A Tribute to Leonard Nimoy: why voice acting matters in the case of Master Xehanort.

“Darkness is a beginning, not an end.” -Master Xehanort, “Kingdom Hearts:  Birth by Sleep”

Personally, I’m at a loss to express my feelings about Leonard Nimoy leaving us today.  Yet given that this site is the home of video game analysis, I have been back and forth debating how, if at all, to express my sentiments about him in this space.  Ultimately, I’ve decided to pay tribute to a man who has hugely impacted so many by offering a brief discourse about the value of voice actors.  For among the many hats that Nimoy wore over his career, one of the most notable in my mind was that of peerless voice actor, and the voice of a character that has framed a franchise.

Master Xehanort

Master Xehanort has only explicitly appeared in two of the “Kingdom Hearts” games — “Birth by Sleep” and “Dream Drop Distance” — and yet the architecture of the series’ entire plot line is, at this point, almost entirely his design.  This is not the time to begin a full analysis of the series, though that time will soon come; suffice it for now to say that he is the archetypal villainous kingpin who rearranges the entire universe according to his machinations.  Ganondorf storms the Temple of Time to try to take over Hyrule; Xehanort reformats time itself in order to create the ultimate χ-blade and multiply himself by XIII, ultimately aiming to open the door to the Keyblade War.  (This also isn’t a unique occupation for Nimoy’s characters — in J.J. Abrams’ Fringe, he played William Bell, who went to the ends of time and space to literally create his own universe.)  And the voice of this charismatic, devious mastermind is Leonard Nimoy — but, one might ask, what difference does a voice actor make to a video game?  After all, I analyzed “Legend of Zelda:  Majora’s Mask” for months, and “Zelda” games don’t even have traditional voice acting.

Voice actors make all the difference to a video game, and I want to point to a single moment demonstrating why the choice of voice actor for Master Xehanort was crucial to the experience of “Kingdom Hearts.”  In “Birth by Sleep,” there is a single moment at the climax of the game when the three protagonists — Ventus, Terra, and Aqua — confront Xehanort in the Keyblade Graveyard; Xehanort, by means of identifying Ventus with his destiny to become part of the χ-blade, points a single finger at him and barks out the words, “χ-blade!”  This moment is at the same time riveting and almost a non sequitur:  the player is jolted from the narrative to bear witness to the villain identifying one of their avatars as a mere plot object.

Why does this matter?  One reason why “Kingdom Hearts” is a wonderful series is that it can be read on so many unique interpretive registries; yet at the same time, these registries are strung together by questions of identity.  The climax of the first “Kingdom Hearts” is a battle over what Kingdom Hearts is:  light or darkness.  There are questions of what constitutes your identity if you lose your heart, or if you lose your soul.  There is a constant tension between the bonds of friendship and the quest for individuation.  And, at the center of it all, there is a mastermind pulling together every corner of the universe to mold everything in his image.

Xehanort

The player turns on their game console, enters the world of a game, and expects some level of control.  A major difference between games and movies is that the player of a game is able to move the storyline along by virtue of engaging with that story; in the case of “Kingdom Hearts,” the very same stories that were once straightforward Disney movies become elaborate, interwoven epics dependent upon the player and the protagonists.  But this authority is not absolute, and voice acting reminds us of this.  The vehicle of language within a game, spoken to the player as if by another person, implies that the player is not alone in responsibility for the world and its events — rather, the player’s actions are part of a dialectic with the voices already vying to be heard within the game’s discourse.

Master Xehanort is the paragon case.  Arriving innocuously and quickly sprouting of everywhere in countless forms, he infests the game while delicately taking control of the metaphysics, to the point at which he points at Ventus — in effect, at the player’s conduit to the game’s world — and says that yes, even the very player of this game is subordinate to my vision.  The cinematic choice here is on-point because the player actually experience the moment of Xehanort point at Ventus as seen through Xehanort’s eyes, as though he is subsuming the player’s perspective itself, threatening to make you, the player, yet another Xehanort.  This is the ultimate thrust of what you must fight against in the series, and what makes it such an epic struggle.

Needless to say, it is crucial that the voice chosen for this role matches the aesthetics of the mastermind who subsumes the game’s very mode of existence.  Nimoy was peerless in this regard.  Searingly incisive with his diction, whimsically sinister as he tossed around phrases like “feckless neophytes,” Nimoy as Xehanort was subversive and enthralling because his voice was simultaneously sympathetic and abrasive.  He was at once the Boston local who had been around the block, and the undaunted master of time and space, scheming with the mind of a metaphysician and the spirit of a Disney villain.  I challenge anyone to listen to his rhetoric and try to escape its magnetic draw, the sensation of a voice that envelops you like darkness itself.

Nimoy as Xehanort

I offer analysis because, as an analyst, this is what I have to give; but the truth is that Leonard Nimoy knew how to move people far beyond the realm of the analytic.  His voice was the hallmark of quality work, and his presence was enough to completely transform the atmosphere of a story.  Again, I am at a loss, and can only say this by way of closing:  thank you, Leonard Nimoy, for all the works of art you left us; you will never be forgotten, and will always be missed.

Reversing Time: Throwback Analysis of “Dishonored,” Part I.

You might recall that I undertook my first video game research several years ago; a few weeks back, I published the first chapter from that work as part of my series on “Majora’s Mask.”  If you follow “With a Terrible Fate” on Facebook, then you know that I am analyzing “Dishonored” next.  What you don’t know is that my first research project also had a rather long chapter on “Dishonored.”  So, prior to releasing my new analysis of the game, I am publishing my older work on the game, in three parts — so stay tuned to see where the analysis ends up.

Note, again, that this older work is not altogether reflective of my current stances on video game theory.  It also focuses much more heavily on the phenomenology of games — that is, what it is like to experience playing a particular game — whereas my current work is more focused on the architecture of games as aesthetic objects.  Nevertheless, I hope readers will enjoy the piece and get excited for the imminent release of totally up-to-date work on this riveting game.

The Depths of Dunwall

Treatment III

The Prophesied Meta-Role: Taking a Bond of Fate

How you use what I have given you falls upon you,

as it has to the others before you.

Now I return you to your world;

but know that I will be watching with great interest.

-The Outsider, “Dishonored”

 

Synopses

“Dishonored,” Bethesda

“Dishonored” chronicles the story of Corvo Attano, the Royal Protector to Empress Jessamine Kaldwin of Dunwall and her daughter, Princess Emily. Dunwall is a city set in the early industrial period, beset by a rat plague that might be likened to the Black Death of the 14th century. Corvo returns from a trip to neighboring cities where he acted as the Empress’s proxy in seeking help on the plague outbreak; after delivering his report to the Empress, a group of dark-garbed assassins materialize at the outlook upon which Corvo and Jessamine are conferring, occupying Corvo while their leader kills the Empress. They then disappear, leaving Corvo to be framed for the murder by the traitorous Spy Master Hiram Burrows, who uses the assassination as opportunity to take control of Dunwall’s government as the Lord Regent. On the day intended for Corvo’s execution, an insurgent group known as the Loyalists, who claim loyalty to the original Kaldwin line, springs him from prison. They enlist Corvo’s help in finding Emily, who had been hidden away in a brothel by the Lord Regent; and eventually, they task Corvo with bringing down the Lord Regent himself. Thereafter, the Loyalists betray Corvo, making an attempt on his life so that they may realize their true goal: installing Emily as a figurehead and ruling Dunwall through her. Corvo is saved by the actions of one Loyalist who remains faithful to him; tasked with killing Corvo, this Loyalist instead gives him a nonlethal dose of the intended poison. Corvo eventually finds his way back to the Loyalists, subduing them and rescuing Emily.

Superimposed over this plot is The Outsider: a mysterious God-figure and religious icon who exists outside space, time, and morality. On the first night Corvo spends at the Loyalists’ hideout, he is visited in an ethereal dream-like sequence by this entity, which to the entire world appears like a perfectly ordinary man of 22 or 23 years’ age. He tells Corvo that he has “chosen” him because of the pivotal role he will play in events to come, and endows him with The Outsider’s mark, which enables him to employ the world of magic, of which The Outsider makes him aware. He tells Corvo that how he uses these gifts falls upon him, but that he “will be watching with great interest.” The Outsider, in essence, is a supernatural spectator, placing a bet upon Corvo in the form of supernatural ability and watching him play out his quest for reclamation of honor.

“Macbeth,” William Shakespeare

In the Bard’s classic tragedy, Macbeth, a Scottish lord, encounters three witches who divine him to be the future king of Scotland. Macbeth, goaded on by his wife and his own ambition, uses the weight of this prophecy, endorsed by the acquisition of another noble title the witches foretold (Thane of Cawdor), to murder King Duncan; he is crowned king thereafter in accordance with the prophecy. His brief and bloody reign is spent seeking to suppress all dissent and knowledge of his usurpation, with both him and his wife driven to madness by the ensuing guilt over their actions. The witches, to whom Macbeth returns to seek assurance of further reign, foretell his end, which, as was the case with their earlier predictions, comes to pass.

The Ego and the Id, Sigmund Freud

Here, Freud lays out his classic model for the human psyche. The mind, he says, initially exists in the undifferentiated well of libido known as the id, which is the seat of the pleasure principle and death instincts. The mind’s interaction with reality compels differentiation of the id into an ego, which serves as its interface with the external world. Loosely interpreted, the superego develops out of the ego as a result of expectations and societal prohibitions, serving to internally police the activities of the ego in accordance with external expectations. While the psychiatric and psychological communities have largely discredited Freud’s theories, they are still useful templates in the domain of literary theory and interpretation. In this treatment, Freud’s model of the mind will serve as a template from which to construct our third meta-role model.

Introduction: “Everyone knows your face”

            One of the most basic aspects governing the nature of player’s association with his on-screen avatar is perspective.  If we take the time to examine how perspective typically functions in games, we will find an easy way into what makes “Dishonored” theoretically salient.

