Spect-actors in Novels and Video Games

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Reading Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to GH for the first time was a traumatic experience for me. I was extremely surprised by my reaction to the text. Only a few pages in I was thrust into existential panic attacks which persisted throughout the first half of the novel. I had to repeatedly stop reading it in order to deal with creeping existential dread and obtrusive thoughts. To people who have read the novel before, this may not sound surprising. After all, the novel itself deals with the existential, possibly mystical or religious, break down of the narrator’s sense of identity. But it wasn’t just the subject matter, as I don’t suffer the same existential attacks while reading any book that deals with such themes. There was something that the text was doing that was leading me down that path.

It wasn’t until discussing the novel later that someone pointed out something I had barely noticed before. While the novel is presented as GH narrating her experience to us, the reader, it also intentionally plays with the presumed identity of the reader. GH describes the need to narrate her experience in order to make sense of it, but being alone she needs to imagine an audience. She imagines us, the reader, there with her, taking her hand as she details her experience. But she also realizes that this imaginary reader she has constructed to help her make sense of her experience is merely part of herself. In other words, the novel’s implied reader is a creation of the character, and in reading the novel we take on the role of this fictional reader. We are also told that this implied reader we have embodied is, in fact, part of the narrator’s mind. The lines between the actual reader, implied reader and narrator are all blurred. In taking on that role, we are invited not only to witness GH’s experience, but also experience it as our own. For a reader who, knowingly or not, takes part in this role-playing, GH’s existential or mystical revelation can be overwhelming as it escapes the narrative of the novel and becomes part of the reader’s own narrative.

Lispector

Essentially, it is a novel that utilizes the idea of the reader as what Agusto Boal calls a spect-actor. The audience is invited to participate not as a passive recipient of the artist’s intended message, but rather as an active creator of their own message and discoveries within the space created by the artist. Those of you who tuned in for my post on formalism may notice that this means this novel falls under my own personal definition of a “game” as well as a novel.

Since at the moment everything I do needs to be brought back around to games, I began thinking of games that utilize similar narrative tools. While there are many examples of games which allow the player to role-play as another character, nearly all of them have some degree of alienation between the player and the character. The line between the player and a character such as Cloud, Samus, whatever that Bioshock guy’s name is, Link or Lara Croft is never blurred. You may be controlling them, or even identifying with them, but there is an innate understanding that you are in some way removed from them. Even with games where the character is an avatar created by the player (such as with games like Fallout or Skyrim) there is an alienation between you and the character. I’m hard pressed to think of commercial games that directly challenge a player’s sense of identity in the same way as Lispector’s novel, or other novels with similar “play spaces” built into them.

In some ways, this is built into the unique alienation of video games. The action takes place in a space away from you on a screen, and while you can control and direct an avatar to interact with that digital space it is through indirect control. We act THROUGH the digital, inanimate characters, much like with puppets. This can create a great deal of immersion, but there is always some level of alienation to overcome on the part of the player. We can make the digital avatar do wonderful things or commit horrible crimes with the push of a button, but the boundaries of where this takes place are still outside our mind. In a novel like Lispector’s, we also act through the character, but the space we act in is created within our mind. Ironically, while we are perhaps more directly implicit in the acts a video game character participates in, we (at least at first) feel more alienated from that character than with a novel.

I don’t mean to say that no video game can be as immersive as a novel, or that novels are superior to games. I also don’t mean to imply that immersion is inherently “good” while alienation is inherently “bad”, as that is an extremely shallow understanding of how both concepts can be used in art. What I am saying is that in order to reach a higher level of immersion most effectively, games need to be conscious of the alienation they start with. While “immersion” has become a common buzzword in gaming, it rarely refers to the kind of existential, line-blurring immersion you find in reading novels or acting in theatre. The fact that we can feel intense immersion with objects such as puppets (and anyone who remembers taking something like a staple-opener and turning it into a “living” fanged mouth knows that we infuse everything around us with puppetry) means that we can do the same with the digital objects of video games. Even the language of these objects (avatar, sprite, etc) already lends itself to the mysticalization of these objects.

