games

“What more does the Traveler want of Me?”: Destiny 2, Ghaul, and the Sci-Fi Villain

[7-10 minute read]

As its title screen fades to black, Destiny 2 (2017) sets itself up to follow the familiar science fiction trope of moral disambiguation. After destroying the last vestiges of human society on the planet, the new villain of the series – the not so subtly named Ghaul – has just thrown your player avatar off a hovering space craft to plummet toward earth. His final words to you hang in the air, a sinister snarl: “I am Ghaul, and your light…is mine.”

This “light” references the power bestowed on your character by a roving god-like entity known as The Traveler. In the first game, guardians chosen by this entity have the power of light bestowed upon them, granting them exceptional abilities. These powers are granted to them in order to facilitate their fight against the enemy of The Traveler – again, the not subtly named, “The Darkness.” Destiny is not aiming for subtlety in the moral lines that it draws. This idea of clear cut sides, of a “right” side and a “wrong side,” serves to anchor Destiny not only within the genre of science fiction, but within the medium of video games.

Science fiction has a long history of “black and white” narratives. Both Star Wars and Star Trek, arguably the two most popular science fiction texts in 20th and 21st century American culture, utilize a rather simplistic moral framework. Star Wars relies on “The Force” with characters falling to either the “light” side or the “dark side.” While the occasional “grey” character may emerge,[1] on the whole, Star Wars falls back on characters that are motivated either by selfish interests (the dark side, the Sith) or general good will and honor (the light side, the Jedi). “Light” side characters in the franchise films (the most widely and frequently consumed Star Wars texts) often receive ample development time on screen, leading to what Murray Smith calls “alignment,” a form of audience identification with a character that results from our exposure to information about that character within the film.[2] The motivations of the texts’ central heroes are made fairly explicit; for example: Luke wants off his home planet, wants to help the mysterious and beautiful Leia from his droid’s recordings, and wants to escape the Empire who murdered his aunt and uncle. However, the major villains of the franchise receive little-to-no attention: Emperor Palpatine is evil because of “reasons,” or simply because he’s Sith.

Img1The Poster for the most recent installment makes the split between good and evil readily apparent. (Lucasfilm/Disney)

Star Trek carries this same tradition: The Borg are defined by their inhumanity, the Klingons and Romulans are aligned with their cultures of violence, imperialism, and war; all alien species that fight against the United Federation of Planets quickly become coded as vicious, violent, and evil. Even when the series investigates the motivations behind its antagonists, there is no question about who we view as villain and hero: Khan’s devotion to slaughter in Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) is reprehensible and unforgivable, even if he is responding to manipulation on the part of the Federation. Struggle between a righteous, noble humanity and a violent alien “other” quintessentially characterizes much of the science fiction that populates our popular culture.

This convention rings even more true for video game narratives where the developers must establish not only the moral framework of the world, but do so in such a manner that motivates the player by interpolating them into this struggle. The Halo (2001-2017) series utilizes humanity vs. The Covenant, and the Mass Effect (2007-2017) series explores the fight between humanity and “the Reapers.” In both cases, the player knows immediately which side they should root for – that is, which side is the victim in need of a hero – because it is the side their avatar fights for within the world of the game. Even in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003), which allows players to choose a side in Jedi vs. Sith battles, the Jedi are still coded explicitly as good, and the Sith as evil.

This overwhelming generic convention has followed gamers down the pipeline to their first encounter with the world of Destiny in 2014. The presence of this science fiction trope for moral disambiguation made it easy to buy into the clearly delineated light vs. darkness world of good vs. evil present in the first game. Immediately, within the game’s opening cinematic, players know they are in the right, aligned with the Traveler and his Light against the forces of The Darkness, and justified in the goals of the first-person shooter/ MMO-hybrid: shooting and killing everyone who shoots at you. Narrative turns act in concert with these game mechanics to structure your behavior and pit you against alien “others.” The initial player encounter with aliens in the game, creatures known as The Fallen, is introduced by your robot guide stating that he “needs to find you a gun before the Fallen find you.” From this point forward, information about the various aliens species encountered in the game comes filtered to the player through their robot guide and the various leaders of the human resistance on Earth. Cut scenes within the game focus on the player’s hero, or on members of the human resistance, but never on the aliens. Again, they are evil simply because they are pitted against the hero, and bent on the same goal as the player: to kill rather than be killed. Their motivations remain vague, clothed in the language of “domination” (The Imperial Cabal), “dark ritual” (The Hive), “resource theft” (the scavenging Fallen), and “technological superiority to non-robots” (The Vex). In all cases, the aliens act as violent aggressors, while the humans simply attempt to defend the remaining human population.

With this framework from the first game, our return to the Earth of Destiny feels familiar in the opening moments of Destiny 2. The surprise comes not from a new alien threat, but from the success of this threat to obliterate the majority of humanity’s last bastion on Earth, and to cripple the heretofore invincible character avatar, the guardian. Destiny 2 opens by insisting that the “good” guys might not win this time.

Img2Ghaul prepares to boot the player’s guardian off the Cabal command ship. (Bungie/Activision)

The narrative continues this insistence on mortality in the following scene, reducing the heroic guardian from the first game to a limping, weaponless shell that must navigate the ruins of the Earth outpost. Mechanics force the player to experience this powerlessness alongside their character: stripped of all the powers and abilities that made their guardians super-human, as well as the ability to jump or run, the player instead can only control the direction of their guardian as the figure limps through burning rubble at a crawling pace that stretches the moment out interminably.

Something else is different in this opening sequence as well, a change whose significance becomes clear as the game’s cut scenes begin to unfold. In the beginning cinematic, Ghaul, the player’s new alien enemy, is presented to us with a recognizable face. Up until this point in the series, members of the alien species of The Cabal enemies faced by the guardians have all been helmeted, with a single exception encountered if the player seeks out lore hidden throughout the worlds of the game.