The way in which the player perceives the avatar’s place in the game’s reality, as well as the way in which the avatar interacts with that reality, create a two-part framework for the player’s understanding of his place within that reality. These two perceptual categories may be broken down into two subcategories, as follows.

  1. Avatar Placement

 Third-Person

The camera, serving as the player’s window into the game’s reality, is positioned at a location external to the avatar. This is most typically understood with the camera following the avatar from behind, though third-person games typically give the player the capacity to swivel the camera around the avatar at will. When considering the ways in which video games impede mindfulness, this vantage point is high on the list. In many ways, this view tends toward the player having a “god perspective” – that is to say, they understand themselves as manipulating the avatar, rather than directly associating with it. While there are methods by which third-person games draw players in to associate with the avatar, on the whole, this level of separateness will always limit that degree of association.

First-Person

The camera is made to simulate the visual input of the avatar, creating the impression of the player seeing through the avatar’s eyes. This carries with it a level of intimacy which third-person games are hard-pressed to convey: when the player’s visual access to the game’s reality is limited to the avatar’s perceptual field, we might rightly say they are forced to associate with the avatar, because the avatar is their sole point of entry into this reality. This perspective is often associating with shooting games like “Call of Duty,” so much so that an entire genre has evolved surrounding the marriage of these two ideas: the FPS, or ‘first-person shooter’. The genre, focused more on combat than on character development, may be the most natural implementation of the first-person perspective because it circumvents a major question raised by the first person perspective: given that a game and the characters therein are scripted, how might the player impress his identity on the avatar in the way he is seemingly invited to by the first-person perspective? We explore this difficulty further in consideration of the second perceptual category.

  1. Avatar Participation

 Active Avatar

The avatar has a scripted character that interacts actively with NPC’s throughout the course of the game. This is the case in the larger portion of modern role playing games: the player may be given a choice at certain junctures as to what the avatar says, but the avatar will by and large engage in scripted dialogues with NPC’s, particularly during the game’s main story-advancing events. Like the third-person viewpoint, this perceptual subcategory distances the player from the avatar, because the avatar is generating dialogue, thereby positioning the locus of control in the game’s programmed script, as opposed to in the player. As such, it is not surprising that the active avatar is typically paired with a third-person viewpoint, and vise-versa. (Of course, this is only a trend, and not a rule. Notable exceptions are the “Legend of Zelda” series, pairing a third-person viewpoint with a silent avatar, and “Deus Ex: Human Revolution,” which pairs a first-person viewpoint with an active avatar.)

Silent Avatar

As the name suggests, this subcategory features an avatar which does not speak – at most, the avatar will have very sparse, decision-making scripts, one of which the player is prompted to choose at event junctures in the storyline. Even then, the avatar does not literally speak these scripts; speech is merely implied. This lack of voice and automatic dialogue compels the player to associate more with the avatar because the separation created by an active avatar is not present. Yet the silent avatar goes further in affecting the overall tenor of the game. One might naturally think that a silent avatar is somewhat passive, and this is not far off the mark. For, paradoxically, this very dynamic which allows the player to act in freer association with the avatar also makes the events of the story far more dependent on the world external to the avatar. This, too, underscores the limitations of the medium of video games regarding the player’s entry into the reality: the player, one who can actively evaluate situations and adjudicate them in real-time, is hard-pressed to find an organic sense of interaction in a pre-written reality and its chain of events. When his representative (i.e., the avatar) is silent, this allows the player a greater sense of being within the reality, but this also puts in question the avatar’s sense of actively bringing about the events within the game’s plot. One solution to this paradox, as we shall see in “Dishonored,” is modern gaming’s introduction of more frequent and multifarious choices to be made by the player.

 

Corvo Attano, Modern Gaming Skin

            For a long time, gaming has been more or less focused on linear plotlines: the player’s avatar would progress through scripted story events, leading to the predestined conclusion of the game. However, gaming has increasingly trended in recent advancements toward an experience more varied based on the player’s choices. The increase of choice has manifested in different ways. At its most superficial, there is the impact-less choice of the order in which one completes story-advancing events; similar is the choice mechanic of allowing players to develop the attributes of their characters in different ways. While both of these undoubtedly affect the way in which the player associates with the game, they are superficial in the sense that they do not alter the game’s main plotline globally.

In contrast, some games’ choice junctures greatly affect the storyline. “Dishonored” is a prime example of such a choice paradigm: the game has two distinct paths, called “high chaos” and “low chaos.” By making more choices that align with one path, the player determines a different ending to the game, along with altering the state of Dunwall later in the game.

The logic of the game’s paths proceeds as follows: the more people killed at Corvo’s hand, the more chaos is spread and the darker Dunwall becomes because the rat plague is propagated. The presence of more dead bodies means more feed to sustain the diseased rat population. The killing of guards also reduces order and draws resources away from managing plague outbreaks by requiring them to instead be invested in suppressing unrest. In contrast, Corvo’s moving in the shadows and achieving his ends with non-lethal means reduces chaos by avoiding the above causal chain.

Accordingly, high- and low-chaos choices are built into virtually every aspect of the game. Main assassination targets can be neutralized either by lethal or nonlethal means – in infiltrating enemy strongholds, Corvo can either slip past guards using stealth, or fight his way through with brute force.[1] Given the way in which choice is integrated into every facet of gameplay, one might understand why game designers would traditionally subscribe to linear, convergent storylines: one thought here is that choice-affected storylines simply require far more work. In crafting “Dishonored,” Bethesda essentially created two games in one; the high-chaos and low-chaos options, divergent from one another, each only truly tell half the story. Synthesizing the two paths is the only way of attaining the most holistic view of “Dishonored.” This could be one reason why the game is relatively short at a ~10-hour playthrough: the potential divergence of choices at any given moment makes development an intensively integrated process.

It may not seem that much choice is provided by only a bilinear path, but, when combined with the overt presence of more superficial choice (i.e. the capacity to choose different supernatural powers for Corvo to develop, and a multitude of ways to carry out objectives on either of the two paths – particularly the high-chaos path), the amount of choice in “Dishonored” is a solid start in resolving the problems of avatar agency discussed above. The player is able to associate with the avatar and retain a level of responsibility for his actions through the paradigm of choice; in point of fact, responsibility for one’s actions is one of the game’s main themes.

Enter Corvo Attano, the fallen hero on a mission to clear his name and restore the proper lineage to the throne of Dunwall. As Royal Protector, and thereafter as the Empress’s alleged assassin, Corvo is known throughout Dunwall; as Piero, the Loyalists’ craftsman, puts it, “everyone knows your face,” which is why he takes it upon himself to craft a mask for Corvo to wear on his missions – to wear something that “brings terror to them.” Curiously enough, everyone in Dunwall knows Corvo’s face except for Corvo. By virtue of the game’s being exclusively experienced in a first-person perspective, the player never sees Corvo’s face directly. The only times he sees it rendered are on wanted posters following Corvo’s initial escape from prison (posters which are quickly updated to instead show his mask), and in several intimate moments along the low-chaos path.

After Corvo saves Emily from the Lord Regent’s clutches, she lives with him at the Loyalists’ hideout, before Corvo is betrayed and the Loyalists kidnap her for their own purposes. During her stay, she draws many pictures for Corvo, some of which are of him. In the low-chaos story arc, she draws one such picture of the Royal Protector’s face, labeled “Daddy.” In another large portrait beside Corvo’s bed, we see the difference between high- and low-chaos stories: in high-chaos, Emily draws this portrait as a picture of Corvo’s dark mask, whereas in low-chaos she draws his actual, smiling face. In point of fact, Emily’s identity as Corvo’s daughter, a fact heavily implied by external evidence such as the above-mentioned drawing, is only accessible to the player through the perceptions of NPC’s – by virtue of the silent avatar, the player fights the entire game to save his daughter, yet only learns that this is the case late in the game.

The player’s perception of Corvo is completely dependent upon the way others perceive him – and that perception, in turn, is formed by Corvo’s own actions. How does this relationship between internally generated choice and externally impressed self-understanding inform the player’s understanding of Corvo, and, by proxy, himself? Furthermore, what role does The Outsider – looming in the background, yet so far unanalyzed – play in this dynamic? In comparing the established framework of “Dishonored” with “Macbeth” and interweaving appropriate psychological precepts, we will formulate the next manifestation of the meta-role: a framework we shall term the ‘prophesied meta-role paradigm’.

[1] Interestingly, the non-lethal means are almost invariably worse than swift execution. For example, the brothers who are eventually found to be holding Emily hostage may either be killed, or sent to a mine owned by a local boss, who cuts out their tongues to prevent their stories ever being told.

“YOU DIED”: despair and transcendence in “Dark Souls.”

Music fades away as you jog down an innocuous hallway.  You chart a mental map of your surroundings, and check your inventory to see how much insurance you packed to help you survive.  You reach the end of the hallway, and round the corner.  There is a doorway and a white light.  You traverse the light.  A moment passes; another; then you are left with two celebratory words printed across the screen.

You Died

Welcome to “Dark Souls,” a world where no one holds your hand except to break your fingers.  If you’ve played this punisher of a game, then you know that it takes the sentiment of “meeting with a terrible fate” to a whole new level.  In PvP (‘player-versus-player’), your peers unite to kill you, seeing that you die even more frequently.  And every inch of progress made comes with the quiet threat of being lost with your next death.

Today, the one meeting With a Terrible Fate is “Dark Souls.”

