Friday, September 6, 2013

Planescape Papers: The Abyss at Last / Work in Progress: Chris Bateman's Imaginary Games

To inaugurate my return to regular blogging, I've got this sprawling piece. It's doing double duty as work-in-progress notes on chapter seven of Chris Bateman's Imaginary Games, and the culmination of my Planescape Paper series. For a bit of background, the book is essentially Bateman's explanation of Kendall Walton's make-believe version of mimesis; check out the review I did of Walton here if you want a primer on that subject before you begin. And see if you can spot the moment where this post switched from something I was doing for my own reading only to something for mass consumption. All that, and a strongly worded suggestion to Don't Stop Believin', after the break.

Bateman concludes his study with an examination of ontological concerns regarding the make-believe theory, and with a discussion on how concepts of science fit within the theory. Bateman begins with wrestling, noting that it’s a form of fiction that’s presented as real, and he thinks that this sort of presentation is more common than we’re willing to admit. The magic circle is porous, and “virtual” is increasingly becoming a less meaningful word as our online actions are increasingly viewed as being as real as anything else. //Walton addresses ontology in his final chapter, and Bateman dutifully goes over his terminology: pretense for appearing to describe the real world when actually describing a fictional one; ordinary statement for statements uttered in pretense in connection to an authorized make-believe game; betraying the pretense by emphasizing the story nature; disavowing the pretense by claiming that a fictional fact is not true. // In general, factual stories are fictional as well, in that they involve the same process of storytelling, just with a unit of authority; he suggests that this is why people are angry when they learn that something they thought was true and emotionally invested in turns out to be fictional. // Bateman argues that habit is part of the drive for truth, and that this habit is not necessarily negative, but is necessary—the trick is to avoid premature certainty, through an acknowledgment of how fiction relates to truth. // He elaborates by explaining, via Yablo, that metaphor is a type of fiction that can’t be entirely paraphrased, and it involves everything from number to our concept of science. // Scientific paradigms are a special sort of fictional game that societies adopt and accept, discarding old paradigms and having faith that contradictions will be resolved. // Science is its own megatext, and its excess has us blindly assuming science will have an answer for any conundrum the human race gets into, that science operates with our best interest at heart. // More generally, our biological drive to seek victory by insisting on our version of the truth belies the pluralism that we’ve actually adopted. Bateman thinks that a movement back to play and games can move us past the damaging addiction to victory. And he hopes video games will be a part of that.

It’s a bit of a weird chapter, in that it covers even more ground than usual. He moves over Walton’s stuff fairly quickly, and it could be argued that he’s dodging ontology in exchange for deconstructing our notion of science and the truth. But frankly, that’s probably the better way to go anyway. Walton’s final chapter is extremely dense, and not particularly elucidating. Bateman is putting forth an idea that rises up in various ways in theory, with slight variations, and rough equivalents can be found with various people writing on technology and so forth, such as Heidegger on technology, McLuhan on media, and Marxism and ideology. But it’s certainly one worth remembering. A possible complaint here is that games tend to drift into the rear view mirror. He brings them back in at the end, but I think he could have done more to address how they fit into this overall narrative. There’s certainly enough “facts” about game design, game culture, and technology that could be attacked. Bateman’s aiming a little larger by attacking science, but it does seem like slighting videogames to move them to the periphery of the conversation. It’s an intensely interdisciplinary chapter, though everything's explained well and the reader is probably used to that by this point. The really key thing is that for my own purposes is that it feels like a discussion of real and imaginary should be immediately relevant to my chapter on mimesis. In essence, it’s taking the imaginary games concept that Walton pioneered and returning to mimesis’ root concept, not as make-believe per se but as the imitation, representation, or whatever it is in relation to reality.