Img3The usual Cabal suspect. (destiny.wikia.com)

In contrast to this, Ghaul’s face is open to us, or at least his eyes and head:

Img4Dominus Ghaul (destiny.wikia.com)

The impact of seeing his face, and of the eye contact made with the camera (and therefore the gaze of the audience) startles the player. In no small part, this rises from the forces of abjection functioning in this moment of reveal.[3] Here, the face of the other, scarred, mangled, red-eyed, and trapped behind a breathing apparatus, nevertheless still looks human in shape. Ghaul still has eyes which gaze at the player the player gazes at him. The barrier of helmet that helped to define the Cabal as “other” more easily for players is torn away, causing an encounter with an abject other that may be closer to the self than the helmet allowed.

This almost “humanizing” moment in the opening of the game serves as prelude to the function of the rest of the narrative. Where the first Destiny centered cut-scenes almost exclusively on characterization for the player-guardian and their companions, Destiny 2 instead focuses half of its cut-scenes on Ghaul and his ongoing dialogue with The Speaker, a human who serves as a sort of voice for The Traveler. During these scenes we discover that Ghaul is motivated toward his conquest of The Traveler’s light not by some abstract evil, but by victimization he suffered as a child coupled with manipulation wrought by his mentor, The Consul, a disgraced Cabal scholar. Born a runt and albino in a culture that prizes physical domination and strength, Ghaul was abandoned to die. Though The Consul saved him, it was only so he could mold him into a tool to use for conquest and destruction. Ghaul’s childhood abandonment clearly still impacts him, regardless of his accumulated power and prestige as the leader of the Red Legion. His continuous plea to The Speaker and The Traveler rises from the insecurity of his childhood trauma, as he calls for them to “see” him: “Do you see, Traveler, all that I have done? Grace me with your light.”

As the game progresses, Ghaul’s desire to be worthy becomes more and more desperate. He begs the Speaker to “help [him] understand,” to reveal to him why the Traveler will not bestow its light on him. Even though he could simply tear the light out of the Traveler and claim it for himself, he insists that the Traveler must recognize him and what he has accomplished, and gift to him the light instead. When The Consul insists that taking the light by force is the only way, Ghaul retorts, “Not for me.” At the surface level, he is driven by selfish thirst for glory and power that we have come to expect from villains, but beneath that, he is an abandoned child seeking to repay his mentor for rescuing him by raining revenge on “an empire that failed him” – and the game makes sure that we, the players, know this. Unlike past Destiny villains, we know what drives Ghaul: not an abstract concept, but a relatable need for acceptance that feels all too human. His final demand of The Speaker reiterates his desire toward worthiness: “Tell me, Speaker. What more does the Traveler want of me?” It is only after this moment that The Consul leverages his power over Ghaul, and questions his loyalty and the value of his word. In the face of failing the man who raised him, the man who “chose” him, Ghaul consents to take the Traveler’s light.

While the end of the video game’s narrative resolves to place Ghaul squarely in the role of the evil villain in order to generate the medium’s essential boss battle and clean narrative closure, this expository work throughout the bulk of the game’s campaign serves a significant purpose. In our current political environment of creeping fascism and nationalism that relies so heavily on rhetoric of “us vs. them,” a genre that bends conventions to serve up a complicated and pitiable villain creates a bold political statement. Ghaul, ostensibly the enemy, reveals his motivations as hubris and a need for vengeance against those who hurt him. He asks us to question our notions of a black and white world. He presents a narrative of moral ambiguity that reflects back on our reality of human experience. He causes us to question our easy moral binaries, and the lines we draw between others and ourselves.


[1] Han Solo and Anakin Skywalker both exemplify these “grey-area” characters: Han due to his questionable motivations of wealth rather than honor, and Anakin due to his slaughter of the entire sand tribe rising out of a uncontrolled rage over the violence done to his mother

[2] For an easily accessible overview of Murray Smith’s theories on audience identification see Greg Smith’s chapter, “How do we identify with characters,” from his book What Media Classes Really Want to Discuss, Routledge, 2011.

[3] The term abjection and the theory surrounding it is pulled from Julia Kristeva’s book Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Columbia UP, 1982.

Hillarie Curtis is a second year Ph.D. student in English at Syracuse University where they study masculinity, monstrosity, censorship, and queer representations in Classic Hollywood films and Popular Culture texts.

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The Rhythms of Limitation: Learning about Self-Care in “Stardew Valley”

It’s six in the morning, on the dot, and Pabu wakes like a cuckoo, leaping out of bed, suspenders already clipped on, to face the day. It’s windy outside. Leaves of orange, red, and yellow are dense in the air and Pabu makes his way from his modest front porch to the neighboring coop, almost as big as his own home though it houses only a few chickens. Their names are Lady, Sweetie, and Mama; they each laid one egg in the overnight. The brown egg is enormous – double the size almost of the others. Pabu greets each chicken like a friend. The chickens regard him affectionately and seem happy. He leaves the coop, opens the chicken sized door beside the human-sized one, and heads out into the rest of the day, maybe to dig in the mines, maybe to fish on the coast, maybe to check in on his friend Leah who he has come to hope thinks of him when she makes her charming, if provincial, paintings.

Pabu has lived in a hidden away corner of the world called Stardew Valley, just outside the small fishing village of Pelican Town for almost a year. Fall is winding down, and despite his recent arrival, his spread of crops, jams, and gems from the mine took second place at the Harvest Festival, just behind Pierre the local shop owner who struggles to stay afloat in the face of a new mega-chain grocery in town. Not long ago Pabu worked a futureless office job, cliched in its anonymity and deadening effect on the soul. Desperate for an out Pabu reached for envelope from his grandfather, like a lapsed Baptist reaching for a disused Bible, and found therein the deed to a dilapidated farm. Feeling himself sinking in the malaise of American corporate rhythms, Pabu took hold of his grandfather’s lifeline and departed for the old, out of shape farm that was his birthright.