Like I did with “Xenoblade Chronicles,” I’m going to bracket a lot of the broader game culture in analyzing “Dark Souls.”  From “praising the sun” to “trolling fellow players,” this game has had a substantial impact on the gaming climate at large.  While this is certainly worthwhile to discuss, I’m more interested in understanding the fundamentals of what makes “Dark Souls” so frustrating and alluring at the same time.  To that end, the argument I defend in this article is as follows:  “Dark Souls” is a piece of art that is functionally mimetic of real life, while simultaneously maintaining the pretense of being a non-realistic video game.  Furthermore, I posit that this thesis is the ultimate explanation both for why “Dark Souls” is so frustrating, as well as why it can be so rewarding.  The argument goes in three parts:  firstly, I examine the metaphysics of “Dark Souls” in comparison to my model of metaphysics in “Majora’s Mask”; secondly, I offer a means of understanding the role of narrative difficulty in “Dark Souls” by comparing it to James Joyce’s notorious Ulysses; lastly, I explain how dynamical nihilism and transcendentalism emerges from the experience of playing “Dark Souls.”  (Please note also:  this article only aims to analyze the actual game “Dark Souls,” as opposed to the entire series of which it is a member.)

I.  Metaphysics

Link falling through timeThe "Dark Souls" bonfire

We don’t need to dive too deeply into “Majora’s Mask” theory to get the point that’s useful for “Dark Souls.”  Recall merely that Link is able to instantiate new timelines of Termina by playing the Song of Time, and that, together with the extension of player agency through Link, it follows that the player has the authority to direct the reality of Termina in relation to the shape of these timelines.  So the universe is iterative by virtue of it being in constant decay, but the authority in choosing when to instantiate each iterant of Termina and how to shape those iterations is vested in the player.

In Dark Souls, the universe is not locally in flux, as is the case in “Majora’s Mask.”  It is true that the narrative of the game takes place at a point when the world of Lordran is at a crossroads, when the Flame of the First Kiln, the primordial fire lighting the world, is weak; but the world is stable over the course of narrative, with its only potential change happening at the endgame (more on this later).  The result is that the player and her character are dropped into a world that is substantively stable, unlike Termina; rather, in “Dark Souls,” it is the player’s character who is substantively unstable.

The player’s character is tethered to the reality of Lordran by the curse of the Darksign, which renders him deathless and causes him to respawn at the last bonfire he has found whenever he is killed.  This mechanism leads to each death being narratologically significant, unlike the majority of games which merely “reset” each time a player dies, not counting the death as relevant to the progression of the narrative.  So while both “Majora’s Mask” and “Dark Souls” tell a narrative in which the player’s relation to the universe is fundamentally iterative, the locus of iteration is drastically different in each case:  Termina’s iterations depend on Link, whereas, in “Dark Souls”, the iterations of the player depend on the world’s metaphysical structure.

II.  Difficulty

Recovering lost powerThe difference in iterative locus might be interesting in a vacuum, but what makes it experientially crucial is its relation to the game’s stance on difficulty.  Of course, it’s trivial to say merely that “Dark Souls” is an exceptionally trying video game, so I will be more precise with what I mean.

The “universal currency” of “Dark Souls,” as it were, is souls, which the player’s character reaps from corpses and enemies, and which can be used both to purchase items and to develop through the process of ‘leveling up’.  In this way, souls unify the game concepts of currency and experience.  But the fact that death counts in “Dark Souls” adds a caveat to the mechanism of soul collecting:  whenever the player’s character dies, the total number of souls he was carrying is left as a pulsating green mass wherever the death occurred.  The player then respawns at the last bonfire rested at.  If the player can make it back to the point of prior death, then she can collect the lost souls and “recover”; however, if she dies again before reaching that point, then those souls are lost forever.

How does this set “Dark Souls” apart from other games?  Well, one of the clearest metrics in my mind of what’s vaguely termed “game accessibility” is how a video game ascribes worth to the time someone spends playing it.  For an example of what I mean, let’s return to my last analytic subject, “Xenoblade”:  if one is traveling through the world, accruing money and experience, and is suddenly cut down by a powerful enemy, then one will respawn at a point which is proximate but prior to where the fatal encounter occurred.  When one respawns in this way, all of the money and experience gained up to the very point of death is carried over to the respawn — and, if one dies again prior to the point of the first death, then that experience and money still remains.  In this way, even if one dies in the game, the time one spent on the game leading up to that death is still worthwhile insofar as it served to advance the experience and funds of Shulk and his party.

Return now to “Dark Souls.”  Suppose the same set of circumstances:  the player advances through the world, amassing souls, and is then cut down.  All the souls that the player was carrying at the time of death are separated from the player, and left at the point of death.  The player returns to the last bonfire rested at.  Suppose, now, that the player is killed before reaching the remains from the last death.  The player returns to the same bonfire, and all souls acquired from the first leg of her adventure are lost.  By returning to the same bonfire, no physical progress has been made through the game’s world; by losing the souls, no intangible value has been accrued.  Now, one still might have acquired weaponry over the course of this endeavor, which would carry over, and ostensibly the player has hopefully learned something by the series of deaths; yet the potential loss of souls, relative to other games, implies to me that the game constantly puts the player under the threat of meaninglessness.  The reason that loss of souls feels so devastating is that the fundamentals of the game conceptually link loss of souls to rendering your interaction with the game worthless.  “Dark Souls” directly imposes the nihilism of its world on the world of the player, because every death could ultimately render huge spans of time spent on the game devoid of result.  (It’s worth noting, too, the fact that “souls” are what’s being lost, adding to the narrative of life being rendered meaningless every time you fail.)

If the game wasn’t difficult in terms of enemies and level design, then this theoretical obstacle wouldn’t be an issue in practice — but the game goes out of its way to introduce enemies in novel ways, surprise the player with obstacles, and, in short, make it a merciless trial to progress a single time, let alone to recover lost souls after a death.  The game takes the quality of unforgiving difficulty as a virtue, not unlike Joyce famously did with respect to Ulysses.  Although the analogy is imperfect, the cases of Ulysses and “Dark Souls” share features which help shed light on what’s at work in the game’s narrative.  The difficulty in Ulysses, I submit, is a result of presenting a narrative as streams of consciousness and starting those streams in media res:  the characters of the novel make sense of events in their consciousness by reference to the prior contents of their consciousness, but since we as readers are not privy to their minds prior to the start of the narrative, we must depend only on the overlap of our knowledge base with the characters’ knowledge base in order to understand their thought process (and, by extension, to understand the narrative).  So, when Joyce throws us inside the mind of an intellectual and begins a chapter by alluding to Aristotelian philosophy (Proteus, viz. line 4), he gives us no explanation of the reference or its purpose beyond that which our own prior knowledge allows us to interpolate.  This particular sort of unforgiving textual barrier to entry underpins the difficulty at play in Joyce’s concept of the aesthetic.

What of “Dark Souls”?  In the case of Ulysses, the reader is at a loss to derive meaning from the text if she does not understand the reference which are rendered difficult by virtue of the narrative design (i.e., the stream-of-consciousness formula); just so, even though the world of Lordran is metaphysically constant, the player is unable to derive any meaning from it if she does not understand how to negotiate its unapologetically difficult architecture with respect to enemies and level design.  In both cases, the form of the narrative intentionally interposes itself as a barrier to the reader deriving value — the “casual gamer,” I argue, is just as lost in “Dark Souls” as the “casual reader” is in Ulysses.

III.  Nihilism and Transcendentalism

Dark Souls title screen

At this point, we have a problem.  It’s easy to say that we play games because we enjoy playing them — in fact, under most circumstances, such a statement seems trivially true.  But “Dark Souls” is a game that, by the fundamental architecture of its world, threatens the player with no return on huge amounts of time invested.  The game, in the sense we’ve been discussing, is designed to make you fail at every turn.  So the question of why someone would play a game, so trivial in the case of most games, is crucial to any hope of understanding “Dark Souls.”  Why, given the analysis I’ve offered, would anyone willingly play this game?

People have said that the game succeeds because it represents the learning process; I think this is misguided and does not do justice to the aesthetics of the game.  Any game, by virtue of allowing a player to retry after dying, facilitates learning; that’s an interesting feature of video games, but certainly not peculiar to “Dark Souls.”  I do ultimately contend, as I said at the outset, that “Dark Souls” represents life, but not with merely with respect to learning:  rather, I think that what keeps people engaged with “Dark Souls” is that the threat of meaninglessness comes hand-in-hand with the opportunity for transcendence.  There are three ways I conceive of this, which I present in turn:  flow states; the aesthetic of struggling; and the decision point presented to the player at the endgame.

If you’ve played “Dark Souls,” you probably know the feeling that comes with inexplicably making an atypically large amount of progress without dying:  you enter, in transcendentalist terms, a ‘flow state’, in which you’re not passively experiencing the game but actively thinking and operating in a way that is perfectly in synch with it.  On the level of theory, this makes sense:  in this world where your existence is constantly in danger of being rendered null and void, a stretch of not dying is identical to establishing a pattern of meaningful existence within the world.  Not dying in “Dark Souls” means substantively more than it does in other video games, precisely because it allows your time to be valuable in a way of which dying would deprive it.  Of course, one death will send the player crashing back to the game’s harsh reality — but memories of the ephemeral state will persist as a guiding force in the game’s narrative.  After my first of this sort of experiences within the game, I was significantly more motivated to pursue progressing through the game, regardless of its difficulty level.

But of course, flow states do not always obtain, and this is where the aesthetic of despair enters into the equation.  The game establishes value metrics of souls, experience, and currency; then, it introduces a mechanic that takes all of these away from you again and again.  If you cannot rely on the metrics of meaning stipulated by the game, then what meaning can you give to your actions within the game?  This is an open question, and that’s the point:  the actual exercise imposed upon by the game upon the player is to derive meaning from the game independent of the game’s own system.  You will despair at losing souls forever, souls which it may have taken a large amount of time to amass; but that despair creates the hermeneutic space for the player to critically consider what meaning they find in the process of the game.  Maybe they recognize that their ultimate motivation is merely getting to the credits at the end; maybe they recognize that they don’t want a game that imposes this flavor of nihilism, and so they simply turn it off and walk away; maybe they accept that the struggle is of itself a valuable enterprise, if only to learn how to fail.  Regardless of the specific answer, the relevant aspect of transcendence is that the player is urged to move beyond the game’s own concept of value — because that value is beaten out of the player every time they walk through a white light and die once more.

