A Story About My Uncle: Narrative Law and Jumping Boots

There’s a wonderful game I played a while back called A Story About My Uncle. In terms of mechanics, it’s a bog-standard 3D platformer where you can jump reeeally freaking high – and that’s amazing. It’s unbelievably satisfying to have this world that looks just like any other first-person environment, and then to be able to jump fifty/sixty feet straight up in the air. There’s no enemies per se – just a bunch of navigating through the world trying to get to your uncle, so the focus is kept on the jumping. You’re also given a grappling hook that helps you swing around etc, but we’re not really going to talk about that so much. 

So the first thing we have to do is note that the story isn’t real. Well, it is, but also – there’s evidence within the game that the kid’s uncle died, and that this whole ‘journey’ is just something imagined by the kid as a farewell slash way of coping with grief. We won’t delve into it any further, because we’ve already discussed similar ideas with the imagined dream-world of Papo & Yo, but that acknowledgement is important to begin with – especially because I’m going to continue on to complain about the dogged literalism in video games. As far as I’m concerned, video games are living in the 17th century. To use art history terms, video games are currently hovering around the Renaissance. There’s a focus on realism, detail, getting the physics up and running – and all those things are cool and important, but they’re also aesthetically 500 years old. We’ve got newer shit, and video games should be using them more.

Have a look at this painting – it’s Raphael’s “School of Athens” (1510-ish).

It’s opulent, detailed, wonderfully attuned in terms of perspective, with the vanishing points leading the focus of the frame to the two central figures: Plato on the left, and Aristotle on the right. You know what this picture reminds me of? Crysis. Attention to detail, great graphics, opulent vistas – yeah, that’s Crysis right there, hanging out in the 1500s with Raphael. Now compare this 1880s Cezanne painting, “Mont Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine“:

Yeah, fuck you Crysis. Fuck your illusionistic detail and shit. Let’s go even further – let’s whip out Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”:

Yeah, that’s right. Look into the face of broken perspective and WEEP. Check out that lady on the right – her head’s doing a 180 from her body. The lady above her has disappearing arms – and can we talk about how nobody has skin that’s actually just blocks of colour? It’s like the fucking Gotye video (you know, that one with Kimbra from 2011).

So let’s clarify real quick: there’s actually nothing wrong with Crysis using aesthetic values from 500 years ago. It’s good and important that the industry figures out this physics shit – because it’s part of how the medium works, and that needs to be explored. However, at the same time, it is 500 years old, and we do have other, newer shit. I’m not even talking about the art style, necessarily: first and foremost I’m an English major, and that means I’m interested in story. In Crysis, the relationship between the narrative and the storyworld is very literal. Everything that you see from your perspective is literally a thing that’s happening in the actual storyworld. Contrast games like A Story About My Uncle, or Papo & Yo: the events of those games aren’t taking place in the story-world per se. You’ve got a kid, and the kid is using their imagination to escape reality, and the game you play is the imaginings of that kid – so it’s all in their head, rather than in the world they actually inhabit. The terms are a bit shaky here, but hopefully you get my meaning.

Now: because the events of ASAMU are all happening in the kid’s head, there’s certain liberties we can take with our representations. If the kid sees a table, that table doesn’t have to represent a real table in the actual story-world: it’s just something they’re imagining. Why is that important? Well, let’s use a different example: if you’re walking around in an environment, that environment doesn’t have to represent a real environment – you can break as many rules of physics and common sense as you like. For example, you could jump sixty feet straight up in the air, and nobody would say anything, because it’s not an actual environment. It’s imagined, and so it doesn’t represent any activity in the legitimate story-world that the kid inhabits. This is important for the very simple reason that it allows you to do Really Cool Shit. Jumping sixty feet into the air is fucking awesome! It’s a good feeling – it’s fun to exist in that imagined world.

There’s kind of an issue here though: you could just as easily have a fictional world where the laws of physics dictate that you can jump sixty feet in the air. You could circumvent all this artsy bullshit and just have the same practical outcome in a proper fictional world, rather than an imagined one. That’s entirely true – and if I remember correctly, the reason you can jump so high is because you’ve got magic science jumpy boots or some shit. That’s disappointing, especially because it’s not obvious that the whole game takes place in this kid’s imagination: you have to translate a whole bunch of runes to get the suggestion that this is what’s taking place. The distinction between a magic world where you can jump sixty feet and an imagined world where you can do the same is that in the magic world, there’s a set of fictional laws governing the environment which dictate that this is something you can do. It’s taking the illusionistic literalism of Raphael and just using it for a world with different rules. Rather than breaking the rules, it’s just switching them out for different ones – thereby maintaining the status quo. Painters like Cezanne and Picasso shat on the laws of perspective and illusion – and in doing so, opened up whole new fields of artistic endeavour. A Story About My Uncle doesn’t do the same, by any means, but it’s stumbling in the right direction. More on this next week.

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