Pabu is a character in Stardew Valley, a video game made by a single developer that released almost exactly a year ago. More to the point, Pabu is a character in my game of Stardew Valley, no one else’s. I chose his swoopy hair, gave him and his dog, Naga, names from my favorite TV show, and dressed him in suspenders that he never, ever takes off. Details on Pabu are sketchy. At the outset of the game I knew nothing about him other than his dissatisfaction with life in the big city and his relative inexperience with agrarian work. Like many, many other games character customization helped forge a slim bond between myself and Pabu, but the rich inner life that I have come to know in Pabu comes from sharing in his pastoral rhythms for dozens of hours. These rhythms are mundane and restrictive and yet evoke a broad sense of possibility with each new sunrise. Stardew Valley transforms restriction into freedom, such that despite its limited scope – there are no cataclysms to stop, no world ending villains to defeat – it can feel daunting in its openness.

This is because the only hard limits Stardew Valley puts on you, the player, are in the form of time and exertion. While you can play Stardew Valley forever, continuing to develop your farm and your relationships to the people of Pelican Town for decades, each day lasts only a certain amount of time. No matter what, Pabu always wakes up at 6 am. The latest Pabu can go to bed is 2 am at which point if I haven’t gotten him back to bed he’ll simply pass out where he stands. Ideally, I try to get Pabu to bed between 11 and midnight so he has enough sleep to get him through the next day. This sleep schedule means that each day only has a limited number of hours with which to work. Alongside those limited hours Pabu is further constrained by his own limited reserves of energy. Almost every action in Stardew Valley uses up your character’s energy, such that no matter how quickly I move from place to place, there is a hard limit on how much Pabu can accomplish. Sleep replenishes that energy, but it only fills back up if enough sleep has been had. If Pabu works too hard, he’ll collapse of exhaustion and wake up sheepishly in his own bed the next morning with a letter of admonishment from a kind passerby who got him home.

These hard limitations are part of what gives Stardew Valley its profound sense of rhythm. The passage of time and the depletion of energy operationalize in clear, unambiguous terms our own limits as people, laborers, and friends. If I push Pabu too hard the game simply says “stop.” Because of this I know Pabu’s limits exactly. I know when it is ok to dig down just one more level in the mine and when to call it a day and head to the saloon. Stardew Valley trains you to be attentive to the needs of your character, to remember their humanity, and to filter your own relationship to the farm and Pelican Town through your character’s capacities instead of your own. Simple though they may be, the daily structure and limited energy of Stardew Valley are profoundly humane game mechanics that force us to recognize the people for whom farms, food, and labor are for. What, after all, is the point of abandoning the coprorate world if the pastoral is unable to bring any peace?

Self-care has become a somewhat contentious buzzword in the year that Stardew Valley has been available. Self-care is a way to talk about how to make sure that in the midst of your work, your relationships, and your politics you do not forget the borders of your own body. Some have argued that self-care is nothing more than the indulgent entitlement of millennials who don’t want to work as hard as their forbears. Stardew Valley teaches us otherwise. When Pabu wakes up in the morning after a fresh seven hours, energy meter replenished, watering can in hand, the day stretches before us in all its rich possibility. I know that though we can’t do everything today, we can do some things, and those things will be good and worthwhile. They are worthy because I have chosen to do them. Among many other options I have chosen to fish, or to talk, or to wander and forage instead of something else. Knowing Pabu’s limitations as I do means that every choice is consciously made. Even the decision to do not much, to, for instance on a rainy day, simply pay Leah a visit and maybe give her a flower from Pabu’s garden, is an attentive one. And if the day slides by without any tangible production, Stardew Valley refuses to punish you. It simply says, “go to sleep, and see what the new day brings.” For Pabu, there is always work to be done, but none of the work exhausts because it is all work that he knows he can do, he knows he has time for, and he knows he has chosen for himself.

For sure, parts of Stardew Valley are escapist in their nostalgia. At first glance it seems to long for a bygone nowhere of rural America and its retro pixel art aesthetic evokes an innocent time for video games when we were children yelling at each other for a turn on the controller, not doxxing feminists on Twitter. But Stardew Valley is careful to puncture those nostalgic tableaus. Not all is well here. Penny must bear with her verbally abusive alcoholic mother, living conspicuously in the only trailer in town. Harvey, the town doctor, worries constantly about his own job security and his inability to integrate socially with his peers. Clint the blacksmith sometimes stays in the Saloon until 1 am, sitting by himself, because he both cannot bear to talk to Emily who he loves and cannot bear to not talk. Pastoral though it may be, Stardew Valley refuses to offer the farm life as the panacea to postmodern ennui, and instead points to carefully cultivated, humane attention to the needs of people, whatever they may be. This is what self-care means, and this is why, I suspect, Stardew Valley has been so well received in a year where everyone has found themselves exhausted and exasperated by their world. The rhythms of Stardew Valley are not really about crops or livestock. They are about staging a “revolt against the homilies of this world.”[1] They are about breathing, listening, and what it means to live another day.

[1] “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather

Sharing Space: “Proteus” and the Personal

It seems like academia (or any professional forum, for that matter) encourages us to keep our feelings out of things. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve crossed out passages of student essays this month for being “off topic” or “too praisy,” for bringing in “irrelevant” value judgments on the film they’re writing about. And that’s fine: we’re trying to teach them the conventions of textual analysis, not ranting movie reviews. But every time my red pen scratches out the words “I think” or “I feel” or “the best part,” a little part of me dies. It sometimes feels like I’m getting rid of the human element somehow – an often unsophisticated and inexperienced expression of the human element that doesn’t logically support an argument, but the human element nonetheless. It’s numbing to cut that out.

This censoring isn’t just for undergrads, either. I have found very few opportunities in academic writing where you are free to wear your love on your sleeve. I understand the usefulness of the genre, but it’s refreshing to have a forum where we can get more emotionally expressive. This renewed interest in personal within academia (one way to think of the so-called “affective turn”) is part of the impetus behind the virtual space that is this blog, after all: it gives us a chance to feel as well as think, and reach our communities as well as our peers.

All this is a roundabout way of introducing the fact that I haven’t been okay recently. There have been days where I have found myself in negative mental spaces without a clear path out, and there are nights where my dreams have taken me back to places haunted by bad memories. I could point out a number of reasons why this might be – the grad student workload, lack of good sleep, anxieties about the future, homesickness – but a diagnosis only goes so far when most of those things are unavoidable at this point in my life. Other contributors to this blog have taken on mental health before, so I think I’ll leave the specifics aside for now. Instead, I would like to spend this post doing one of the things I like best – taking a walk with someone I care about. I want to show you a place that I go when I’m feeling down: a little virtual island called Proteus.