Gwyn, Lord of Cinder

And lastly, there is Gwyn, Lord of Cinder, who sacrificed himself to kindle the Flame of the First Kiln, bringing fire to Lordran.  It is he who waits to be killed by the player at the end of the story, at the First Kiln itself:  he must be slain for the player to earn the right to choose the world’s fate.  After killing Gwyn, you can either sacrifice yourself to rekindle the Flame and let light persist in the world in a new Age of Fire; or, you can let the Flame die, and usher in darkness, ruling over the world in the Age of Darkness.  Either way, the game immediately prompts you to begin a ‘New Game +’, which is a new cycle of the world with stronger enemies, leading back to Gwyn and the same choice point.

This is the music that plays when you face Gwyn in the First Kiln.  Consistent with the sparse narrative explication of the rest of the game, there is no cutscene, nor any dialogue:  the player enters the First Kiln, the score starts, and Gwyn attacks.  What is inconsistent with the rest of the game is the haunting melody, solely on piano, seemingly out-of-joint with everything one expects of a video game’s climax — and all the more so for a game as unapologetic as “Dark Souls.”  The music compels you to stop and consider the implications of what is going on; yet this is precisely the moment at which such contemplation is impossible, for Gwyn is hurling fire at you, and a single misstep will lead to the alert that “YOU DIED.”  But from a safe distance, at the end of our analysis, we can see what makes this incongruity so salient.

I once characterized the entropy of “Majora’s Mask” as pernicious, and I contend that a similar aesthetic is at play here.  After being thrown through the gauntlet of a merciless, minimally explained world, the player is offered a choice of how to reshape it — a choice, seemingly, that puts the universe’s design in the hands of the player at last.  Yet regardless of choice, the game has an immediate next-step:  the New Game +, representing the next cycle of the world.  Gwyn represents that even the very shaper of the universe, who might be framed as its architect or decider, must ultimately die and be killed; like Termina persists in three-day cycles even after the credits, Lordran continues in ages of light, darkness, and killing Gwyn — always at the end, the player kills the being responsible for instantiating the current age.  What the killing of Gwyn and the choice point at the First Kiln do is initiate the player into the meaninglessness of the universe on a metaphysically deeper, architectural scale:  rather than being a mere victim of nihilism, the player participates in instigating it.  Perhaps the cycle of death and suffering would end if the player chooses to extinguish the flame; but the reality of the game refuses to acknowledge this possibility, throwing the player back into the fray immediately after such a choice is made.

Yet regardless of all this, the player must choose in order to complete the game.  And to be able to exercise a meaningful choice in the face of nihilism is, on my interpretation, the innermost conception of transcendence.  What reason, justification, or teleology can you give to picking one ending or the other?  Yet you cannot say you chose at random, for it would no longer seem that such an act is a choice at all.  So it seems to me that the player must accept that the choice, in spite of ostensibly molding the world for a moment, will ultimately not matter in the grand scheme of cycles of the universe; yet at the same time, she must ultimately say, “I saw the world for how I would prefer it, and chose this path to assert my preference — even if that choice will someday be washed away, I will still have chosen it.”

Black Knight

At first glance, the dropping of souls and the counting of deaths seem like novel game mechanics, offering players a novel way to experience a video game.  This was very much the lure for me when I first picked up the game.  Yet spend some time in Lordran, and you come to see that the functionality of the narrative rebukes everything we have come to expect of a video game’s form.  Rather, when you peel away the artifice of “Dark Souls” being a novel video game, I think that what you find is a mimetic object closely resembling the experience of life.  Just as the player does in “Dark Souls,” so too must we wrestle with questions of how to locate meaning in a world that seems to ultimately be fleeting; so too must we wrestle with how to give value to decisions that will ultimately be buried under layers of other generations and history.  Beneath the reputation of the game is a mechanism that allows us to meaningfully meditate on our experience of the real world, and to find opportunities to transcend.  Ultimately, we will have to kill and become Gwyn — how shall we make our choice, when the Flame rests in our hands?

The future of “With a Terrible Fate.”

To followers of With a Terrible Fate and newcomers alike:

With “Majora’s Mask 3D” finally here, you might be wondering what’s in store for With a Terrible Fate.  As I said yesterday, the remake’s arrival signaled the end of my analysis of the original game.  However, the analytic project of this site is far from over; rather, it’s only now beginning.

In Interludes 1 and 2, I discussed the potential for our understanding of video games and their stories to grow by cultivating robust methods of analysis.  Recall also the following passage from my analysis of the line, “you’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you”:

“This is what makes the line, in my mind, so significant:  beyond encapsulating the aesthetic dynamics of “Majora’s Mask,” it can be read as an argument for the nature of video games as a medium.  The player turns on a game and is informed by the game that, in turning it on and engaging it, they have brought a universe to life; yet the persistence of the universe in contingent upon the player’s choice to continue playing the game.  The game establishes a coherent universe, and yet the most basic authority of that universe must be ceded to the player…  This is why I have chosen to make this line the namesake of my work on this blog:  it is the open front door of gaming as a medium, inviting the player to create a work of art by mere virtue of experiencing it.”

This mode of analysis from a perspective of player authority, as inspired by “Majora’s Mask,” is something that I aim to refine and apply to a variety of video games.  I have already begun this project with my recent analysis of the metaphysics in “Xenoblade Chronicles.”  With a Terrible Fate will continue to hone its analytic methodology by attacking the aesthetic puzzles of as many games as possible — and, if you head over to our Facebook page (and like us if you don’t already), you might just get to help decide what game will meet with a terrible fate next.

Majora's Mask New 3DS

Oh, and let’s not forget the promise I made to analyze “Majora’s Mask 3D” with respect to the original version.  You can bet that, after a brief hibernation in which I open a New 3DS and traverse Termina once more, I will make good on that promise as well.

This is why Anju and Kafei are the most important citizens of Termina.

When I first began the enterprise of analyzing the entirety of “Majora’s Mask” back in November, I had no idea when “Majora’s Mask 3D” would be released, even though I promised to provide analysis on the original game until the remake launched.  Even after the February 13th release date was announced, I wasn’t sure how I could best conclude my analysis at the time of its release.  But a while ago, I found a point where it seems absolutely obvious to conclude:  Anju and Kafei.  In this final installment of With a Terrible Fate’s analysis of the original “Majora’s Mask,” I will try to convince you that the quest to reunite Anju and Kafei is as narratologically important as the game’s main quest, and that it leaves us with unique insights about Termina and the world beyond.

When most people think of Anju and Kafei, they consider them in one of two lights:  either they see them as the star-crossed lovers with one of the most well-articulated romances in the “Zelda” series, or, they see them as the longest, most frustrating side quest in “Majora’s Mask” — a quest in which it is easy to misstep, at which point one has to start from its beginning in a new three-day cycle.  In this article, I’m going to try to unite these two perspectives to attack the ontology of Termina from the perspective of love.

The Lovers United

It will be worthwhile to sketch the general arc of the quest before we continue.  Anju is a young woman who runs Clock Town’s inn; Kafei is the mayor’s son.  They are engaged to be married, but Kafei has gone missing at the time that Link enters Termina.  It turns out that Skull Kid has cursed Kafei, and Kafei’s body has turned into that of a child; but this is not reason why he has gone into hiding.  Rather, the reason is because a thief, Sakon, stole his ceremonial wedding mask, and he feels he must retrieve it before meeting with Anju to be married.  The quest demands much of Link if Anju and Kafei are to be reunited:  he must meet with Anju, locate Kafei, locate Sakon, send letters back and forth between Anju and Kafei, infiltrate Sakon’s hideout with Kafei, bear witness to the wedding — and this isn’t even an exhaustive list of Link’s tasks.

The quest to reunite Anju and Kafei exemplifies what I have previously said about sidequests in “Majora’s Mask.”  Completing the quest requires that Link fails to save someone:  he must not intervene when Sakon robs the owner of Clock Town’s bomb shop, because Kafei only discovers where Sakon’s hideout is by eavesdropping when Sakon pawns the stolen goods.  Not only does the quest take an entire three-day cycle to complete, with Anju and Kafei marrying just moments before the moon is set to fall, but it’s also implied by the structure of the game that the player is meant to go through the quest more than once — and it is here that I want to dig into analysis.

Priority Mail

If the player wants to explore the entirety of Termina, insofar as acquiring every item in the game is concerned, then she must complete the Anju and Kafei sidequest at least twice.  The reason why is this:  when Kafei leaves to raid Sakon’s hideout and retrieve his mask, he leaves a special letter to his mother, the Postmistress, explaining why he had gone into hiding.  Link can deliver this to the Postmistress himself, in which case she thanks him by giving him a bottle filled the Chateau Romani, the most potent potion in the game.  For the uninitiated:  bottles are inexplicably like gold in Zelda.  There are usually only four (“Majora” has six), and most of them require substantial feats in order to acquire.  Needless to say, the game places a premium on them by design.

But Link can also give the letter to the Postman; even though it is the middle of the night, he will promptly deliver it because it is Priority Mail.  This leads to the sequence of events I described in my analysis of the Postman, which end in the Postman being liberated and giving Link the Postman’s Hat.  This event is mutually exclusive, within a single timeline, from Link receiving the bottle of Chateau Romani.  It is in this way that decision points inhere to the structure of the quest.

Link has to make more choices, though, if he’s to make it through this quest.  As I have said, the ceremony in which Anju and Kafei marry, from which Link obtains the Couple’s Mask (proof of their union), occurs mere minutes before Moonfall.  There are two important points to be made here:  firstly,  as I have said before, Link has just enough time after the ceremony, if he hurries and has already freed the four giants of Termina, to reach the Clock Tower, stop Skull Kid and defeat Majora.  If he does so, then a proper wedding ceremony of Anju and Kafei actually takes place during the credits — pretty much the only agency the player is capable of expressing over the credits.

