilling as watching someone ejaculate, albeit not quite as creepy. Alduin's death is supposed to be a climactic moment of intense emotional and dramatic release, but instead it ran together as just another shiny moment in a game full of sparkly objects.

Everyone Loves Porn

Pornography destroys a great deal of the experienced value of what it seeks to portray by exaggerating a stable of finely-tuned details to the greatest extreme possible. By focusing on breast size, noisy cries of pleasure, and colorful latex costumes, it focuses on extreme elements of experience to depict something that is larger than and wholly alien from the subject matter it supposedly depicts.
I don't want this to sound like I'm moralizing, or even claiming that this is a bad thing. People have appetites, and we wouldn't be playing Skyrim or watching "Butt Battalion 37" if there weren't some sort of desire or need we had as human beings. I'm not going to tell people what to do with their joysticks.
What I do want to say is that Skyrim is not Citizen Kane or a Michaelangelo sculpture. It's a phenomenal technical achievement. It's actually really fun, and it's very good at providing a large variety of game experiences. It just isn't very good art.

niedziela, 23 kwietnia 2017

On Urgency

During a recent talk with one of my gamedev friends, I pass­ing­ly men­tioned that a game works much bet­ter as art when its game­play rein­forces its sense of nar­ra­tive urgen­cy. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but on fur­ther reflec­tion I think that it’s an impor­tant piece of the Plot vs. Fun puz­zle, and a use­ful lens for explor­ing games as art. I want­ed to explore it in fur­ther detail in hopes of address­ing some ques­tions that I raised pre­vi­ous­ly, and to add anoth­er term to the AAG’s lex­i­con of ana­lyt­i­cal con­cepts. Since the city of Warsaw requires me to warn peo­ple when I’m about to unload a wall of text, my dis­cus­sion will take place after the jump.
When I talk about urgen­cy, I mean a belief held by the play­er that they must under­go a par­tic­u­lar course of action with­in a speci­fic time­frame to achieve their goal. We see urgen­cy most direct­ly when we’re dodg­ing pat­terns in a bul­let hell game or floor­ing the gas pedal in a rac­ing title, but I want to use the term more broad­ly to include goals like mak­ing sure that I’ve swept every inch of a Zelda dun­geon for heart con­tain­ers before get­ting ready to con­front the boss. In this sense, urgen­cy is not nec­es­sar­i­ly about mak­ing the play­er feel pan­icked, but about inter­nal­iz­ing the imper­a­tive of the game. Jane McGonigal address­es this when she talks about using games as a model for gen­er­at­ing whole-hearted par­tic­i­pa­tion in activ­i­ties.

A Little History

Early video games such as Missile CommandAsteroidsSpace Invaders, and Galaga all cre­at­ed a sense of urgen­cy by rapid­ly ramp­ing up the dif­fi­cul­ty of the game as you con­tin­ued to play. More tar­gets, faster ene­mies, and more com­plex tac­tics reward­ed skilled play with greater chal­lenges, which cre­ates a sense of accom­plish­ment while also avert­ing bore­dom. While this is born part­ly out of a need to force peo­ple to feed more quar­ters into the arcade cab­i­net, it was also excel­lent game design that cre­at­ed a sense of urgen­cy in the play­er to reach his or her goal.
In these early titles, there isn’t much nar­ra­tive to speak of. “Kill the aliens!” is enough story for quite a lot of video games, but for the first few gen­er­a­tions of gam­ing the exclu­sive focus was the game­play mechan­ics. Many of the arche­types of “mini-game” for­mats come from this era, and the game­play is good for a rea­son: it presents a goal, and increas­es the com­plex­i­ty or dif­fi­cul­ty of accom­plish­ing that goal at a rate cor­rel­a­tive with the player’s increase in skill. Among other rea­sons, they suc­ceed as games because the game­play rein­forces the sense of urgen­cy to accom­plish that goal.
As games have grown more com­plex and sto­ry­li­nes have become more elab­o­rate, we start fac­ing the Plot vs. Fun prob­lem: telling a good story requires seiz­ing the player’s sense of agen­cy, but end­less play­er free­dom is going to harm the story because you can’t con­trol the pac­ing or order­ing of events that lead up to them per­form­ing the right action to advance the story…
…unless they’ve inter­nal­ized the nar­ra­tive and have a sense of urgen­cy to ful­fill it.