The obvious place to start to deconstruct here would be Juul’s insistence that the rules of games are any more real than any other part (and Bateman starts the chapter on that note). And since Juul seems reluctant to define “real,” it’s easy enough to do; with a make-believe theory in play, it quickly becomes apparent that there is nothing inherent in the rules that makes them any less real (or less imaginary) than the story, and indeed, dividing the two becomes difficult. The chapter is all about how things we treat as real are really imaginary. So what else is there about games that we treat as "real" when it’s just a series of conventions that we play with? I think the biggest "real" fact about games is, paradoxically, that they aren't entirely real. That is, we by accepting the “games are for kids” and “games aren’t real” statements even implicitly as truths, that allows a whole bunch of other cultural attitudes, most of which not only affect games, but actively hold them back. It’s entertainment, which means that we don’t have to scrutinize the economic hegemony behind it, or take seriously the work the programmers and developers do. It’s play, so we can accept exploitative game design, since the games are just about being fun. And it’s play, so it can’t be about anything serious anyway. It’s technology, so it’s not just a toy, it’s a toy for boys, and anyone else playing it is weird. The game exists separate from the real world, so we don’t have to worry about the toxic hardware or the third world labor or the eco-damaging extractions that created it. And it’s for boys, so the immature misogyny and generally terrible treatment of anyone not white, straight, and male in game communities is okay. And the misogyny and transphobia within the games is okay. All of that comes just out of accepting that games are imaginary, and therefore different from “real.”

So... how does these imaginary beliefs relate to image and text, specifically? The image part is easy enough; superior graphics is a big part of the game rhetoric, and the myth of games evolving by virtue of having superior graphics. Myst, Doom, and Night Trap all contribute to that in different ways. (So does Planescape, come to think of it.) How does the text of videogames contribute to the sense of real or imaginary? The same way everything else composed of text does, is the easy answer. Like a novel, the words of a game build up a gameworld, adding imaginary facts that contribute to its cohesiveness. And the same goes for every other appropriation of text that commonly occurs in games—not just books, but billboards, titles, signs, and anywhere else text occurs. Often, videogame text serves to familiarize players with elements of game lore they don’t come into direct contact with, or won’t come into contact with for some time, such as the books lying around in the Elder Scrolls series, or the codex entries in Bioware games. Sometimes, text is the direct indication of the numbers lying behind the game’s surface, such as the statistics for strength, health, and so forth in an RPG; in that sense, the text adds to the complexity of the game by complicating its mechanics, and that complexity makes it appear to have more depth, and thus be more real. Or, related, the statistics they represent demonstrate show how the game is attempting to simulate real things, and convey a sense of reality through those means. Before voice acting was more common place, text was the primary way to convey dialogue, which was an easy way of making characters seem more realistic. (Or, in the case of bad translations or bad writing, a way that the characters failed to appear realistic.) The text of a title screen often conveys the overall tone of a game, making it real by making it seem unified. Check out the title screen for Blizzard’s 1998 classic Diablo:
The flaming letters and the vaguely gothic font set a dark and disturbing mood that the game maintains. And for that matter, font shape in the game at large conveys a tone; if I ever see an O with a cross through it, as in the game above, I’m going to think of Diablo, from now till the day I die. And that’s just what text does for a game’s sense of realism off the top of my head.

All of the games I’m discussing in the dissertation chapter work well for mimesis discussions, but I think Planescape:Torment is going to be a particularly inspired choice (and yes, I do say so myself). It gets A LOT of mileage out of its textual use, but it also fits well with mimesis, on a conceptual level. The book I used to familiarize myself on mimesis (Matthew Potolsky’s Mimesis) has a chapter on mimesis and identity. And while it’s a little too psychoanalytical for my tastes, the basic point is that personal identity, far from being some sort of inner essence unique to a person, is shaped by imitating patterns we see in others. That’s a concept that can be the root for investigation for any number of videogames, especially those with a clear and present avatar character. Identity in practice is shaped by what the game tells us about the player-character, what we bring to the role, and what options the game provides for us. And in terms of being real, it’s on these grounds that the internal reality of a game is often tested and broken. I’ve heard people criticize Drake’s Fortune, for example, because the game shows us in cutscenes that Drake is a happy-go-lucky rascal, but at the same time, the game only lets you interact with enemy characters by killing them, which implies that Drake is really a mass-murdering sociopath. Such an identity works all right for the God of War; it works less well in Drake’s case. That’s what happens when you take the personality of the lead from Monkey’s Island (albeit toning down Guybrush Threepwood’s trademark wackiness) and suture it to an adventure game that’s trying also for some realistic gravitas. In this sense, Planescape is a good pick, for two reasons. First, its amnesiac plot is not just a quick way to identify player with player-character, but the driving force of the plot for much of the game. Identity, and what can change identity, is at the absolute core of the game. And mechanically, it gives the player a lot of different options for how to play the game, which allows them to establish their own identity. Are you ruthless? A flirt? A fighter? A thinker? Chaotic? Good? There’s a dialogue option for that.