Secondly, when Anju and Kafei do reunite, they are resolved to stay in Clock Town, not fleeing the moon with everyone else.  To quote them, they plan to “greet the morning… together.”  This complicates things, because if Link does save them, there is an uncomfortable sense that he has gone against their wishes:  they hold another ceremony in the credits, even though they already performed the act of marriage and celebration of their love in private.  They must face their families, which we know is not an entirely comfortable situation — at one point during the three-day cycle, Link can overhear Anju arguing with her mother, because her mother believes Kafei ran off with Cremia, the milk maid.  It’s vaguely reminiscent of what the lives of Romeo and Juliet might have been like if they hadn’t died at the end of the eponymous play.

Anju and Kafei Ceremony

What I’m driving at here is that the story of Anju and Kafei is deeply embedded within the narrative of “Majora’s Mask,” even though it advances the main plot of the story in no way whatsoever.  To complete just about any optional aspect of the game — Pieces of Heart, Bottles, Masks — you must take a path that eventually leads to this quest.  In light of this, I wish to close my analysis of “Majora’s Mask” by attempting to answer one question:  are Anju and Kafei “meant to be”?

Clichéd though its formulation may be, neither the question nor its answer is trivial.  We have seen how complicated Termina’s metaphysics of free will /determinism is; take this in combination with the ambivalence about saving Anju and Kafei, along with the fact that the quest to reunite them is optional, and it becomes very difficult to parse what the phrase ‘meant to be’ means.  Nevertheless, I claim that the phrase is meaningful, and that understanding the question’s answer will tie together our understanding of “Majora’s Mask” as a work of art.  Let me show you why this is the case.

Anju and Kafei are the very definition of star-crossed lovers:  despite their love for one another, they will always be kept apart in the unfolding events of Termina’s final days, unless Link chooses to intervene.  Even if Link does intervene, it is the longest and most trying sidequest in the game, making it a significant struggle to actually bring them together in the end.  If they are united, it seems as though their desire is to die together, rather than to seek any possible avenue of survival — so much so that saving the world after saving them seems to act against their wishes, an idea which is reinforced by the completion of the game requiring you go through their quest multiple times, thereby dooming them at least once by playing the Song of Time and abandoning that timeline.

Take all of these observations together, and it seems as though the reuniting of Anju and Kafei actually countervails the main plot.  You must take significant time away from the completion of the main plot to complete the quest even once, and the quest seems to suggest that the desired outcome is the player playing the Song of Time and leaving the lovers to perish together, reunited.  Given the breadth of the quest, as well as its centrality to so many domains of the game outside of the main plot, I would venture to say that the quest to reunite Anju and Kafei actually constitutes a secondary plot within the conceit of the game.

It’s crucial to properly parse what I mean by ‘secondary plot’, because the claim I am making is that the sidequest is of a higher status than other sidequests in the game.  This is a storyline that fills the entire three-day stretch that constitutes a timeline in Termina, and that has an ending which seems to be in opposition to the resolution of the main plot.  What we have in the instance of Anju and Kafei, therefore, is an instance of not just an optional collection quest or event, but an entire optional storyline which exists adjacent to the explicit story arc of Link vs. Skull Kid.  This plot line goes so far as to actually allows the player to play as Kafei when he and Link storm Sakon’s hideout — this is the only moment in the game when the player can control someone other than Link.  It is evident, I think, that something more than a mere sidequest is at play here.

Are Anju and Kafei meant to be?  It is up to you.  What this secondary plot reflects at its core is the capacity for video games to impose narrative structures and choices that are completely alien to other media.  It is as if, hidden in the scenes of Julius Caesar,” Romeo and Juliet were striving to find a way to be together; and, at your discretion while watching the play, you could push Caesar to the sidelines and watch “Romeo and Juliet” instead.  Then, watching “Romeo and Juliet,” you could also decide the fate of the star-crossed lovers, somehow all within the context of “Julius Caesar.”  We can’t well imagine how this would work in other media because it cannot work in other media; but in the case of video games, instances like Anju and Kafei allow the player to question and respond to the privilege that the main plot of a story is given.

"Majora's Mask"

If you would rather make “Majora’s Mask” a love story than tell the tale of Link facing Skull Kid and coming to terms with the nature of Majora and the universe, then you can.  If you want to unify the storyline of reuniting the lovers and saving the world, the very mechanics of the credits support your ability to do so.  If you want to completely ignore the plight of Anju and Kafei, then you can complete the main plot without ever even learning their names.  What Anju and Kafei are ‘meant to be’ is a story:  their fates over the course of Termina’s three days are irrevocably intertwined, and in this way, like the moon and Termina, like the main plot and secondary plot, they will always be related to each other in a way that demands explanation.  But the explanation that the world of the game gives that relationship depends upon the player’s choice of how to interact with the world.  This is why I have chosen to conclude the analysis of “Majora’s Mask” with an examination of Anju and Kafei:  the status of their story shows that the apocalyptic nature of Termina is deceptive.  Just behind the impending doom is a world teeming with stories, and on countless levels, you are the one who decides which story to tell.

All you have to do is meet with a terrible fate.

Playing the Song of Time: a “Throwback Thursday” analysis.

As the moon descends and “Majora’s Mask 3D” looms less than a day in the future, I take a moment on With a Terrible Fate to pay homage to “Majora’s Mask” by playing the Song of Time in my own way.

The following is a chapter from a research project I undertook a few years ago, which constituted by first analytic work on “Majora’s Mask.”  The introduction frames the entire project; in the relevant chapter, I undertake comparative analysis of role-playing dynamics in “Majora’s Mask” and Luigi Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author.”  Mind that the analysis is far rougher than my current work; I hope, however, that it may be useful and enjoyable both as an approach to the game that is largely divorced from my current theory, and also as part of the story of how With a Terrible Fate came to be.

Song of Time

Introduction: The Image-Evolution Paradox and its Potential Remedy

Reality is an interface and humans are its grappling participants. We face the multifarious conflict of presenting a self-image with which to interact in the context of the interface, while simultaneously undergoing developmental self-revision. This revision may at times be drastic, at times a matter of degrees; but, by virtue of Heraclitus’ notion that flux is absolute, this change, a product of our progressing experiences, is constant. This is the crux of the fundamental human paradox, which we shall term the image-evolution paradox: we seek to project the constancy of a singular self-image within the framework of reality, while also continuously seeking to reconcile that image with the nature of a fluid, evolving self. While this paradox is a necessary byproduct of human development within the rigid framework of reality,[1] there may be methods of alleviating that tension which is derivative of this very conflict.

The following work is a theoretical analysis and construction of the paradigm of role-playing, with a focus on its capacity to alleviate the tension of the image-evolution paradox. The theory meriting role-playing as a therapeutic mechanism in relation to this paradox rests on the assumption that the primary precipitant of the image-evolution paradox is essential to perceptual reality: this reality’s existentially-confining nature and limitations on communicative capacities between entities demand the projection of an identity which is seemingly rigid, or, as Mark Epstein would say, “an illusory image that is unconsciously mistaken for something real.”[2] When Frederick Buechner, in The Alphabet of Grace, discusses the way his self is largely limited to his facial muscles’ capacity to show various emotions, he is expressing the constrictive nature of physical reality.[3] Presumably, if we were to find a method of “circumventing reality,” then we could either resolve or assuage the image-evolution paradox.

Methods of escape from reality are, by reality’s comprehensive nature, intrinsically limited and contrived. The two methods that immediately come to mind are those of reality distortion and those of reality substitution. Reality distortion here refers to any actions that serve to disrupt one’s normal perception of reality such that one is freed from its confines – for example, the use of hallucinogenic drugs. Reality substitution refers to any methods through which one willfully assumes a role in a contrived reality distinctly separate from one’s own, maintaining normal perceptual faculties – namely, through role-playing, as in the acting of a theatrical role or the playing of a video game.

Upon examination, it is evident that reality substitution serves our purposes far better than reality distortion. This is because our aim is to augment the circumstances under which one’s identity may be understood independently of the projection of self into physical reality. Reality distortion, by definition, disrupts one’s capacity to perceive; thus, while the confines of reality – or one’s conception thereof – are largely dissolved, one’s notion of self is also largely distorted through one’s inability to perceive. While these properties of distortion undoubtedly have interesting ramifications and applications, they are ineffective in an endeavor to more fundamentally understand one’s identity. For understanding to be reached, one’s perceptive faculties must remain intact (if not heightened) while the constraints of reality are lessened. This is the hallmark of role-playing: the player is able to impose the full capacity of his senses in a context separate from the reality of his own existence.[4]

To examine the extent to which role-playing’s capacity to assuage the image-evolution paradox is substantive, we examine what might be termed role playing’s ‘extreme cases’: instances of what we will call the ‘meta-role’. The meta-role is defined as a role being played by a character whose role is also being played by someone – such that the player is effectively playing someone who is playing a role. The quintessential example of this is the actress who plays Viola in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night, or What You Will,” where Viola then adopts the persona of Cesario. In meta-role terminology, the role of Viola is referred to as the ‘primary role’, the role of Cesario as the ‘secondary role’, and the actor as ‘the player’.[5] The rationale behind focusing on the meta-role is that, due to the crux of the image-evolution paradox being physical reality, the maximum amount of resolution to be reached regarding the paradox will be found in the maximum number of levels removed from reality. This rationale itself is tested and analyzed throughout our treatments – in examining the dynamics of the meta-role, we must constantly question what influence the primary role exerts upon the secondary role, and vise-versa. Are there times when the roles may negate each other’s transformative effects? Are there combinations that lend themselves to a particular additive effect upon the player? In other words, each role may influence the player in a different way, and a player affected by a particular primary role may be affected in a different way by a secondary role than he would be were he to adopt that secondary role without the primary role as an intermediate step. Each study will serve as its own opportunity to examine a specific combination of primary and secondary roles, which may, when examined as a whole, reveal a more holistic view of the meta-role’s combinatory dynamic.