Urgency Done Right

I’d like to elab­o­rate an exam­ple of how a game can match nar­ra­tive urgen­cy to game­play at mul­ti­ple paces with­in a sin­gle title. The AAG’s favorite dead horse to beat is Planescape: Torment, and I’m going to mer­ri­ly flog it fur­ther. While it’s not the explic­it struc­ture of the game, I want to break it up into three acts to talk about how each one uses a dif­fer­ent style of play to cre­ate an con­tex­tu­al­ly appro­pri­ate sense of urgen­cy.
In the first act, that level is zero. After wak­ing up in the mor­tu­ary with no mem­o­ries and dis­cov­er­ing that you can­not die, you are left to wan­der around the city of Sigil to learn about where you are, and your choic­es deter­mine your iden­ti­ty by chang­ing your moral align­ment, your class, and the atti­tudes and dia­logue choic­es you have with NPCs. There is no clear force out to get you, and the only objec­tive you have is the mes­sage carved on your back to seek out an object from a mys­te­ri­ous fig­ure named Pharod. The time it takes you to get your bear­ings and learn about the set­ting is designed to let you lux­u­ri­ate in the gor­geous design of the set­ting and swim around gen­uine­ly rich dia­logue.
Combats are most­ly option­al, you can explore any part of the city, and none of the NPCs give you the typ­i­cal “gath­er 5 mod­ron sprock­ets and bring them back to me” quests, save for one char­ac­ter that lamp­shades it heav­i­ly and embeds it in a ridicu­lous chain of fetch quests that are designed to irri­tate your char­ac­ter. As you explore the city and meet more peo­ple, you even­tu­al­ly find sev­er­al of your old jour­nals, and find your way to con­front Ravel Puzzlewell, the night hag who put you in this predica­ment.
The sec­ond act begins after Ravel tells you how your sit­u­a­tion arose, and the mys­te­ri­ous shad­ows that have begun to appear around you kill her before she can tell you where to find the solu­tion to your con­di­tion. At this point, the game shifts to a faster pace, as new areas are opened up for you to explore, and you sud­den­ly have a much clear­er goal: fol­low the trail the source of your con­di­tion, and put it to an end. This sends you trav­el­ing to pris­on worlds, extra-dimensional forges, and lay­ers of Hell itself look­ing for the secret to end­ing your tor­tur­ous cycle of rebirth. The scenery is just as rich, but the explic­it goal is clear­er and the forces stand­ing in your way are much more men­ac­ing. Rather than explor­ing for the sake of learn­ing your sur­round­ings, you are work­ing on locat­ing the small clues that add up to your find­ing the secret loca­tion of the source of your tor­ment.
The third part begins with the final stage of your hunt for the one who can tell you that loca­tion, and the final con­fronta­tion that decides your ulti­mate fate. This is an intense race through a col­laps­ing demi­plane on the edge of Hell, fight­ing end­less waves of pow­er­ful demons, and rac­ing to the fortress of the one who has been pro­long­ing your eter­nal tor­ture. The Fortress of Regret is not large, but the tremen­dous, des­per­ate efforts of your tor­menter kills your entire party, leav­ing you alone with your foe for a final con­flict that is bril­liant­ly writ­ten and which I have never seen topped. For the last hour of the game, you feel that the fate of some­thing truly immense rests on your actions. It’s grip­ping and heart-rending, and you absolute­ly can­not stop play­ing.
The urgen­cy of each act is com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent. When the game is meant to be explorato­ry and self-paced, noth­ing press­es you. When free-form explo­ration gets tire­some, you are given a focused goal with some flex­i­bil­i­ty around how you pur­sue it. Meaningful obsta­cles begin to push you toward your goal as the Shadows attack you when you spend too much time in areas you don’t need to revis­it. As the game draws to a cli­max, your path is short, direct, and astound­ing­ly intense. There is no chance to pause and col­lect your­self, and giv­ing you such a break would detract from the enor­mi­ty of your pur­suit.