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First-person games offer a quick, visual method of drawing the player into the experience and blurring the line between the audience and the character. While the action still takes place in a space physically separate from the player, it is presented as through the eyes of the character being controlled, inviting the player to adapt this new perspective directly into their own. Sadly, this technique tends to be focused on endlessly identical shooter games. Even the “serious” or “thoughtful” first-person shooters like Bioshock Infinite end up, at best, being undermined by the need to keep to the player’s expectations of what a first-person shooter should be. The player is not challenged on a philosophical or existential level, and is further alienated from any themes (especially if the theme is supposed to be some kind of anti-violence or anti-oppression theme, even dumb players can tell that a game where you mow down endless hordes of identical brown people isn’t REALLY saying anything about race relations or classism, no matter what you have your space marine/zombie fighter/unthreateningly handsome steampunk scientist say during cutscenes). One FPS that does manage to challenge the player’s sense of self a bit is Valve’s Portal, itself almost an “anti-FPS”. The player controls Chell, a woman trapped in a laboratory controlled by an omnipresent robotic voice. Chell is never referred to by name, and when the player begins they are simply awoken by this voice and told they are beginning the scheduled experiment. In fact, the only way to even discover you are playing a woman character is to use the portal guns to warp time and space in a way that lets you view yourself. This moment where you suddenly see “yourself” from an outside perspective that is none-the-less “your” own is a delightful little shock. While it doesn’t blur the line between the player and the character, it does challenge the player’s preconception of who they are playing as and challenge their immersion. This challenge, and the space created in the game for the player to experiment with that challenge, represents what makes Portal so successful at drawing the player in. The larger narrative, and later challenge to the player’s understanding of it, remains one of the most successful surprises in video game history.

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First-person perspective is not a requirement for creating this kind of challenge to the player or drawing them in to the narrative. Legend of Mana is a 2D action rpg for the original Playstation that uses some interesting techniques in its narrative. Admittedly, it uses these techniques imperfectly, and I would be surprised if many players reached the level of immersion we were talking about, but the techniques are still worth analyzing within the context of this discussion. The story of Legend of Mana opens with a shot of the Mana Tree, the source of all creative energy, calling upon the player to need them and to use them to build the world. Your character is then given a blank map and a handful of blocks to make the world with. You place these “artifacts” on the map and they transform into the remnants of the past world. Slowly you uncover all of the lost world, and in doing so learn the fate of the past world. This revelation that the world you are “creating” has in fact already existed is slow and deliberate. The player at first feels like they have a huge open sandbox to create with, and then discovers that they in fact are merely putting together someone else’s world. Their avatar is an almost non-character, having even less to say than the average silent rpg protagonist and being a participant in the various storylines solely based on the fact that they just happen to be wherever the story is taking place. NPCs will be villains or allies almost at random depending on what quest you are on rather than based on your actual relationship to them. Your character is almost as much a member of the audience as you are. The more you play, the more you unlock about the past world in the form of new interactive vignettes to witness or tomes of history to read. The game can be “won” whenever you finish one of the three main stories, but even then it doesn’t end with any character or story resolution, but rather with the simple acknowledgement that you have recreated this world and it will continue on without you now.

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These techniques are a rather brilliant solution to the question of how to overcome the innate player/character alienation of a 2D game. Unfortunately they are not always used evenly and while the world of Legend of Mana is huge, colorful and fascinating, it is also extremely confusing and poorly conveyed at times. It can be especially confusing if the player ends up following multiple storylines at once and is trying to piece together multiple contradictory narratives. Its not easy to balance the freedom for the player to feel like they are creating the world with the revelation that they are in fact caught within a larger narrative, and it doesn’t end in a payoff for every player. But hindsight is 20/20 and if nothing else, Legend of Mana is a fascinating experiment that designers and game enthusiasts can still learn and refine theories from.

Immersion and alienation can be powerful tools for empowering your audience to think about the themes of your art outside of the art itself. The two can work together in video games to create an experience that both draws in and challenges the player. What connects novels like The Passion According to G.H. to video games is the creation of a play space where the audience can participate, and perhaps by going outside of video games we can learn new ways to utilize what is unique to the medium.

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4 Responses to Spect-actors in Novels and Video Games

  1. DJ Orwell says:

    Why is your site nigh-exclusively focused on Japanese games? I’ve skimmed down everything posted here, and at least 9 out of 10 games discussed are Japanese.

    • joffeorama says:

      I’m afraid the answer isn’t very interesting. I’m simply a struggling grad student who can’t afford new games right now, so I’m working primarily with games I still own or have a lot of experience playing (such as Portal above). As a kid I was mostly a console gamer, and most of the big classic console games I owned were Japanese. There are still western games I’d like to write about (The Sims, Civilization, Fallout, Planescape, Dwarf Fortress, a lot of recent indie games), and there are tons of recent western games I wish I could justify buying a new machine to play.

  2. Sputnik says:

    Baten Kaitos is quite interesting in terms of ‘who’ you play as. Throughout, you control Kalas, a fairly typical JRPG protagonist, but you are technically playing as a spirit who has bonded with Kalas. Occasionally characters will ask you a question, turning to face camera. For the most part, this seems like a bit of a gimmick, and usually you imagine that you are playing as Kalas, but (SPOILERS AHEAD) there is a twist part way through the game where you discover that Kalas has been working against you. You (the spirit) are detached from Kalas and bonded with another character, who you then proceed to take control of.

  3. Pingback: Stumbling Toward Victory: Failure as Creative Performance | bigtallwords

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