Examination of the meta-role is conducted here through studies concerning two major media: theater and video games. This is conducted through analysis of scripts and games which implement the meta-role, and is supplemented by a case study of the spring 2013 production of “Seeds, Dancing,” written by Aaron Suduiko for the purpose of this study. Plays and video games, as discussed below, each lend themselves to insight on the meta-role in related but distinct ways, which, when superimposed upon each other, allow for greater insight into the theoretical properties of the meta-role, irrespective of the particular medium in which it is implemented.

The Meta-Role in Theater

The theater, for our purposes, draws its appeal from its particular capacity to establish a distinct but not discrete reality. Actors in roles operate within an invented world, yet still function within their own physical forms, and often know their fellow actors outside the parameters of the play. The actor, then, establishes a new set of relationships, expectations, and traits within that same physical form which binds him to his own physical world. In a sense, there is an unspoken agreement between him and his fellow actors comparable to the audience’s willful suspension of disbelief: just as the audience consents to treat that which transpires on the stage as a distinct world which is inherently real, committed actors consent to suspend their relationships with fellow actors outside the context of the play, and establish distinct relationships based on the binding context of the play’s own reality.

This dynamic in itself – and, presumably, more so in the case of meta-roles – has strong potential for links to identity formation, which is best elucidated through the Buddhist principle of mindfulness. Mindfulness is a state of presence dependent upon the body and mind working as one, existing in the context of what is presently occurring, and observing discrete actions and reactions in accordance with bare attention methodology. In order to understand the self, Buddha taught, it is paramount that we exercise mindfulness and bare attention, understanding the specific operations of the self through acute observation. Actors exist in the same physical manifestation as the one with which they traverse the rest of reality, yet they will their minds to exist within the context of an entirely distinct reality. Following the principles of mindfulness, this necessitates that the actor effectively synthesizes a different mental paradigm with the same body. If the player is able to practice mindfulness in both his own reality and the reality of the play, he has the potential to synthesize a broader appreciation of himself, because he has essentially achieved oneness from two distinct self-conceptions. When a third layer for mindfulness is presented through introduction of the secondary role, the effect could be additive – achieving oneness in three distinct states – or the secondary state could perhaps serve to alter the state of mindful association with the primary role. As discussed above, this will vary on a case-by-case basis.

The Meta-Role in Video Games

Whereas the theater establishes realities that are distinct but not discreet, video games conceive of realities that are both distinct and discreet. The player here is far more removed from his own reality than the actor, because his physical form is not directly present in the game – rather, his choices and actions are conveyed through an avatar within the game. Thus, while mindfulness is no longer possible in the same manner as with plays, a further level of liberation is achieved from the player’s physical reality, because he is operating as an avatar entirely free of the player’s reality’s constraints, and does not need to rely upon the company’s willful suspension of external reality.[6] In video games, the other entities populating the reality construct, called NPC’s (“non-player characters”), are programs, literally only capable of existing within the game’s reality. The player is invited to willingly participate in this reality in a twofold manner: a) he controls the choices and actions of his avatar, making the avatar an extension of himself; and b) the advancing of the story – and, consequently, the advancement of the reality itself – is contingent upon the actions of the avatar, whose actions are contingent upon the choices of the player.

This is a powerful model for the implementation of a self that has been liberated from the external reality of Buechner’s “facial limitations,” particularly considering the advent of games which are less and less linear in storyline and which allow the player more degrees of choice in how to advance the story. The potential for near total meta-role immersion, then, is greater in video games than in theater, because it allows the player to largely extend his mind into a reality free from the physical determinants of his being.

 

Synthesis

            The intersection of these two media is where the most meta-role potential may be found. Alleviation of the image-evolution paradox is contingent upon liberation from the binding of one’s perspective to singular physical reality, but the construct of physical reality is never entirely escapable in life, and may only be temporarily and incompletely substituted. Here we see a strikingly modern spin on the Buddha’s Middle Path: one’s identity can be separated from its bonds to external reality through the dynamics of video games, but whatever greater conception of self is gleaned through this process must then be integrated through the explorative process of layered mindfulness that comes through the dynamics of acting. It is this relationship that allows video games and theater to harmonically inform the theoretical dynamics and capacity of the meta-role, both in general and in relation to the image-evolution paradox.

In this spirit, plays and video games that utilize a meta-role are treated here in detail. Where parallels are drawn between games and plays, we will be able to elucidate the finer points of how the meta-role functions, and theorize the effects it may elicit. Supplementing with research texts and case studies from “Seeds, Dancing,” we will seek to establish a working definition for the meta-role’s place in a greater existential context.

Treatment I

The Platonic Meta-Role: A Puppet that Can No Longer Be Used

Can I ask a question? Your true face… What kind of face is it? I wonder… The face under the mask… Is that your true face? -Moon Child, “Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask”

 

Synopses

  1. “Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask,” Nintendo

            “Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask” is a direct sequel to “Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.” Link, the hero of both games, begins “Majora’s Mask” in a search for his companion, from whom he was separated at the end of Ocarina. He wanders into Termina, a parallel world beset by gathering maleficence. Skull Kid, a lonely forest child from Link’s native world, has stolen a cursed mask – Majora’s Mask – from a mask salesman, and is invoking its power to send Termina spiraling into chaos, culminating in his bringing the moon crashing down into the earth. Link arrives three days before the advent of the falling moon, and learns he must rescue four guardian giants whom Skull Kid has imprisoned within evil masks, so that he might enlist their help in preventing the moon from falling on Termina. Link accomplishes this using a combination of time-distortion and role-assumption. He completes objectives within the confines of the three-day span, and then returns to the first of the three days by playing the Song of Time on his Ocarina of Time. While time and events reset, certain key events, such as the liberation of the four spirits, are preserved, thereby advancing the quest within a nihilistic continuum.

Masks are a critical component to Link’s quest; in particular, ‘character masks’ define a large segment of the story. Over the course of the story, Link encounters fallen heroes, and is charged with healing their spirit, which permits them to rest in peace and condenses their soul into a mask, which Link can then wear to assume their form. In total, there are three transformative character masks (Deku, Goron, and Zora Masks) required for Link to complete his quest. Masks also carry over iterations of time cycles, making their accumulation much akin to Link’s own development over time.

  1. “6 Characters in Search of an Author,” Luigi Pirandello

Pirandello’s classic work of meta-theater chronicles a group of thespians rehearsing “Mixing It Up,” another Pirandello play, when six characters appear, seeking an author to bring the story imbedded within them to life on the stage (because, it is suggested, Pirandello was disillusioned either by the “ordinary theater” or the characters themselves). The characters tell their story by literally living it on the stage, as the actors attempt to imitate it in accordance with their craft.

Inherent in the mechanics of the play is the question of reality’s dynamics. What is truer: the characters living their story on the stage, or the actors imitating the very same story on the stage? This theme is epitomized in the final scene, where the characters live the drowning of the Child, and the Boy’s suicide. The closing lines of the play are confused exchanges between actors and characters about the reality of whether the Child and Boy are truly dead, or if it is pretense. The director closes the show by famously complaining about having “lost a whole day over these people.”

  • Thoughts Without a Thinker, Mark Epstein

In this text, Epstein goes to great lengths to theoretically integrate the disciplines of Buddhism and psychoanalysis in an effort to provide a picture of a future with more holistic, successful therapy and self-image. He argues that Buddhist meditative practices can be used to quickly elucidate material requiring analysis, which, once resolved in a psychoanalytic setting, can clear the way for a deeper understanding of self – and, eventually, the Buddhist concept of “selflessness,” or “emptiness” – through further adherence to the Buddhist practices of meditation, mindfulness, bare attention, and the like.

Perhaps more relevant to our purposes, another of Epstein’s goals is to reintroduce Buddhism to the western world using language westerners understand – namely, the language of psychoanalysis. This results in a volume that enables a channel of relating western psychological constructs to the eastern Buddhist tradition.

Introduction: “An Immutable Reality Which Should Make You Shudder”

            Over two millennia ago, an Athenian explained reality in what would become arguably the most famous and influential cave of all time. The Cave, Plato’s allegory for the nature of reality, persists to this day in the western tradition – and, we shall see, it is a useful analogy for meta-role dynamics.

The traditional allegory describes reality in three components. Within the cave, prisoners are chained such that they can only see the back of the cave, where shadows are projected from puppets, which are manipulated behind a screen and illuminated by a fire; outside the cave is the reality of objects which are imitated by the puppets within the cave, the objects illuminated by the sun as opposed to a fire. Plato uses this paradigm to describe the nature of reality and varying levels of certainty, where Forms are the highest form of reality, and all other objects and images are derivative thereof. We will here argue that an analogous model, formulated in accordance with the tenets of the cave, is applicable to a specific face of the meta-role – what we shall call, as a nod to Plato, the platonic meta-role paradigm.

            At the climax of “Majora’s Mask,” the four giants stop the moon’s descent, and Skull Kid collapses in the process. As Link’s companions rejoice, a new voice is heard in the background: the voice of the dark entity Majora itself. Link turns to see the mask floating in midair, Skull Kid’s body dangling limp from the fulcrum of his neck. “A puppet that can no longer be used,” Majora says, “is mere garbage. This puppet’s role is just ended.” With that, he shrugs off Skull Kid’s body, which drops to the ground like the bag of bones – like the empty vessel – it is.

