A Story About My Uncle: Rules and the Subjective

So last week we talked about breaking literalism in video games, also touching on the fact that A Story About My Uncle is super fun. Because of space constraints I didn’t take the argument through as fully as I’d like, so I’m going to keep going with it here. Quick recap, for those of you who don’t want to read last week’s post: A Story About My Uncle happens all in a kid’s head, much the same as in Papo & Yo. Stuff that’s all in your head is cool, because what you see in the game isn’t literally what’s happening in the fictional world – because it’s all in the kid’s head. He’s probably actually sitting in his classroom daydreaming – but you don’t see that, and that’s cool, because it unshackles the developers from the tyranny of literalism. ‘Literalism’, for the purposes of this discussion, is the idea that what you see before you in the game is literally what’s happening in the fictional world. It’s fine that literalism exists, but also we have cool new stuff that’s not literalism, and it would be cool to see video games use more of it. Phew! Okay let’s go. 

Games are by definition rule-based entities. That’s just the definition. The definition means that things like Dear Esther are not games (it’s just a story in a digital environment), but that’s fine. Dear Esther doesn’t need to be called a game in order to be on Steam, or in order to be part of the digital milieu of the 21st century. Because games are rule-based entities, it might not make much sense to call for a break with literalism, because one way or the other, you’re still going to end up with a mechanistic rule-bound game. Let’s give an example: say there was no explanation in ASAMU as to why you can jump sixty feet in the air. Let’s say it was put down to dream-logic, along with the added abilities of flying, ghosting through walls, and making objects move around the room at will. (Note: None of these things exist in the actual game.) So all of these things are just abilities you have, without explanation, etc, because you’re in a dream, and the stuff you see on the screen isn’t literally what’s happening in the game world, so we don’t have to be illusionistic and we can ignore the idea of the ‘laws’ of the game world. Problem: Aren’t we still just replacing one set of laws (the laws that exist in the ‘real’ fictional world) with another set (the ones that exist in the ‘imagined’ fictional world)? Doesn’t the nature of games as rule-based entities sort of determine that, one way or another, you’re going to end up with a rule-based environment?

In a word, yes. That’s entirely accurate. We can’t get away from the fact that, one way or another, we’re going to end up with a rules-based environment, because that’s what games are. We’re just swapping out the literalism of the ‘real’ fictional environment for the literalism of the ‘imagined’ dream-world. But that’s not quite what I’m talking about: I’m not saying we can get away from the rules. I’m saying we can introduce subjectivity into the narrator’s point of view. That’s the key to both Cezanne and Picasso, who we talked about last week: they’re both representing subjectivity.

As a concept, literalism implies that the stuff you see on the screen is literally what’s happening in the fictional world. You’re encountering the story-world as it really is, on its own terms. That’s the thing about Raphael: it’s the attempt to depict the world as it really is – objectively, you could say. By contrast, both Cezanne and Picasso represented the world from a subjective perspective: as it seemed to them. That’s the cool thing about the dream-world of ASAMU: the reality that you see is only the reality imagined by the protagonist. The downsides are a) that it’s not explicitly an imagined environment, and b) that even though it is a dream-world, everything’s contained in this plausibly scientific framework – so if you don’t know it is a dream-world, which I’m going to assume is the case for most people, it doesn’t seem subjective at all. It just seems like another literal representation of a fictional world – one with huge jumpy boots, but literal nonetheless.

If we wanted to point to an originator in subjective video games, we might look at something like Silent Hill 2. Noting, of course, that I’ve only read/heard about this game second-hand. The cool thing about Silent Hill 2 is that the things in the environment aren’t necessarily there in the ‘real’ fictional world. It’s entirely plausible that it’s all just a representation of the purgatory that the protagonist is putting himself through. Basically the dude killed his wife (maybe) and is punishing himself for it (maybe) by putting himself through a series of traumas (maybe). There’s the fabled Pyramid Head, who represents the worst of his toxic masculinity (maybe). We see Pyramid Head kill the protagonist’s wife on three separate occasions. All this might actually be happening in some supernatural horror environment, but because of the element of subjectivity, we can’t say for sure. We can’t distinguish the objective external world from the subjective perspective with which the protagonist sees it – and that’s the key.

In that sense, we don’t actually have to get away from rule-based scenarios. Rules are fine. What we really want to do is open up a certain ambiguity as to what’s real and what’s not. We most often see this ambiguity in horror games, where the protagonist is bat-shit crazy, but there are emotions beyond madness which are equally interesting. Picasso’s Les Demoiselles l’Avignon , which we showed last week, displays subjectivity and fear. There’s a wonderful book by Alain Robbe-Grillet which experiments with subjectivity and jealousy (it’s called, fittingly enough, Jealousy), and of course Cezanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire series, which really isn’t about fear or jealousy at all: it’s just a series of landscapes painted from within a subjective perspective. The distortive subjectivity of point of view doesn’t have to be restricted to the crazy people: it belongs to all of us, in our own little ways.

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