Urgency Done Wrong

The con­verse sit­u­a­tion occurs when a game com­plete­ly fails to match the urgen­cy of your imper­a­tive with the game­play. I think the best exam­ple of this defi­cien­cy is in the Elder Scrolls titles, par­tic­u­lar­ly Oblivion. The gates of hell itself are rip­ping tremen­dous holes in the wall of real­i­ty, and Cyrodil will be flush with demons if a brave adven­tur­er doesn’t step forth to seal the breach. You are that adven­tur­er, and you can lit­er­al­ly spend years in-game col­lect­ing wild­flow­ers, with­out penal­ty, after the quest-relevant NPCs tell you that the world will sure­ly end if some­one doesn’t imme­di­ate­ly seal the Oblivion gates. There’s absolute­ly noth­ing dri­ving you to do any­thing. Ever.
The prob­lem with Oblivion is that all of your objec­tives, no mat­ter how triv­ial or dire, are of equal impor­tance. Nothing moti­vates you to com­plete any of them aside from tra­di­tion­al adventurer’s avarice. This is part of the appeal for many peo­ple, as you can sim­ply do what you want to do and explore a tremen­dous and beau­ti­ful world at your own pace, seek­ing as much com­bat or com­merce as tick­les your fancy. As much as I enjoy this, the plot states direct­ly that inac­tion will lead to hor­ri­fy­ing con­se­quences, and fails to deliv­er on that threat. If the game tells me the world will be flood­ed with demons unless I do some­thing, then it should bloody well flood the world with demons if I spend my time try­ing to steal every fork in the world.
This is not to say that I dis­like the Elder Scrolls games, as I adore play­ing Morrowind and Skyrim. I do, how­ev­er, think it harms them as art to have such a jar­ring dis­par­i­ty between the threats in the nar­ra­tion and the threats in the game. Morrowind worked slight­ly bet­ter by hav­ing a lurk­ing, loom­ing dread in Dagoth-Ur rather than an unstop­pable army con­stant­ly boil­ing forth from hell itself, and Skyrim at least drops a giant freak­ing drag­on on my head if I spend too long muck­ing about in the mid­dle of nowhere. Still, all of them have a rather absent sense of urgen­cy, as there is no reward or penal­ty for com­plet­ing objec­tives swift­ly or over the course of months in the game. The nar­ra­tive they are try­ing to build feels as impor­tant as the mean­ing­less copies of the Biography of Barenziah on the book­shelves of every last cit­i­zen of Tamriel.

The Continuum

As with most of my ideas, urgen­cy as a dimen­sion of games-as-art is a con­tin­u­um. Some games work at each end and every­where in between. Deus Ex plays won­der­ful­ly along that con­tin­u­um by alter­nat­ing between wide open city streets that you can explore at leisure to tense sce­nes of escap­ing from giant col­laps­ing build­ings. Some games stick firm­ly to the full-blown panic end of the spec­trum: bul­let hell titles and fight­ing games are short, intense bouts of fran­tic strug­gles to stay alive and defeat your oppo­nents. Titles like Civilization give you all the time in the world to plan and design what you want to see, never forc­ing you to end your turn pre­ma­ture­ly or set­ting dead­li­nes for your goals.
Urgency is a tool in the game designer’s kit, and good exe­cu­tion depends on match­ing the urgen­cy of the game­play to the nar­ra­tive goal you are try­ing to rein­force. Part of the rea­son that ran­dom com­bats in Final Fantasy titles irri­tate the liv­ing crap out of me is because they inter­rupt my desire to com­plete a goal; it feels like the game is need­less­ly obstruct­ing my desire to accom­plish the objec­tives it sets out for me. Planned encoun­ters are fine, as I am per­fect­ly will­ing to fight through a fiendish gauntlet of ene­mies if it makes sense for me to do so. Random encoun­ters like fight­ing yet-another-goddamn-goblin while trav­el­ing from point A to point B, how­ev­er, do very lit­tle to enhance my sense of pro­gress and achieve­ment, and some­times ham­per it by con­sum­ing pre­cious min­utes of game time imped­ing my pro­gress. Combat events may be intense and require action and strat­e­gy, but if they don’t build on my sense of pro­gress, then they are fail­ures. “Urgency” in the sense of “act now or die” doesn’t always com­ple­ment my use of the term.