This treatment of the meta-role is a story of empty vessels and the ideal “Forms” which they assume. It is an examination of how masks, pretense, time, and perception coalesce into a dynamic interplay between player, primary role, and secondary role. In Act III of “Six Characters,” The Father asserts before The Stage Manager that he and his fellow characters are more real than the Stage Manager and his company. “If your reality can change from one day to another…” the Father says, “Look here! That is the very difference! Our reality doesn’t change: it can’t change! It can’t be other than what it is, because it is already fixed for ever. It’s terrible. Ours is an immutable reality which should make you shudder.”[7] The crux of the platonic meta-role paradigm rests on the dynamic between absolute personas and temporally-bound reality – a dynamic which, as we will see, bears uncanny resemblance to the very image-evolution paradox which pressures we are seeking to assuage.

In the final encounter between Link and Majora, Majora confronts Link in three forms of increasing complexity. We shall examine the platonic meta-role paradigm through the developmental metaphor of Majora itself, for it is both the center of the conflict in Termina and the most fitting allegory for the role playing mechanic inherent to both Nintendo’s and Pirandello’s work.

  1. “Majora’s Mask”: The Intermediary Role

Majora first presents itself to Link as the mask that Skull Kid has worn through the entire game. The mask, along with the four evil masks that had trapped the giants Link rescued, detach themselves from the walls of the ethereal room in which the final confrontation occurs. They float before Link, suspended by a haunting unseen force. It is as though the mask itself were alive.

 

Upon beginning a new game in “Majora’s Mask,” you are prompted to enter your name, which is used as Link’s name throughout the course of the game. The classic “Legend of Zelda” experience is that the interface seeks to minimize separation between you, the player, and Link, the primary role. Link is a silent protagonist, endowed with your name, whose actions and advancement are directly dependent upon player input.

The most comfortable role is a well-fitting mask, one that fits well enough so as to make you forget you wear it. The transitory role is naturally the most effective at this: a role which serves as an intermediary can lend a sense of implicitness to the role playing because it is simply a stepping stone between one persona and another. Such is the case in “Majora” and “Six Characters”: Link collects a total of 24 masks on his journey, placing the emphasis of his existence on the roles he inhabits, rather than his own isolated persona. The same concept holds for the “meta-actors” in “Six Characters” – they are, effectually, the role of one who plays roles.

Buddhism in Meta-Acting

Let us pause for a time and consider the ramifications of an actor who plays an actor. The craft of the actor, to abuse a cliché, is “not to act, but to be.” As we discussed in regards to theater’s creation of distinct but not discrete reality, the actor must harness mindfulness within the confines of the play’s reality in order to establish a self which operates within the context of the character one is meant to play. To play an actor is to add another level to this practice of mindfulness. One can intuit that the additional layer makes this process more difficult; but what are the psychodynamic implications of such a task?

The crux of Buddhism, at the moment of Enlightenment, is what may best be termed “selflessness”: an acknowledgement that the individuated self, as defined by ego boundaries, is a false construct.[8] Buddha asserted that this false sense of attachment – the fluctuation between the ego-poles of existence and non-existence – was the root of all suffering.[9] The practices of meditation, mindfulness, and bare attention are thus methods of separating oneself from the ego construct. This end goal will be important to bear in mind as our study progresses; for now, it will suffice to address the intermediary steps of bare attention and mindfulness.

‘Bare attention’ describes the impartial observation of the present in terms of cause and effect, particularly inasmuch as one’s own mental state is brought about by particular stimuli – this being comparable to the observation of ripples on a pond’s surface caused by the dropping of a pebble. In the greater scheme of Buddhism, this is a powerful tool for deconstruction of the self, because it compels an understanding of the self as a reactionary construct; in its immediate implications, it invokes a sense of self-understanding through heightened apperception.[10] This is also the most direct approach to an understanding of how “acting an actor” may influence the development of the player’s identity.

There is a dynamic of meta-acting which may, at face value, appear to be a contradiction: if mindfulness is defined as a presence of self in the context of the moment, one should not be able to act as anyone different from one’s own identity. How, then, could one be mindful in three different ways (i.e. as the player, primary role, and secondary role)? The key is in what we will call ‘variant emotive response’. This is the capacity to translate a single reaction into a variety of reactions via a mechanism which translates the reaction into derivative variants through a mental process similar to rationalization – a process which, we will see, is also integral to role-playing.

Consider the scenario in “Six Characters” wherein the Leading Lady plays the role of The Step-Daughter in a scene between The Step-Daughter and The Father. We observe from The Leading Lady’s interactions with The Leading Man and The Characters that she is aloof, self-centered, and haughty in personality. The Step-Daughter’s character is that of the victim, ashamed and indignant at once at the tormented relationships of her family, particularly between her and The Father.[11] These are obviously two distinct personalities – personalities that, we must remember, are composed of traits perceived as by a third party (i.e. the aloof Step-Daughter would probably not believe herself aloof). The actor, then, must generate such a personality such that these traits are resultant of the character’s demeanor. How might this be achieved, and, moreover, how might one achieve it on the multiple levels demanded by meta-acting?

Let us invent arguendo the personality of the player, whom we shall call Player X. Player X is a short-tempered, explosive person, often prone to bouts of anger, resentment, and the like. X must first superimpose her personality upon the role of the Leading Lady in order to assume her role in a manner of being, not acting. This process is often initiated through implementation of ‘as-if’s’ – that is, actively recollecting an experience in X’s life which elicited an emotional response similar to the emotion called for in the role of the Leading Lady. In the scene, for example, where the Leading Man is appraising The Step-Daughter and the Leading Lady watches jealously, Player X would actively recall the most vivid, jealousy-invoking memory from her own life – a process which, given X’s personality, would probably be easy for her, making it a relatively easy role to assume.

This, however, is not the end goal of acting. As-if’s are seen as merely a way into a role, analogous to the way in which Buddhism sees meditation as merely a “raft across the river,” and not the Way in and of itself.[12] To emotionally relate to the character through as-if’s does not equate to the level of role assumption whereby X can achieve mindfulness in the Leading Lady’s persona; to stop the process there would amount to X merely acting in emotionally appropriate ways at specific instances onstage, such that she is behaving similarly to the Leading Lady – she would not be behaving as the Leading Lady. As-if’s are most effective when treated as entry points to the psyche of the character: the more associative points X can make to the Leading Lady through as-if’s, the more X can understand the mindset of the Leading Lady, and appreciate how the Leading Lady would behave in any situation, as opposed to only those presented in the script. This process is contingent upon bare attention: the objective observation of the circumstantial situations in the reality of the play, and the resultant emotions – visceral emotions, by virtue of the as-if’s – allows X to begin to understand the composition of herself as the Leading Lady, thereby achieving mindfulness within the role of the Leading Lady.[13]

X has now established herself wholly in the persona of the Leading Lady, achieving the degree of mindfulness described earlier which essentially amounts to self-understanding through two different avenues (i.e. mindfulness in the persona of X and mindfulness in the persona of the Leading Lady). For typical roles, this is sufficient; but, by virtue of meta-acting, this is only half the process for X. Of course, the remainder of the process – assuming the role of The Step-Daughter through the persona of the Leading Lady – is strikingly similar to the first half of the process, because the end goal of acting is the same: being without acting. If X has properly assumed the psyche and mindfulness of the Leading Lady through the above method, this second process need not be exceptionally challenging; she must simply employ the emotional content of the Leading Lady’s experiences to establish as-if’s as entry points into The Step-Daughter’s psyche.[14]

 

The Intermediary Role

We see, then, that the assumption of The Step Daughter’s role has no direct relationship to X – rather, it is the derivative of the self which X has established in the role of the Leading Lady. The Leading Lady role, in light of this, shall be termed an “intermediary role.” Link, in “Majora,” is another example of the intermediary role.[15]

There are several effects implicit in the intermediary role’s nature.   In the case of acting, the intermediary role promotes a depth of mindfulness in the role that is typically not otherwise achieved. This is due to the expectation of employing the intermediary role’s own history in the as-if paradigm. Though inapplicable to the meta-actors in “Six Characters,” it is worth noting that this effect is amplified in cases where meta-actors play multiple parts – for example, the character Joey in “Friends,” who plays many roles over the course of his acting career in the series. Just as actors are prompted to understand their own experiences and selves at a deeper level by employing their personal content via bare attention and as-if’s in their craft, the player will understand the primary role at a far more personal and inherent level when it is required as a basic part of that role’s nature to employ bare attention and as if’s.

The intermediary role also serves to differentiate its associated secondary roles. When a secondary role naturally evolves out of a primary role, as is the case in such a relationship as the primary role of Lady Macbeth to the secondary role of insane Lady Macbeth, the roles are inherently and inextricably intertwined. This is not the case with intermediary roles: rather, the fact that intermediary roles act to assume secondary roles separate from themselves implies a degree of separateness to the secondary role. This is demonstrated in both “Majora” and “Six Characters”: in “Majora,” Link is tasked with the assumption of the personas of fallen heroes Darmani and Mikau, both of whom were, in life, distinct entities; in “Six Characters,” the distinction is made comical, as the actors seek to embody the Characters even as the true Characters stand beside them on the stage and observe. This dynamic effectively splits the two roles of primary and secondary role into three roles: the intermediary role, the entity upon which the assumed secondary role is based, and the assumed secondary role itself.

  1. Majora’s Incarnation: The Platonic Role and the Hybrid Role

 

            After Link slays Majora’s Mask, what were formerly tentacles emanating from the back of the mask aggregate into two legs and two arms. A single eye upon a stalk-like head sprouts from the top of the mask, piercing Link with its unblinking gaze. The other four masks return in kind. Majora is now grounded.

 

“Something that is theirs and No Longer Ours”

            As the Leading Man and Leading Lady act the scene of The Father seducing The Step-Daughter, they are repeatedly interrupted by The Step-Daughter bursting into fits of unbridled laughter. Eventually, The Manager is forced to stop the scene and demand silence from her. The Father then seeks to account for her reaction by providing The Manager an explanation of the Characters’ perspective on the theater.

The Manager [shouting to STEP-DAUGHTER]. Silence! for once and all, I tell you!