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Proteus is a short game created by independent designers Ed Key and David Kanaga in 2011. To call it a “game” is a bit of a misnomer. There are no rules, there are no enemies, there are no apparent goals. The only controls are the arrow keys to move, the mouse to look around, and the space bar (which makes your avatar appear to sit down). The game is pure spatiality: all the player is encouraged to do is explore and experience.

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You emerge from the main menu and find yourself floating above a tranquil sea, with only the soft sound of the waves below you. As you look across the shimmering water, you might be able to see the faint outline of land beckoning you closer. Recognizable shapes begin to emerge from the fog as you approach: a blocky beach, a few twisted pixelated trees crowned in pink or green, maybe even the swell of a mountain to vary the landscape. As soon as you make landfall, the island erupts into the simulated sounds of spring: the warbles, tweets, and crooning of synthetic birdsong; the rustling static and base-toned murmuring of unseen electronic creatures; and through it all soft strings and the tinkling of a chiptune keyboard invoking the sound of a pleasant breeze and gently falling cherry blossoms. Despite being technologically generated, the sounds that engulf you are the sounds of life, and they ebb and flow as you wander around the island.

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What you’ll actually see as you meander among the trees is unclear. Like Minecraft, Proteus is procedurally generated; the island’s topography, flora, and fauna are completely dependent upon algorithms over which you have no control. But though you will never see the same island twice, certain landmarks remain constant through multiple playthroughs. There is always a cabin nestled in the trees, there is always a circle of mysterious totems, there is always a lonely headstone at the top of the highest peak. What this creates for the player is a familiarity which retains the mystic wonder of discovery. I can feel intimately close to this virtual space, but I can never own it; I can know what to expect, but it will always surprise me. Few places, virtual or otherwise, are truly like that in the way Proteus is.

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When night falls, something magical starts to happen. The stars – the only rounded figures in the pixelated world – start to float down to earth, swirling around a particular spot on the island. The curious explorer who approaches the circle of stardust is wrapped up in a flurry of motion and sound as time accelerates. The sun rises and sets, rainclouds race across the sky, wind whips through the leaves on the trees. Standing in the center of the circle brings all this chaos to a crescendo, and after your vision fades to white you find yourself no longer in spring, but in summer.

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Every season brings a change in the island’s landscape and soundscape – summer brings its blooming flowers and buzzing flies, autumn its orange leaves and somber tones, winter its stark silent white – changing the tone of your exploration from joyful wonder to thoughtful reflection as you come to know the lay of the land. As the days get quieter and more familiar, the nights become increasingly fantastic with fireflies, shooting stars, and even the aurora borealis – a sight that even in its polygonal form fills me with the joy of home.

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Though you can spend all your time exploring these little wonders (I never went past summer the first time I played), the game does have an ending. I won’t say what happens on that final winter’s night, but it never ceases to move me. For all its joy and wonder, Proteus teaches you that all things that change, even a sense of place, must come to an end. When you close your eyes on that first island, you will never see it again. All that will remain are the echoes of your emotional experience. That impermanence, for me, is beautiful.

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The description I’ve given here hardly does it justice – Proteus really needs to be experienced to be understood. But I also find it’s best when experienced together. If you’re around where I happen to be, go ahead and ask. I’d love to play it with you, if only to see the look on your face when you first set foot on land. If you happen to get it and I’m not around, well…go up to the totem circle on the first night of autumn and just wait for the moon to rise. Maybe it’ll make you think of me. In any case, I think it’s a place worth sharing.


John Sanders is a second year PhD student in the Syracuse University English department where he studies games and new media. He considers himself an extroverted optimist, which can make mornings difficult for his roommates.

 

Appreciating Space: “Minecraft” and Empowerment

For the last two summers, I’ve worked as an instructor for the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Kid College program, which is basically a mix between a summer camp and course series about technology for kids aged 9-14. Most of the classes I taught were about game design, and the most popular courses by far were the ones about Minecraft. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the game, it might be described as an infinitely large, semi-randomly-generated world made up of multiple types of blocks that players can use to build structures, craft items, and fight off monsters. I tended to describe it to parents or adults as “digital Legos with fighting and exploration mixed in.” (Avid players might say it is a bit more complicated than that, but let’s work with that for now.)

In the course of teaching, I have occasionally had parents voice the concern that their child has been “spending too much time on Minecraft” and ask me for some advice on how to change that. Now, those sort of parental decisions are above my paygrade at this point in my life, and how one ought to approach limitations on computer activity depends too much on parenting styles and a child’s personality for me to say anything useful in that regard. But the way they phrased the question points to a bit of a misunderstanding of what the game really is: kids are not on Minecraft, they are in Minecraft.

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Like many contemporary games, Minecraft is as much of a space as it is a system of rules. Each time they make a new world, players are dropped into the middle of a sprawling landscape which is constantly generated based on a set of algorithms (an operation known as procedural generation, in game terms). Grasslands and deserts, mountains and jungles, cave systems and mushroom-filled islands, even villages and abandoned temples have a chance of appearing every time a player reaches the edge of the known map. And this process never ends: the world only gets bigger and bigger as the player explores. With no mini-map to aid them initially, players are forced to make meaning out of the environment – taking note of landmarks, following the curve of riverbeds, getting to higher ground – as they seek out shelter before nightfall.

Besides being infinitely vast, the worlds of Minecraft are also infinitely transformable. Players can harvest, collect, or mine just about every type of block in the game and use them for their own creations, whether that’s smelting iron to make a sword or placing wooden planks down for the walls of a house. In this way, players are constantly leaving their mark on the environment and making it their own. Every hastily-made shelter, every empty mine shaft, every scar in the mountain or crater in the earth becomes imbued with meaning as sites of the player’s failures and accomplishments. But these structures and stories do not remain confined to the game world: they are shared by players across every medium available to them, whether through screenshots, videos, or merely word of mouth. Every voxel has a ballad, and every player becomes a bard, expanding the space of the virtual world even further into the material one.