What It All Means

My mis­sion here at the Analytically About Games is to take games seri­ous­ly as art. Sometimes this means explor­ing sin­gle titles like book reviews, exam­in­ing the details of a game as aes­thet­ic expe­ri­ences and offer­ing com­men­tary. More often, I try to artic­u­late what aspects a game can pos­sess that enhances its value as art, such as its sense of immer­sion and how its inter­face pro­vides an expe­ri­ence that can­not be had through a dif­fer­ent medi­um. A robust vocab­u­lary for dis­cussing games as art helps peo­ple under­stand why I love games so much, and why I think they can and should be taken seri­ous­ly as enrich­ing expe­ri­ences.
My thoughts above are offer­ing a term that may or may not wind up being use­ful in look­ing at other titles. The core themes that I’ve writ­ten about are immer­sion and inter­ac­tiv­i­ty, how they are not syn­ony­mous in games, and how they are essen­tial com­po­nents to under­stand­ing games qua games and games qua art. Urgency is anoth­er dimen­sion of both, and a good game will prob­a­bly lend itself to being dis­cussed in such terms. It may not stick, but it might inspire insights into other titles you’d like to share on our hum­ble blog.

poniedziałek, 17 kwietnia 2017

You’re a Legend, Mr. Wayne

It’s Batman time.  Again. (Always).
Last time, I men­tioned that Arkham Asylum, (though real­ly neat), most­ly doesn’t exam­ine the Batman mythos with any real gran­u­lar­i­ty.  “You are Batman,” it says, “Now go punch peo­ple.”  By and large, Arkham Asylum is a game about how cool it is to dress up in tights and a cape, but there are a few moments when it stops to ask the play­er a few ques­tions about what it real­ly is to be Batman, and those are the sec­tions I want to talk about today.
The Scarecrow is an old Batman vil­lain who plays a rel­a­tive­ly small but mem­o­rable role in Arkham Asylum.  If you’re unfa­mil­iar with the Scarecrow, all you real­ly need to know is that he is an ex-psychologist who is obsessed with fear, and has invent­ed a pow­er­ful hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry fear gas which caus­es his vic­tims to relive their worst fears and night­mares.  The specifics of his place in the plot are not real­ly impor­tant, as the sec­tions which fea­ture him stand entire­ly (and some­what jar­ring­ly) on their own.  In any Scarecrow story, Batman is inevitably affect­ed by the fear gas, treat­ing the reader/viewer/player to an exam­i­na­tion of what Batman fears the most.  In the best Scarecrow sto­ries, these moments allow us to learn more about the human side of the Dark Knight.  In the worst, the story sim­ply gets trip­py and weird for a while before return­ing to nor­mal­cy.
Arkham Asylum infects Batman with the gas on three sep­a­rate occa­sions.  These three moments allow the game to put on its arty hat and dig a lit­tle deep­er into the psy­chol­o­gy of everyone’s favorite brood­ing vig­i­lante.

The Form

The Scarecrow sequences fol­low a pret­ty strict form: first, Batman will get infect­ed with fear gas, cough for a while, and then keep walk­ing with­out any obvi­ous dra­mat­ic shift.  As time goes by, things get pro­gres­sive­ly stranger and stranger as the toxin works through his sys­tem and Batman begins to hal­lu­ci­nate.  Eventually, these hal­lu­ci­na­tions cul­mi­nate in a com­plete depar­ture from real­i­ty where­in the play­er is required to play through a minigame with com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent rules from the main game.
In these minigame sec­tions, Batman is placed in a near­ly two-dimensional space com­posed of small pieces of the Asylum, float­ing in space.  In the cen­ter of this space stands a fifty-foot tall Scarecrow, slow­ly rotat­ing around and look­ing for Batman.  His gaze is rep­re­sent­ed by a halo of orange light, and the play­er must avoid this light by hid­ing behind walls and only duck­ing through exposed spaces when the Scarecrow is look­ing else­where.  If Batman stum­bles into the Scarecrow’s gaze, the play­er receives an instant game over as the giant looms over a cow­er­ing Batman.
After suc­cess­ful­ly dodg­ing the Scarecrow’s gaze and sur­mount­ing some straight­for­ward obsta­cles, the play­er will come upon a Bat-Signal.  Interacting with the Bat-Signal caus­es Batman to shine the light direct­ly onto the Scarecrow, who will cry out and van­ish.  At this point, the hal­lu­ci­na­tion ends, and Batman comes back to the real world, hav­ing com­plete­ly shrugged off the fear gas with­out any appar­ent lin­ger­ing side effects.

