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Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Anatomy of Tragedy #7: Videogames

written by the Judge


Our anatomy of tragedy is finished, and the question is – where do we go from here? It is interesting to contemplate the tradition of criticism behind this genre, and look at the path that winds towards us. When Hegel developed his brilliant theory of literature, it was the beginning of the nineteenth century. A new literary genre, called the novel, had become very popular.

Novels, back in Hegel’s time, were far less sophisticated than they are today. And they were not recognised as a legitimate part of ‘high’ culture. Indeed, reading many novels was seen as the symptom of a shallow mind, one only occupied with frivolities (amusing, given that the contemporary cliché says exactly the opposite – reading many novels is now characteristic of the deep and intellectual mind). This is, I suppose, the reason why Hegel decided not to bother with this new mode of writing – but now it seems like the most glaring omission from his theory.

Enter Mikhail Bakhtin, writing from his position of complete obscurity in the first half of the twentieth century, and producing one of the most important and original studies of the novel ever written. His work is very seldom connected to Hegel and Nietzsche, but in my opinion it makes for a natural sequel to their investigations. Bakhtin never mentioned the I and O symbols, but he identified the stand-out trait of the novel as a literary genre: while poetry transitions from one primal symbol to the other, and drama synthesises them both in a single effect, the novel simply uses them liberally, with no consistent rule or method at all. The resulting condition of chaos, in which anything goes, even something as polymorphous as Joyce’s Ulysses, is the realm of the novel. Cinema, though a new revolutionary art in its own right, did not innovate the symbolic arena the way that the novel did. The language of film is always either the language of drama or that of the novel (and as of late, even that of poetry!); images are used instead of words, but the rules (or lack thereof) stay unchanged.

For my own part, having written a series on poetry and one on drama, I appear to be left with the task of getting one done on the novel. I doubt that I will. My impression is that it would be redundant: Bakhtin’s work may not include a specific discussion of the I and the O, but it is very exhaustive in all other matters. And since the novel is defined by not having a consistent structure for the dynamics of the I and the O, I feel there is little I may add, at least for now.

Are we, then, at the end of hermeneutics? Has this tradition – the one embodied in the continuity of Hegel, Nietzsche, and Bakhtin, not the broader one which includes Heidegger, Gadamer and other illustrious thinkers – been completely mined out? What fascinates me is that we find ourselves today in a similar position to Hegel’s two-hundred years ago. Hegel may have had all the intellectual means – if not a great deal of predisposition – to study the novel, but there would have been little material for him to look into: novels back then were just too simple. Dostoevsky, on whose work the theory of Bakhtin was wholly predicated, published his major works thirty years after Hegel’s death. The German philosopher simply came too early.

We are, as I said, in a very similar position. Though cinema may not have changed the structure of narrative from literature, we are today witnessing the rise of a new, fresh, revolutionary art-form that does. I am talking about videogames.

Games appear to be at a stage of development not unlike the novel in Hegelian times. They are not accepted as legitimate members of high culture, and people who indulge in them are often frowned on as time-wasters. They have developed by leaps and bounds since their appearance in the 1970s, but they are still very rudimentary: more often than not, developers struggle to weave narrative into gameplay, and they borrow methods and techniques from other forms, especially film. Games that involve ‘cut-scenes’ – moments in which the game stops and you simply watch an animated sequence – are trying to replicate an effect which does not belong to their medium. There is no material in these cut-scenes to develop a new branch of hermeneutic theory, because this type of narrative is derivative.

And yet games genuinely exhibit the potential for new narrative structures, much more so than film ever did. At the heart of the original gaming experience there is interactivity – not only the possibility of choosing between different paths on a story, but the possibility of making one’s own arrangement with the symbols that one is offered. A structure that efficiently, uniquely suits the videogame format sees the player coming to a scenario after some great event has happened, and reconstructing the story by finding fragments left by the previous occupants (diary entries, pictures, memos, objects, living creatures, etc.). If the order in which these fragments are found and the option itself of finding them is not linear (as in the original Resident Evil) but left to the player’s decisions on where to go and what to do (as in the GameCube’s Metroid Prime), we have a structure that no other art-form can replicate at all. If poetry has no time, if drama has time self-contained and bound to the continuum of the stage, and if the novel has time which is not self-contained and follows no rules but its own, then videogames have something completely new – in a videogame, the factor of time is transferred from the space of the text onto the reader: you are time. Causality takes on a new dimension. The symbolic value of signifiers – whether objects stand for the I or the O – relies on the arrangement effected by the player’s actions and therefore depends on a whole new principle, has whole new effects. The very structure of the novel is contained within that of videogames, as a player forms his / her own novel out of the fragments and variables that s/he is offered – exactly like the structure of drama is contained in the novel, and the structure of poetry is contained in drama. We have finally reached the next level.

As something of an aside, it’s worth pausing for a moment and looking at the evolution of literary theory and the way that it paced after the evolution of the great literary forms. Studying a poem meant studying the text itself and what it said, while studying a play meant studying the characters and what they believed in. The rise of the novel coincided with the explosion of a concept that, in literary theory, had until then been given relatively less attention – the concept of the author, and the idea that meaning is buried deeper than in the previous levels and in the author’s mind. As the symbolic play of the text went into more and more subterranean levels, the theory behind those texts correspondingly started hunting for meaning in new, hidden agents. In cinema, there is no new level to make the previous ones redundant. But in games, intended in the sense that I discussed above, the author clearly takes a back-seat and the player comes to the fore as the matrix of meaning, in a way that even contemporary theories on subjectivity and literary con/text cannot fully account for.

At this point, though, our series must genuinely come to a close, and a white flag must be raised. Not because the topic has been exhaustively treated, as in the case of the novel, but for the opposite reason – because there is not enough material to study. Videogames are, as I mentioned, still quite rudimentary. There has been no Dostoevsky in their world. There has been no Proust. An anatomy of gaming must be left to scholars as of yet unborn, and my best wishes – along with a quantum of irrepressible envy – go out to all of them.

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