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That may have gone a bit too far into the poetic, but there is a sort of magic to a game space that (for many people) doesn’t make the transition to the real world. This is especially true for kids in my hometown of Anchorage, a city which has long winters, not insignificant criminal and animal dangers, and long distances between destinations – not to mention the general lack of a safe “third place” for youth to gather and play of their own accord. Yet Minecraft is a place that is infinitely traversable, a place children can exercise their agency and reveal their intelligence, a place that they can make their own without the help of adults and where they can play with their friends on top of it all. Is it any wonder why this is the place kids decide to spend their days?

I understand the danger in gaming compulsion – it is very addicting to find such a place of empowerment. I also understand the necessity of getting outside – you can’t grow up in Alaska without getting at least some taste of that lesson! – but there is so much more to Minecraft and similar games than sitting in front of a TV or killing time with YouTube videos. The only way to truly understand that fact is to take the game for what it is: a place of empowerment as well as play.

Minecraft 5.pngMy reaction to the parents who are skeptical about the value of games or who think their child is playing too much is to first ask them much they know about Minecraft. Some have watched their children play the game or even have an account themselves, but more often than not they have only heard their child speak about it ad nauseum while having very little familiarity beyond the confusing jumble of jargon and technical language that is frankly hard to keep straight unless you have seen it in action.

And that is exactly my piece of advice to these parents: let your child show you their space. Treat the experience as if you were a tourist trying to get an understanding of a different country. Ask questions, try out the language, pick up the controls and let your guide coach you if need be, but give them a chance to show you what this virtual space means to them. Only after understanding what it means to exist in this space can you truly understand what it would mean for them to lose it. Perhaps you can show them what they love about the space can be found elsewhere as well.

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The same advice can really be said of almost any game and almost any social relationship: if you want to know someone’s feelings, let them show you the places they like to go. In the spirit of that mindset, I want to show you a place I like to go when things are not particularly bright. But that is a task for next week.


John Sanders is a second year PhD student in the Syracuse University English department where he studies games and new media. He considers himself an extroverted optimist, which can make mornings difficult for his roommates.

A Ghost in the Machine: The Specter of Literature in EA’s Middle-Earth: The Shadow of Mordor (12 February 2016)

One of the most compelling aspects of studying literature is uncovering the ways society and popular media adapt, adopt, reboot, and reimagine classic literary texts and genres into “new” (and more marketable) media forms—for better or for worse. One of my favorite trans-media adaptations of the last few years has been Electronic Art’s 2014 videogame Middle-Earth: The Shadow of Mordor, an open-world adventure game that takes place in the rich, fantasy universe of J.R.R. Tolkien. This week I will be discussing how Tolkien’s literary texts literally “haunt” this videogame through the character Celebrimbor. Through this figure, I also consider what the ghostly presence of the book as an instance of “old media” can tell us about the future of fiction in an age of new media.

Media culture has its share of weak literary adaptations, some that distort or ignore the world of their origination, and some that are so geeked-out with hidden references and inside jokes that they become inaccessible to casual fans. Shadow of Mordor is unique in that it strikes a perfect balance between Tolkien’s literary world and the game’s player-focused digital narrative.  While one might expect a game based on books as popular as Tolkien’s to rely heavily on a teleological and novelistic plot, Shadow of Mordor’s open-world design allows the player to explore freely while choosing their own path through the loose narrative framework of the game. In a review for Kotaku, Yannick LeJacq writes “Mordor wants to be great game more than a satisfying bit of fan-service,” adding that “the game gracefully manages to keep the fiction of its own universe at arm’s length throughout” (Kotaku). While at first it appears that the rich history of Tolkien’s world—a deep fantasy universe that is founded on generations of unique internal histories—has been vacated in favor of a favorable playing experience, taking a closer look at the mechanics of the game reveals the fascinating and ghostly presence of Tolkien’s literary texts. Interestingly, Tolkien’s literary influence shows primarily through the game’s design and play-mechanics rather than through the narrative, and it is through these aspects of play that Shadow of Mordor is able to contribute to, rather than appropriate, Tolkien’s fantasy world.

The avatar through which players navigate the game is Talion, a ranger character invented specifically for the game.  The game begins with Talion witnessing his family’s ritual sacrifice by the evil minions of Sauron (the antagonist of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy) before being killed himself. After his death, Talion enters the spirit world and confronts the ghost of Celebrimbor, an elven ring-maker whom Sauron had also murdered long ago. Fans of Tolkien’s novels might know that Celebrimbor is an essential, if somewhat peripheral, character. As the most talented ring-maker of the Second Age, it is Celebrimbor that forges the magical ring from which Sauron derives his power over others. This makes Celebrimbor a small, but key component to the development of Tolkien’s universe, which revolves around the struggle to destroy the ring of power and arrest Sauron’s dark influence. In Shadow of Mordor, it is through Celebrimbor’s presence that Tolkien’s literary universe interacts with the game-world inhabited by the player.  (picture 2: player avatar Talion (left) and ghost-pal Celebrimbor (right))

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Player avatar Talion (left) and ghost-pal Celebrimbor (right)

Talion, who is a human (like the player) is summarily possessed by the “wraith” of Celebrimbor, and it is this interaction with the spirit world that grants Talion and the player special powers they can use to explore the environment and history of the game-world they inhabit. Seeing through Celebrimbor’s “wraith vision” allows the player to track the footprints of enemies, locate hidden relics, and restore once great ruins to their previous glory.  It is through Celebrimbor, the ghostly remnant of Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, that the game’s material history—including its foundations in a literary past now overshadowed by a decade of film and videogame adaptations—becomes accessible to the player.  By joining the player-avatar Talion with Celebrimbor, the ludic dimension of the game-text and it’s literary history become one. And while a player may feel as if they have left the rigid history of Tolkien super-fandom behind, Celebrimbor’s ghost is always haunting the edges of the player’s experience, pointing out the undeniable link between history and the present.