The Content

At first, these sec­tions read as Batman con­quer­ing his fears and there­by sur­viv­ing the tem­po­rary insan­i­ty pro­duced by the gas.  Batman endures the hal­lu­ci­na­tions and then comes out the other end by remind­ing all con­cerned that he’s Batman, dammit, and is there­fore immune to your stu­pid poi­sons.
The first time I played the game, I took these sec­tions at face value, and there­fore found them to be an enjoy­able enough change of pace, but didn’t feel like they lived up to their full poten­tial.  But as I thought about them later, I sud­den­ly real­ized they deserved a closer look.
What is the play­er actu­al­ly doing dur­ing the minigame sec­tions, the real moments of game­play?  The large Scarecrow in the mid­dle of the world is not the actu­al per­son, but a pro­jec­tion of Batman’s fears.  If the play­er runs out and tries to con­front the Scarecrow (and thus, Batman’s fears), direct­ly, he or she is greet­ed with a game-over screen.  The play­er must thus hide from Batman’s fears, must avoid com­ing into direct con­flict or con­tact with them.  Practically every other obsta­cle in the game is defeat­ed through the use of phys­i­cal force.  Batman does hide in the shad­ows when he is attack­ing a group of armed thugs, but he does so only until the play­er can iso­late them and beat them into sub­mis­sion.
But the play­er never actu­al­ly fights Batman’s fears.  Batman never punch­es the huge Scarecrow, never fights with him, never throws Batarangs at him.  Instead, he runs away from him.  He com­plete­ly avoids the Scarecrow’s gaze, and if he allows him­self to be bathed in the light of the Scarecrow’s eyes, to be caught and forced to reck­on with his deep­est fears, he goes com­plete­ly insane.
Batman is not fac­ing his fears and tri­umph­ing over them, he is run­ning away from them.  Each sec­tion forces Batman to inter­act with ele­ments of self-doubt– all of the hal­lu­ci­na­tions relate to Batman’s per­cep­tion of him­self.  Each time the Scarecrow poi­sons Batman, he forces him to take a long, hard look at him­self.
And how does Batman shake off the toxin?  Not by accept­ing the fears, or by con­fronting them, but by shin­ing the Bat-Signal on the image of the Scarecrow, lit­er­al­ly stamp­ing the Batman emblem on his fears.  This is an act of self-definition, of reassert­ing his iden­ti­ty in the face of the unpleas­ant intro­spec­tion the fear gas is mak­ing him under­go.  When Batman shi­nes the bat-signal on the Scarecrow, he is redefin­ing him­self as Batman, “tri­umph­ing” over his fears not by con­fronting them, but by remind­ing him­self who he is.  Batman is an idea more than he is a per­son, and by shin­ing the Bat-Signal on his fears, Bruce reasserts his iden­ti­ty as the leg­end.  He is not Bruce Wayne, he is the @#$%# Batman.
The fact that he shrugs off the effects of the gas all at once imme­di­ate­ly after this act of self-definition indi­cates that he is com­plete­ly repress­ing his fears and self-doubt, shunt­ing them out of his mind, con­quer­ing his fears not by fac­ing them and let­ting them pass through him, but by putting his fin­gers in his ears and shout­ing “I’m Batman and Batman is not afraid of things,” until they go away for a while.
So, what does the game think Batman is afraid of?  The three sec­tions boil down to two major fears.

