Bashing the Language

Each medium has its own classicism, a point in which the device (be it a VR helmet in videogames, sound recording in cinema or perspective in painting) is sufficiently advanced technologically and its language is rich enough to build a persuasive rhetoric. What stage are videogames at? Have they reached their classicism? Considering there already are games with a high degree of immersion, in which a player can lose herself for hours on end, I’d wager to say they are; and they keep perfecting that classicism with each new technological improvement and their parallel search for the way to handle that improvement as language. There arises the problem of how to manipulate the player with a rhetoric bold enough to make her say, “It’s just a story, it’s fantasy.” The work creates a symbolic world consistent with ideas of what is beautiful/ugly, true/false, good/bad, etc. and it persuades us to adopt those values, and even reproduce them in our daily lives. Only by getting to the latent ideas that the work constructs are we able to critically analyze its subjectivity. Do the authors want us to achieve this? Or would they rather pass their work off as mere fantasy entertainment that has no repercussion on our way of thinking?

Critical Distance

Confronted with this situation, in a post-classical period, artists often find it ethical for the audience to adopt a critical attitude toward the works they receive — that is, a critical distance. In this way, artists come clean about their subjectivity by breaking the mechanisms of language that occlude their discursive device: they move on to use transparent language, to show it: that is, they move from building objectivity to building subjectivity. As it is often said, writing names itself. These periods are sometimes called Mannerist periods. Despite the name coming from a specific time and place, various authors also apply it to new times and new media, like Jesús González Requena in Clásico, manierista, postclásico: Los modos del relato en el cine de Hollywood. We can follow a bit of his analysis of different media:

In the classicist period, both the creation of perspective and that of oil painting, among other techniques, gave the device sufficient strength so as to construct a strong realism and universalizable beauty standards.

Giuliano da San Gallo, Piero di Cosimo (1462-1521)
Giuliano da San Gallo, Piero di Cosimo (1462-1521). González Requena cites Panofsky: “The Renaissance… established and unanimously accepted what seems to be the most obvious, and actually is the most problematic dogma of aesthetic theory: the dogma that the work of art is the direct and faithful representation of a natural object.”

Later on, Mannerism in painting exposes its own reality-building device: it abandons classical beauty, symmetry, perspective, the golden ratio. Even showing the artist within the very painting itself boosts subjectivity; reveals its own writing.

Winter 1, Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1530-1593)
Winter 1, Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1530-1593). In La Historia de la fealdad, Umberto Eco comments: “(…) Mannerism was defined as the phase in which the artist, afflicted by angst and ‘melancholy’, was no longer interested in beauty as imitation but in expressiveness (…)”

Classical film had its golden age in Hollywood in the 30s. The montage is the native resource of film’s language that allowed that classicism to develop. With it, an inhabitable space-time can be constructed, even when the takes that constitute it it were filmed at different locations and several days apart. When we watch classical cinema, we don’t see the cuts, it’s a transparent montage.

Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939). González Requena comments in La metáfora del Espejo: “Classical Hollywood scripts were silent scripts, meant toward the edification of rich fictional universes, strongly realistic, inhabited by solid characters, and inhabitable, too, for the spectator himself (…) The spectator’s gaze traversed their universes seamlessly, submitting itself docilely to the adventures to which the stories themselves invited.”

Mannerism in cinema appears in the late 40s. Its way of highlighting its language was by showing the cuts in the montage, with actors looking at the camera, with moments when we see behind the scenes, with complex frame compositions framed inside other frames.

In The Young and the Damned (Luís Buñuel, 1950) there’s a moment when one of the actors throws an egg at the camera, which, maybe for a classical spectator of that time, would come as something of a shock. Possibly interpreted as a provocation for the spectator to interpret the social critique the film lays out.

Here I leave González Requena, and I continue the analysis by including videogames. Just like other media, they achieve their Mannerism by taking elements from classical genres and giving them a strong authorial presence.

For example, serious games attempt to make authorship invisible by satisfying the player with realism. In this way, they conceal a cutout of reality that’s ideologically biased.

Flight Simulator 2016. Videogames can generate perfect systems that work with measurable elements and our decisions have an instantaneous effectiveness.

Games like Enviro Bear 2000, Surgeon Simulator 2013, or Goat Simulator break the idea of systemic perfection that we could find in any simulator. They satirize the genre.

Enviro Bear 2000 (Justin Smith, 2009). A bear tries to drive a car with unusable controls.