Another good connection, building more specifically on Bateman and Walton’s version of mimesis, is the way the game acts as a prop for imagining, and play. It’s a product of the Dungeons & Dragons megatext, as Bateman would put it, which means that it’s already playing with an existing prop—and it’s built on the existing Bioware engine for Baldur’s Gate, which means that mechanically, it’s playing with an existing prop as well. (Given my druthers, I’d rather use paratext than megatext, but it works.) As such, much of the game is about playing with the gameworld it establishes, and assigning importance to the information the game presents. It’s not entirely up to the player to assign the importance—every time you find a piece of information the game feels is relevant to the larger plot, there’s a “Journal Updated” notice, which not only records the information, but, on a metadata level, tells you the information is worth recording in the first place—but that holds for most created works, I think. There’s further play involved too; sometimes, it’s fairly overt, like when you literally act on the option to play with the Lady of Pain doll or the Modron action figure. But there’s other kinds as well. There’s the play of identity I just described, and I’ve written before how the game plays with the conventions of traditional fantasy games in its satirical elements. And that means the text is a big part of the play, as it’s text through which the game presents most of its world.

Finally—although this is more a story connection than a gameplay mechanic per se—there’s the way the game presents belief, and how that relates to reality. This chapter is all about how many the facts we take for granted are really fictions that we choose to believe have some sort of obective authority behind them. Planescape: Torment takes that a step further; in Walton’s terms, it is fictional in Planescape: Torment that belief forms directly forms reality. Most of the game takes place in Sigil, which is a place literally (well, figuratively in the sense that it’s all imaginary anyway) formed by belief. And that comes up in the game in many different ways. One of your party members, Dak’kan is from a species that lives in Limbo, where all structures are made and maintained through the species’ collective belief in their way of life. So when he introduced doubts into their religion, he wound up destroying an entire city, turning him into an exile. His weapon is strong as his belief in his own ability, so just by talking to him and restoring his faith, he becomes stronger in battle. If, when introducing yourself to people, you lie frequently enough and tell them all you are called Adahn, at one point in the game, Adahn becomes a character in Sigil who you can talk to, and receive items from—that is, unless you tell him he doesn’t exist, at which point he believes you and ceases to be. That’s a lot of levels of fictional and real to deal with. And of course, there’s the big connection, (major spoiler) the answer to the game’s major riddle, what can change the nature of a man? The first time it arises in a major way, any answer will be accepted by Ravel the hag, as she’s just looking for what the Nameless One believes is the right answer. But if your INT and/or WIS is high enough, then you get another crack at it at the very end of the game, where you get the option to give this speech: 

“If there is anything I have learned in my travels across the Planes, it is that many things may change the nature of a man. Whether regret, or love, or revenge or fear – whatever you *believe* can change the nature of a man, can. ...I’ve seen belief move cities, make men stave off death, and turn an evil’s hag [sic] heart half-circle. This entire Fortress has been constructed from belief. Belief damned a woman, whose heart clung to the hope that another loved her when he did not. Once, it made a man seek immortality and achieve it. And it has made a posturing spirit think it is something more than a part of me.” And then, you can end the game by blackmailing the final boss, the Transcendent One: either he merges with you, or you’ll believe the both of you into non-existence. I know some people have complained because that this ending isn’t the only way that the game can end—you have other options, including fighting the Transcendent One, blackmailing him through reference to your real name, and convincing him (via a combination of intelligence and charisma) that you can’t actually be killed. The argument is that by giving all these options, it clutters the chances that a player will get to the belief statement ending. But I think the multiple choices is necessary, for the game to put its money where its philosophy is. If belief really can change, or rather, has defined, the nature of the player-character, then the game has to allow for multiple solutions in order for the player to end the game on their own terms, by engaging in the PC behavior that has defined their mimetic identity. A charismatic player connives the enemy. A combative player fights them. And a player who searches for every bit of lore and items uncovers the ultimate bit of lore, the Nameless One’s true name. Granted, it’s not particularly textual (except for the fact that every bit of this has been presented mainly through text), but belief in the identity you’ve played is absolutely core to the game’s ending, however you do it. You get the ending corresponding to what you believed was the right way to play the game. Shouldn’t more games be like that?

I may have overplayed my hand here; in thinking out loud, I’ve tossed in a lot of ideas that are probably going to show up in the dissertation and elsewhere in my more formal academic writing. Ah well. What are the odds that anyone is still reading at this point?

Later, Planescape-free, Days.

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