1. Bruce Wayne

One of the most inter­est­ing parts about Batman is the inter­play between his two per­sonas– the inter­ac­tion and fre­quent dis­con­nect between the way he views him­self and behaves as he switch­es between Bruce Wayne and Batman.  The real ques­tion is one of def­i­n­i­tion: is this per­son real­ly Bruce Wayne, a bil­lion­aire play­boy who moon­lights by night as a cos­tumed vig­i­lante, or is he pri­mar­i­ly Batman, who pre­tends by day to be a wealthy exec­u­tive?  Some super­heroes are less con­fus­ing in this regard: Clark Kent isn’t a real per­son, he’s a mask for Superman.  Spider-Man, con­verse­ly, is an excuse for Peter Parker to do all the things he real­ly wants to do.  But Batman is less clear-cut.  Where does Batman stop and Bruce Wayne begin?
Arkham Asylum is most­ly uncon­cerned with this dynam­ic.  You play the game as Batman, and although Oracle calls you Bruce from time to time, the Bruce Wayne side of things is most­ly irrel­e­vant.  But the one time you do play as Bruce Wayne rather than Batman is telling: you don’t play Bruce Wayne the bil­lion­aire play­boy, you play Bruce Wayne the ter­ri­fied lit­tle child.
The sec­ond hal­lu­ci­na­tion sequence caus­es the player’s avatar to be replaced by a lit­tle boy in a tuxe­do, walk­ing down a rain­ing alley­way, and lis­ten­ing, in the dis­tance, to the sounds of his par­ents being mur­dered.  The alley­way seems to go on forever, stretch­ing on in per­ma­nent dark­ness, and the play­er can do absolute­ly noth­ing to stop the mur­der of Bruce’s par­ents.  Keeping the mur­der entire­ly audi­to­ry is actu­al­ly a stroke of bril­liance as it makes it all the more inex­orable.  You can’t see what’s hap­pen­ing, so you wouldn’t even begin to know how to stop it, but you can hear it, so you know it’s hap­pen­ing.  The game does not take con­trol of the avatar; it still allows the play­er to have con­trol over the char­ac­ter, in that the play­er can phys­i­cal­ly move the lit­tle boy around, but the play­er has no con­trol over the events that are unfold­ing in the game.
This is how Batman views Bruce Wayne: as a scared, pow­er­less lit­tle boy, per­pet­u­al­ly trapped in the dark alley where his par­ents were mur­dered.  In Arkham Asylum, at least, Batman asso­ciates the name “Bruce Wayne” with pow­er­less­ness, with weak­ness, and with loss.  He becomes Batman to escape from Bruce Wayne, to leave the lit­tle boy behind, and in this case, the reasser­tion of his iden­ti­ty through the Bat-Signal is a way of dis­tanc­ing him­self from this part of him­self.  “I am not Bruce Wayne,” he says, “I am not this pow­er­less lit­tle child who could not save his par­ents from being mur­dered.  I am Batman, and I can do any­thing.”