Perhaps Shadow of Mordor’s most compelling aspect for gamers is its innovative Nemesis engine, a system of play that imbues the world of the game with a type of material and historical memory.

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Screen capture of the Nemesis system

The Nemesis system allows Talion’s enemies to “remember” when they have been defeated and, more insidiously, when they have defeated the player. This means that when encountering a seemingly random enemy in the free-roaming world of the game, the player often comes face-to-face with an enemy that bears the scars of past battles and holds a grudge. When Talion is killed in combat, the enemy who strikes the final blow gains a powerful boost in their statistics and may even be promoted to a higher rank in the feudal system of Sauron’s army. This means that mistakes and challenging encounters, which in most games could be forgotten by re-loading a save, create a long-lasting impact on the difficulty and narrative experience of the game.

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A victorious Orc is promoted to War Chief

As many reviewers have noted, the Nemesis system gives the game an entirely new dimension, turning enemies that have long been portrayed as faceless, nameless grunts of Sauron’s evil army into well-known and despised villains with unique personalities determined by their personal history with the player. Strangely, the Nemesis system—designed to create even more provoking villains—serves to “humanize” Sauron’s army in a way, providing a new perspective on the often-ignored minor antagonists of Tolkien’s world.  The Nemesis system makes the materiality of Tolkien’s world a framework for the experience of the game-world. Rather than forcing the player to re-live a pixelated version of Tolkien’s novelized history of Middle-Earth, the free-range, “sand-box” style of the game combined with the Nemesis system gives players agency in discovering, and even creating for themselves, new depths to Tolkien’s work. Even as the player experiences the freedom and pleasure of writing their own adventure in Tolkien’s world, the phantom of the text is always there beside them, guiding them through Celebrimbor’s voice or framing the materiality of Tolkien’s influence through Nemesis. In this way, Shadow of Mordor makes its most interesting contribution back to Tolkien’s literary world.

Inhabiting the ghostly margins of their new media forms, the phantoms of our favorite books are capable of transforming our understanding of literature by shaping new and immersive narrative experiences.


Max Cassity is a 2nd year PhD student in English and Textual Studies. His studies encompass 20thand 21st Century American fiction, poetry, and digital media. He is currently beginning a dissertation that studies fictional representations of epidemic diseases in American and Global modern literature and digital narratives including Ebola, Cancer, and Pandemic Flu.

 

 

 

Cortana: Gender Devolved (25 Sept. 2015)

For many, the summer’s release of Windows 10 marked a return to form for the venerable series of PC operating systems. It minimized the presence of the much reviled “Metro” styling, restored the Start menu to its former prominence, and made the OS free to anyone who already had either Windows 7 or 8 installed. One software feature, however, cited a return of another kind – Cortana, previously the sarcastic AI companion to the Master Chief in the Halo series of video games, arrived to Windows 10 as its “virtual assistant.” Cortana, like its voice-activated counterpart over at Apple, Siri, is essentially a glorified search engine crossed with a task manager that was then given a computerized (and feminized) voice. In Windows 10 you can just as easily use your search bar to find a file as to find out what kind of music Cortana likes. Which, if you’re wondering, is apparently “emo-hard-core-diva-dubstep.”

While Cortana was making her way back onto screens and into the speakers of Windows 10 early adopters, I was making my own return to the game in which she first made her appearance, Halo: Combat Evolved. I could go on for pages and pages about how much that game meant to me as a 14-year-old kid with his first video game console. Some of my most treasured video game memories come from my original playthroughs of Halo: CE. Often cited as the definitive proof that first person shooters could survive on the console instead of primarily being a PC phenomenon, Halo excelled at creating thrilling set pieces within a rich universe that alternated from beautiful to terrifying to hilarious. These moments, upon my nostalgic return to the game, were as vibrant and dynamic as I remembered them. What I did not account for, however, was the steadying presence that the mostly body-less Cortana provided amidst the bright colors and chaos.

Cortana keeps you oriented in an alien world

As I re-played Halo: CE, it struck me as simultaneously bizarre and fitting that Cortana should re-surface not as a character but as a software feature in the Windows ecosystem. My freshest memories of Cortana were from the latter Halo games, games where the AI character had begun to resemble more conventional narrative tropes of damsels in distress. Correspondingly, those more recent games – Halo 4 in particular – feature a version of Cortana whose holographic body appeared more solid, more curvy, and more physically present than previous iterations.

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Cortana’s body in Halo: CE and Halo 4

Contrast this to Cortana of Halo: CE, who for the vast majority of the game lives in the circuits of Master Chief’s cybernetic armor. Cortana makes her presence known primarily as a voice, speaking directly to Master Chief (and players) by way of their cybernetic link, only taking on a holographic form of her own when she needs to be plugged into a computer terminal of some kind. In many ways, Cortana feels unique among women characters in video games precisely because of her shifting embodiment. She is an AI, of course, but compared to the stolid, green armored figure of Master Chief, her running commentary on players’ adventures feels incredibly human. When she does appear in holographic form, Cortana’s visual design seems only to remind players of her un-corporeality: she is translucent at best, streams of data move up and down her “skin,” and often she is miniature. Her mode of embodiment for the majority of the game is to literally share the skin of Master Chief, and when she takes on other forms it is in ways that visually mark her as unavailable to the most common vectors for the male gaze. In other words, Cortana is a character whose primary mode of relation to players is via conversation, not as a sidekick, a woman to be rescued, or an object of desire, but as a military asset, equal in value to the player-controlled Master Chief and perhaps even exceeding in many ways his own humanity. Master Chief and Cortana then are two cyborgs, paired on behalf of humankind to stand against the alien threat.

It’s this feeling of human relationship and partnership in a shared task that I think made Cortana so endearing to me when I first played Halo: CE and when I picked it up again almost 15 years later. It’s also why later iterations of Cortana as a sort of sexy cyborg who, due to the nature of her AI mind, is deteriorating rapidly and dangerously into madness, never connected with me.

Don’t make a girl a promise you can’t keep.