The search for graphic realism is a constant in any visual art. Regardless of whether the themes are fantastic or not, realism cares about how the light hits the scene, the distance between shadows, the textures of the trees, and everything a 3D engine can offer.

Fallout 4 (2015) and one of several videos you can find that discuss its realism.

Visual realism in Mannerist games is used (if it’s used) as a basis that is later broken, principally through glitch effects.

Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number (Dennaton Games, 2015). The game is riddled with Mannerist elements like VHS effects, main character switches, moments behind the scenes of a filming session or somebody writing the script of what we just played.

What videogame language itself has in particular that strengthens its classical rhetoric is addiction. Just as in cinema the classical spectator abstracts herself out of her own presence and dives right into the story, the player loses herself in the game as if her mind’s been hacked. The game doesn’t need audiovisual realism, but rather achieves a plausible and satisfying world through addictive mechanics like constant positive feedback, accumulation of capital or progress predictability, among others.

Farmville (2009). Casual social games are the apex of this kind of addiction.

If addiction brings the player so close to the game that she can’t establish a critique of what she’s playing, then why not create moments in which the interaction calms down? Or even games that deliberately ask the player to reflect on what’s happened, avoiding addiction or immersion.

Cow Clicker (Ian Bogost, 2010). A satire of social games; intentionally boring and with a stupid mechanic consisting only of clicking a cow.

Whether it’s by presenting a perfect system, or by having realistic graphics, videogames are a medium that constructs an idea of objectivity very easily, especially if its themes address reality, like serious games do (even when their graphics might be schematic).

Democracy 3 (Positech Games, 2013). A game about politics with no realism in the audiovisual sense, but rather in its content. The data that equilibrates the system (when we win) is what hides the author’s ideology.

The concept of the glitch conveys the idea that the device is broken. The device itself can be the theme of a game, in contrast with the idea that it’s about reality like in a serious game.

Fez (2012) de Phil Fish
Fez (Phil Fish, 2012). One of the game’s themes (possibly the principal one) is the third dimension. From its intro, loaded with glitches and images of the BIOS, it anticipates audiovisually what the game is going to be about.

Questioning Is Not Denying

There doesn’t exist a work exclusively made out of glitches, or a satire with nothing to satirize, or a game that seeks to be boring without seeking to be interesting through other means. The word “Mannerism”, according to Wikipedia, comes from “manner”, among other meanings: that is, painting in the manner in which the Classics painted, but always with an interesting twist that puts them at odds. It’s not a matter of denying fun or immersion (or is it?), but rather of giving the player tools so she can deconstruct them in a critical manner (and it’s not bad to burst the bubble every once in a while…).

Other Takes on the Subject

We can find these Mannerist stances in articles about videogames every time we see an analysis on how discourse hides the author’s ideology by displaying it as neutral, or how the writing can reveal itself to itself, provoking disruptions in the discourse and promoting, for example, attention or focalization in the player.

Paolo Pedercini talks about the necessary simplification required to artificially reproduce a system inspired in reality and the ideologically biased results that arise as products of this trimming.

“Because a simulation is always an arbitrary simplification of a small subset of reality, an artifact that can only aspire to capture a limited set of features of an existing system.”

Robert Yang and a critique of the concept of immersion, proposing instead that of focalization.

“(…) perhaps it’s not really about inhabiting or role-playing characters or people exactly, it’s about consciousness and the ways in which the reader or player’s attention gets focused.”

Ben Abraham and another critique of the concept of immersion as fun, demanding, exciting, etc. He proposes seeking the player’s attention.

“Is immersion about my own sensory experience or is it about the properties in the media object and its ability to drag me kicking and screaming into the experience?” (quote minute 2:20)

Jonas Kyratzes highlights that certain defects in a game can come to highlight the author’s personality. Therefore he considers it valuable to find a system that doesn’t seek to be perfect.

“Take human beings. Flaws are part of who we are, part of our personality. Would we be as interesting as we are if we didn’t have any flaws?”

Borges, already a classic to us, in The Postulation of Reality, speaks badly of the Classics themselves: “The classical writer does not distrust language, but believes in the ample virtue of each of its signs… he does no more than record a reality, he does not represent one.”

Maybe it’s a matter of no longer believing solely that the language of videogames is being constructed, and also of beginning to distrust it.

Translated from Spanish by David T. Marchand and Pablo F. Quarta