2. Illegitimacy

How is Batman dif­fer­ent from the cos­tumed lunatics and mur­der­ers he oppos­es?  Bruce Wayne, a grown man, spends his nights dress­ing up like a bat and beat­ing up crim­i­nals and lunatics, and calls it his life’s work, argu­ing that he’s sav­ing Gotham City.  But Bruce could unques­tion­ably accom­plish far more good as the multi-billionaire CEO of a major cor­po­ra­tion ded­i­cat­ed to res­cu­ing Gotham, and he would prob­a­bly get punched less.  Rather than per­son­al­ly beat­ing up rob­bers and rapists, Bruce could donate sev­er­al mil­lion dol­lars to reform­ing the entire Gotham Police Department, and then donate sev­er­al more mil­lions of dol­lars to the edu­ca­tion­al sys­tems and infra­struc­tures of the city so as to help peo­ple avoid becom­ing rob­bers and rapists in the first place.  In the real world, while Phoenix Jones may (or may not) do some good with his vig­i­lan­tism, it’s hard to argue that he does as much good for the world as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  Jones, of course, isn’t a bil­lion­aire, but Bruce Wayne is.
This is not to say that all future edi­tions of Batman comics ought to cen­ter around the day-to-day affairs of a bil­lion­aire phil­an­thropist, because, you know, yawn.  And to be fair, many of the Batman sto­ries do show him doing all man­ner of phil­an­thropy in the day­time in addi­tion to his night-time antics.  But if Bill Gates ran around in a bat cos­tume and punched peo­ple, even bad peo­ple, we would not cheer him on, we would call him crazy and lock him away.  In the real world, that kind of vig­i­lan­tism isn’t real­ly laud­able, it’s psy­chotic.
Batman, sadly, does not live in the real world, but any work of art which real­ly wants to engage with the Batman mythos is going to have to explore this prob­lem.  Arkham Asylum does so in the third hal­lu­ci­na­tion sequence, which takes the game’s open­ing cin­e­mat­ic and inverts the roles.  In the orig­i­nal cin­e­mat­ic, we watched as Batman drove a bound and gagged Joker to the Asylum and escort­ed him to his pris­on cell.  In the hal­lu­ci­na­tion, how­ev­er, the Joker takes a bound and gagged Batman to the Asylum while all of the other vil­lains watch and com­ment on how crazy Batman is.  What’s the dif­fer­ence, Batman’s psy­che asks, between these lunatics and your­self?  It ends with the hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry Joker killing Batman, and then cuts (after some fun fourth-wall break­age involv­ing a faux game-over screen) to Batman’s grave.  Batman then claws his way out of the grave and walks through a series of cells which each con­tain images of Batman behav­ing just like the lunatics in the asy­lum before descend­ing into the final minigame sec­tion.  Maybe Batman isn’t that dif­fer­ent from the Joker.  Maybe he should be caged.  Maybe he is a lunatic.  Maybe the Batman myth is dead.
Batman is almost com­plete­ly silent dur­ing these hal­lu­ci­na­tions.  He doesn’t engage with these legit­i­mate doubts and ques­tions, he avoids them, and this time, when he shi­nes the Bat-Signal and reasserts his iden­ti­ty, he is actu­al­ly reassert­ing the value of the entire leg­end.
The Bat-Signal is real­ly one of the sil­lier aspects of the Batman mythos.  While it inevitably shows up in all of the dark­er Batman sto­ries, it real­ly seems most at home in lighter ver­sions of the char­ac­ter.  It belongs with a Batman who is any­thing but dark and edgy and brood­ing, a Batman who is pure-hearted and good and maybe even a lit­tle goofy, who inhab­its a uni­verse com­plete­ly free of psy­chosis and real vio­lence.  Thus, using the Bat-Signal to reassert the valid­i­ty of the Batman leg­end may serve as a way for him to for­get all of the issues that undoubt­ed­ly under­lie his behav­ior and remind him­self of the leg­end.  No, he’s not a psy­chopath.  He’s dif­fer­ent from the Joker because he’s BATMAN.  The Batman leg­end seems dead for a moment, but Batman crawls his way out of the grave, again, not by actu­al­ly con­fronting the issue, but by reassert­ing his iden­ti­ty and his own self-made def­i­n­i­tions, ignor­ing what is prob­a­bly the truth of the mat­ter in favor of the myth.


The most telling part about this is that this inter­pre­ta­tion is not imme­di­ate­ly appar­ent.  Batman cer­tain­ly doesn’t think he’s run­ning away from any­thing.  Batman thinks he’s tri­umph­ing over Bruce Wayne’s piti­ful self-doubts and night­mares, and remind­ing him­self who he real­ly is.
Arkham Asylum is usu­al­ly any­thing but sub­tle: it cli­max­es in a bat­tle with a twelve-foot mani­ac clown.  But hid­den down beneath the broad strokes and nifty gad­gets is real com­men­tary about the sort of per­son Batman must be.  You have to dig down to find it, past the trap­pings of the sit­u­a­tion into the mechan­ics, the fun­da­men­tal level at which the play­er inter­acts with the game.
When Batman final­ly breaks out of his last hal­lu­ci­na­tion, he has the real Scarecrow by the throat.  Scarecrow astound­ed­ly yells that he has inject­ed Batman with enough toxin to drive ten men insane.  Batman has the willpow­er of ten men, the game seems to declare.  But maybe it’s not so much that Batman is stronger than the rest of us.  Maybe he just has a much greater capac­i­ty for self-deception.