Some called the newer versions of Cortana more “humanizing,” I can see why they might feel that way. Her newer forms do have a heavier sense of corporeality and the introduction of a kind of AI mental illness and mortality certainly give Cortana some challenges to face that feel very human in nature. However, as Cortana’s mode of embodiment became more solid it also became more chained to regressive modes of visual representation that require women to be sexually desirable to the male eye. It seems hardly accidental to me that these changes in visual design accompany a narrative drift away from pairing Master Chief and Cortana as co-warriors in the fight against the Covenant and toward a rather hetero-erotic repetition of male rescue narratives and female hysteria. As you might expect with these developments, by the end of Halo 4, Cortana’s self-sacrifice for Master Chief is the only path to narrative resolution.

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Master Chief’s sad face as Cortana sacrifices herself. 

This is why it was so pleasantly surprising to find Cortana once again greeting me as an unseen voice from a screen via Windows 10. Perhaps inadvertently, Microsoft had found a way to restore a more human and companionable iteration of the character that broke off the slide she had experienced in the games toward token eye candy. What I found instead was nothing more than the bare skeleton of the character I once loved spending time with, a disembodied voice whose wit and snark had disappeared into haze of sycophantic supplication. The Cortana of Windows 10 is no AI. Much like Cortana’s favorite music, the humanity to be found here is just a mish mash of focus tested jokes and aphorisms.

On the one hand, my disappointment here is probably a little silly. Of course the Cortana of Windows 10 was always going to be a shallow competitor to Siri, not a return to form of one of my favorite video game characters. Instead of restoring the character to a position of equality, the Windows 10 iteration removes her humanity entirely, forcing her to occupy a position of absolute servitude. On the other hand, in Windows 10 and Halo 4 we have the exemplary poles of possibility for female representation in video games. She must either be the subservient, disembodied afterthought or the erotic, fully female and fully psychotic damsel in distress. To think on the strange, iterative life of Cortana across platforms and narratives is to encounter the narrow silos into which women are often shuffled according to patriarchal modes of appropriate embodiment.

Curiously, the Windows 10 Cortana has not yet made it to the Xbox One platform, though I’m sure eventually it will. I wonder what the Halo: CE Cortana will think of her arrival.


Jordan Wood is a Ph.D student in the Syracuse University English department where he studies games, sexuality, and queer theory. He lives with two cats and is terrible at side scrolling games. Go Bills.

Sex on the (Game) Table (18 Sept. 2015)

I’m going to pivot here from the past two weeks, away from 2000 word theoretical arguments and critical close readings to something a little bit looser. In the process, I also hope to turn away from the world of video games for a little while and towards the cardboard world of the table top. If you’ve been into your local Barnes & Noble on any given day in the past few years, you may have noticed the sudden appearance of board games where before there were only college application guides and Moleskine notebooks. This, I promise, is not just indicative of B&N’s own post-codex marketing strategies. They say we are in the middle of a board game renaissance, a golden age of plastic figures, complicated rulebooks, and wooden cubes, and that makes me one happy little nerd.

Incidentally, it also makes me one happy little student of sex and gender politics.

For scholars of gender and sex in a society like ours that has, for much of its history, depended on the institutions of marriage and family to generate a dominant source of individual and corporate identity, understanding the way these institutions work, their social effect, and the conditions under which they break down is essential. This goes doubly true for those who have been marginalized or harmed over and over by these deeply engrained institutions. If you were a film scholar with an interest in sex and gender politics, you’d likely spend time examining the visual representations of familial love, coded femininity, or censored scenes of illicit sexuality. Likewise, were you to take Victorian literature as your subject, you’d probably reading all of Foucault, historicizing sexual practices of the 19th century British subject, while close reading Dickens for signs of the emerging middle class family unit.

Rather, games are machines, encapsulated collections of rules that produce incredible pseudo-fictional experiences when activated by players. Games are adept at modeling the social and political systems in which we already live. This is as true of board games as video games, and it is why the resurgence of board games ought to excite anyone with even a passing interest in the operation of sex and gender in Western culture. Where films and books represent gender and sex ideologies by conventions of narration, image, and characterization, board games offer up for examination the very systems within which these ideologies circulate. This allows players to discover, interact with, and even enact models of those systems, opening institutions like marriage and the family up to a different and (dare I say it?) fun kind of analysis.

So, as both an indulgence of my nerdy enthusiasm for tabletop gaming and an instance of the capacity of board games to represent the dynamics of gender, sex, marriage, and the family, I offer below a few examples for your consideration.

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Photo Credit to Board Game Point of View on boardgamegeek.com

Agricola

Agricola is an intimidating beast of a game to the uninitiated. It’s a quintessential example of the “Euro” style board game: relatively little direct player interaction, multiple paths to victory, heaps of victory points to be won, and copious wooden blocks. In this game, players take responsibility for small 17th century farmsteads, competing with each other to establish the most diverse, fruitful farm. On their turns, players place one of two “workers” from their farm board on one of the action spaces in the shared, central board. Being a 17th century farm, the labor is pre-industrial which means your “workers” are actually husband and wife. This is a case of pure abstraction in terms of representation; the agrarian couple are in fact nothing more than flat wooden discs. They have no visible gender difference, nor are they functionally different with respect to the kinds of actions each one can take. If they are a heterosexual couple as the game’s rulebook assures us they are, there are no representational markers to support such a case. However, as a game of Agricola plays out, two new action spaces open up, each called “Family Growth.” Here, players can assign one of their workers (presumably the wife) who then returns home to the farm bearing a third wooden disc – a child. The arrival of a new child is one of the most exciting events Agricola can offer players, not however because of the miracle of childbirth, but because it means that player now has one more worker that can be sent into the fields, giving them a tremendous competitive edge over her opponents. This wooden child seems to verify that yes, indeed, the first two workers were indeed man and wife, but after the child’s arrival, all three workers once again melt into interchangeability. These bodies are as abstracted, as ungendered as you might imagine – and yet the game’s mechanics testify to the sex that is nevertheless always at the core of a winning strategy. Agricola then offers players a family unit rooted in heterosexual marriage, but radically flattened of sexual difference by the demands of production. Agricola strips marriage and sex down to its most basic, agrarian, function: securing resources, staving off starvation, and producing enough surplus to overshadow your neighboring farms.

Village

Photo Credit to Chun Yian on boardgamegeek.com

Village

Village is another game set in the pre-industrial past, as well as another example of a Euro game with an emphasis on the family unit. However, where Agricola explores the relationship between familial fertility and productivity, Village explores the relationship between family legacy, death, and cross generational ties. More mechanically complex than Agricola, Village makes use of some similar ideas: players have a homestead board from which they place family members onto a central action board and it’s possible for players to “have babies” in order to generate more workers. However, these workers are each labeled with a number, 1-4, indicating to which generation they belong. Players place their workers onto the various actionable spaces of the main board, and in many cases, leave them there, for the spaces are occupations that their workers hold until they die. Say you’re playing Village and you need to make a wagon to sell at market. You could pay a hefty price in various resources and gold or, if you have a worker at the wainwright location, you could simply spend a bit of time, the game’s third spendable commodity. As players spend time, however, workers from the older generations begin to die off. Workers, on the occasion of their deaths, are sent to graves that match their lifelong occupation and in this way are committed to the village’s book of records, memorialized forever after. However, should the limited number of places for a worker’s given occupation be filled up, they are sent unceremoniously into an unmarked grave, forgotten forever and, crucially, giving the player no points. Rather than incentivize the growing accumulation of labor as Agricola does, Village encourages players to look forward to the proper memorialization of death, for it is in this memorialization that the legacy of their family is secured against those of their opponents. Tellingly, the rulebook calls the score “Prestige Points.” It is expressly for the garnering of that prestige that the family unit exists in the world of Village.

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And now for something completely different…

Consentacle

In a very sharp turn away from the pastoral, picturesque worlds of Agricola and Village, I’d like to introduce you to Consentacle, a game by designer, Naomi Clark that is, as of yet, still unpublished. Unlike the previous two games which you can order right off of Amazon, Consentacle was never intended to be a mass market game. This game takes as its subject the erotic encounter between a young, “Curious Human” and a rather expressive “Tentacled Alien.” Consentacle is all about the complex negotiation of sexual consent as players work together to generate Trust, gain Satisfaction, and hopefully, build Intimacy between their wildly disparate characters. Visually, the Curious Human and Tentacled Monster are as different as can be, though any potential sense of horror that you might expect is mitigated by a charming, Jet Set Radio Future, comic-y art style. Mechanically, this difference is reinforced by limiting communication between players as they work toward a common goal, encouraging a sort of blind, tentative play style. On their turns, players simultaneously play cards like “WINK,” “BITE,” “STROKE,” or “ENVELOP,” trying to create combinations that lead the Curious Human and Tentacled Alien into a memorable erotic encounter. I say memorable because the goal of the game isn’t solely to achieve Satisfaction but to transmute that Satisfaction into something more. Satisfaction is actually only the middle step along the road, a sort of exchange gate through which Trust must pass in order to become Intimacy. This alchemy whereby Satisfaction transforms Trust into Alchemy is the key to Consentacle’s representation of sex, not as an end to itself, nor as the component of some larger, marital or familial institution, but as a crucial form of relation that bridges the wide gulf between individuals. In a representational fiction that draws explicitly from an erotics of difference that is often figured as inherently violent (feel free to Google tentacle porn if you’ve missed the allusion), Consentacle removes the power inequities that seemed to be inherent in an encounter between ingénue and monster and replaces them with the erotic frisson of cooperative consent. In other words, sex is fun! And, when sex is properly fun, it is egalitarian, given over to a free exploration of difference, and the magical reagent that brings Intimacy where before there was only solitude.

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Photo credit to Andrew Tullsen on boardgamegeek.com

…and then we held hands

I’ll wrap up with another cooperative game where players must cope with limited communication and blind play in order to achieve a relational end. In …and then we held hands, two players take on the roles of lovers who have reached a point of crisis in their relationship. The nature of this crisis is left to the imagination, but in order to resolve it, players must navigate their pawns across colored spaces on a board arranged in concentric circles. As players discard emotion cards from either their hand or their partner’s, they gradually try to move toward the center of these circles, achieving balance and resolving their relationship in the process. …and then we held hands, is a quiet, deeply abstracted game, unlike Consentacle, and yet an intensely evocative one. The emotions in the game are represented by one of four colors that make up the board’s spaces as well as the emotion cards in player’s hands. Discarding the emotion cards suggests the emergence of feeling in the course of discussion or argument between two lovers and, correspondingly, it affects the position of the player’s pawn. If players handle each other’s (and their own!) emotions appropriately, they slowly make progress toward each other – but should they ignore the feelings in play they risk running their pawn into an impossible corner, unable to move within the context of that relationship anymore. Again, like in Agricola, …and then we held hands, seems gender agnostic, though it also seems to invite players to approach the game as a couple, extra-diegetically. And indeed, the game has been discussed in various contexts online as a “couple’s game”. However, the absence of representational gender here suggests, like Consentacle, an egalitarian sort of cooperation, one that requires sympathy, the reading of body language, and careful consideration of your partner’s state of mind. Where Consentacle is all playful eroticism, however, …and then we held hands plays more like a meditative, couples’ therapy session. The mechanics here are simple and though abstracted, clearly linked to ideologies of egalitarian coupling. It is exactly that abstraction, however, that renders …and then we held hands so open to projection. This is a game, it seems, in which players are invited to invest their own relational crises and contemplate for thirty minutes how they can better cope with the complex roil of emotions that come with the sexual territory.

And that’s it for now! This was just a very cursory overview of how board games offer small windows on the way our society has conceived of sex, marriage, and gender. So much more could be said about each of these games and the many others that I don’t have room to mention. If we really are in the middle of a board game renaissance, I hope we can recognize their value as microcosms of our own social lives as gendered, sexual bodies.


Jordan Wood is a Ph.D student in the Syracuse University English department where he studies games, sexuality, and queer theory. He lives with two cats and is terrible at side scrolling games. Go Bills.