The Step-Daughter. Forgive me! forgive me!

The Manager. You haven’t any manners: that’s what it is! You go too far.

The Father [endeavouring to intervene]. Yes, it’s true, but excuse her…

The Manager. Excuse what? It’s absolutely disgusting.

The Father. Yes, sir, but believe me, it has such a strange effect when..

The Manager. Strange? Why strange? Where is it strange?

The Father. No sir; I admire your actors – this gentleman here, this lady; but they are certainly not us!

The Manager. I should hope not. Evidently they cannot be you, if they are actors.

The Father. Just so: actors! Both of them act our parts exceedingly well. But, believe me, it produces quite a different effect on us. They want to be us, but they aren’t, all the same.

The Manager. What is it then anyway?

The Father. Something that is… that is theirs – and no longer ours…[16]

Let us return to the allegory of the cave. Placing Forms outside of the cave, we see the puppets before the fire as abstract representations of these Forms; the shadows, projected by fire, are physical derivatives of these abstractions. The Father, in speaking to The Manager, articulates the analogous model of the platonic meta-role paradigm.

In our proposed model, the Characters are analogous to Forms, meta-actors to puppets, and the shadows to the meta-actors’ rendition of the Characters. The paradigm of the platonic meta-role and its logic proceeds as follows: the assumption of a role is contingent upon implementation of the psyche of he who assumes the role, as described in the process of role assumption through acting, with as-if’s and the like. Where the role is a discrete entity, as in the case of the fallen heroes of “Majora” or Pirandello’s Characters, it follows that the role-player’s rendition of the role will be qualitatively different from the “pure role” – it will, in effect, be a derivative image of the actual role, distorted by the player’s own psyche.

This analogy may be graphically depicted as shown above. The player enters the meta-role construct via the primary role – in this case, an intermediary role (2). The intermediary role has certain qualities (trilateralism, triangularity, etc.), which are assumed by the player. The intermediary role encounters the object of its purpose: a discrete secondary role, which we shall term the platonic role (1). This role, like the intermediary role, has certain unique qualities (quadrilateralism, three-dimensionality, etc.), distinct from those of the intermediary role. When the player, embodying the intermediary role, observes and then acts so as to assume the character of the platonic role, he creates a role (3) that is, as described in our analysis of acting methodology, markedly influenced by the quality of the intermediary role. Thus, this secondary role, which we will call the hybrid role, is a secondary role characterized by a synthesis of qualities of both the intermediary and platonic roles (triangular/trilateral faces from the intermediary role, and three-dimensionality of the platonic role). To return to our cave analogy, the platonic role is the most real (i.e. the Form) because it is its character is solid independently of any player; the intermediary role (the puppet) is less real because its existence implies the platonic role for it to assume, and a degree of incompleteness is present without a platonic role; and the hybrid role (the shadow) is the most derivative because it is existentially dependent upon both the intermediate and platonic roles. The arrows proceed in from the direction of most real to most derivative of reality.

The platonic role construct is exemplified exceptionally well in “Majora.” Link, the intermediary role, heals the restless spirits of fallen heroes, then assumes the masks they become to don their roles. Yet, just as The Father said, Link becomes something that is his, and no longer theirs: when Link dons the hero Mikau’s mask, he does not appear to be identical to Mikau. He adopts Mikau’s race – that of the amphibious Zora people – but has coloring reminiscent of Link’s clothes, such as a green fin on the back of his head, analogous to Link’s green hat. In adopting the attributes of the platonic role, Link has created a hybrid role.

“Majora” presents several unique dynamics that shed light on this relationship between platonic and hybrid roles. Firstly, though Link’s hybrid roles are not identical to their related platonic roles, those people who knew the fallen heroes when they lived implicitly recognize Link as those heroes. “Oh! You’re Darmani!!!” one Goron exclaims, after Link emerges from the cave containing Darmani’s grave, wearing the Darmani hybrid role. “But you’re supposed to be dead! Am I hallucinating?”[17] This is analogous to the plight of the Characters in “Six Characters”: they will always recognize the difference between themselves and the hybrid roles assumed by the actors, but the audience will believe that the actors, for all intents and purposes, have directly assumed the roles of the Characters.

 

The Elegy of Emptiness

Yet “Majora” goes still further in its assessment of this relationship. The game provides a mechanism in its fourth segment which speaks profoundly to the platonic role / hybrid role relationship described above: upon storming the gates of the stronghold of the Ikana, a fallen warrior race, Link slays their king, Igos du Ikana, liberating his soul. The king’s spirit then teaches him an ancient song to help him advance and free the last of the four giants: the “Elegy of Emptiness.” “I grant you,” Igos tells Link, “a soldier who has no heart. One who will not falter in the darkness.” This is achieved by playing the Elegy, “a mystical song that allows you to shed a shell shaped in your current image” – a shell said by the king to be “your twin image.”

The shell, however, is only a twin image of Link when Link uses it in his own, green-capped, native form, as opposed to the form of a hybrid role. If Link plays the Elegy when playing a hybrid role, the “empty shell” generated by the song is cast in the image of the appropriate platonic role. If Zora Link stands beside the shell he generates with the song, the differences between him and Mikau come are startlingly clear. The only substantive difference between the shell’s visage and Mikau’s own is that the shell’s eyes are blank.

What light does a blank, heartless shell of a platonic role shed on the greater dynamics of the functional construct at work? We may see this as an elegant way of reiterating our already established theory. The fundamental distinction between the hybrid role and the platonic role is the distortion caused by the intermediary role impressing its own psyche upon the platonic role. To remove the animation from the hybrid role – to remove its “heart,” as it were – is to remove the very psychical essence that differentiates it from its platonic role counterpart. Yet the shell is not demonstrative of an exact return to the platonic role; rather, it is a disturbingly empty representation of what was once a living entity serving as a platonic role.

The haunting implication here is one that hearkens back to the image-evolution paradox: by impressing upon an entity the label of the platonic role, the entity loses its vitality by virtue of its being reduced to a single, changeless idea – in effect, it is changed, as is literally the case in “Majora,” from a life form into a mask. In the image-evolution paradox, we contradict our life’s fluidity by imposing the solidity of a singular persona to project outward to reality; in the platonic role, we contradict the fluidity of others’ lives by pigeonholing them into constructs and ideas, rather than fluid, evolving forms. The imposition of platonic roles and the image-evolution paradox may thereby be seen as two instances of the same fundamental principle, where the former is an external process and the latter is its conjugate internal process.

We must return to the stated purpose of our inquiries: “to examine to what extent role playing’s capacity to assuage the image-evolution paradox is substantive.” We have, thus far, articulated the theoretical structure of the platonic meta-role paradigm, and have determined the impact each of its component roles has upon the rest of the construct. What impact, then, does this system have upon a player, constantly bearing the burden of the image-evolution paradox in his own life? We must superimpose the image-evolution paradox upon the platonic role concept, and seek to apperceive the net effect of the two upon the player.

  1. Majora’s Wrath: Aggregate Imagery

 

Upon the slaying of the Incarnation, Majora again transforms, tendrils wrapping around its arms and legs to increase their mass. Two long tendrils snake outward from its hands to form remorseless whips. Finally, a full head with two eyes emerges beneath the stalky head of the Incarnation. The single eye of Majora’s Incarnation has become the final form’s third eye.

 

In discussing the methodology of meditation as liberation from layer upon layer of the self’s attachments, Mark Epstein warns the reader about the trial of being ‘purely without’: “it is exceedingly difficult,” he admonishes, “to maintain a sense of absence without turning that absence into some kind of presence.”[18] Absence, after all, implies a “something” to be lacking. It is understandably trying, even on a theoretical leve, to divorce the sense of emptiness from the sense of what is not there.l

We must, as footnoted earlier, reclaim the word “emptiness” from the negative western connotation. The western world tends to perceive the notion of emptiness as the exact concept against which Epstein admonishes: the lacking of something substantive. This lack of substance is therefore threatening because it is built upon the idea that something must be there.   We ought not to be surprised by this: after all, the core of the image-evolution paradox is the constraint of a physical reality. Because of this physical reality, we like to exist in solids: operable constructs that allow us to perceive each other as easily as we might perceive a tree, or wall.

Buddhism argues that this mantra of “something must be there” is neither necessary nor particularly helpful – indeed, Buddha saw it as the root of all suffering. When the Buddhist speaks of “emptiness,” he refers to the state of realizing that the self is a false construct; we build a façade out of attachments to emotions and relationships and say it is our “self,” but this self only serves to artificially separate us from the rest of existence. We may therefore consider the image-evolution paradox as a version of the Buddhist root of suffering: the artificial construction of a separate self, or what Buddhism terms the ‘false self’.

It may seem counterintuitive to assert that the assumption of roles – identities that are indisputably artificial constructs – could serve to assuage a conflict caused by the false self. Nonetheless, by extrapolating our current theory and examining a few examples, we shall aim to show that a broader-understood system of platonic role constructs can serve to alleviate, or at least work in opposition to, the image-evolution paradox.

The player enters the platonic meta-role paradigm through the link of the intermediary role. From the intermediary’s perspective, we can now perceive that not only is the existence of a platonic role implicit, but that any separate entity has the potential to fill that role. The meta-actor may be charged with playing the part of anyone at all, and must therefore do so indiscriminately; anyone in the world of Termina may yield a mask to Link – and, in fact, most people do. Thus, in defining boundaries of reality wherein the platonic meta-role paradigm is operative, we may encompass everyone by defining them as both intermediary roles and potential platonic roles. The intermediary role then redefines itself by means of forming a hybrid role; and, whether or not we are aware of it, the potential exists for the intermediary role to do this multiple times, using any number of potential platonic roles as actuated platonic roles.

The therapeutic value of this construct can be condensed into a simple principle: the player, operating in his own reality, assumes a primary role which has a fluid identity by virtue of its ability to form a theoretically boundless number of hybrid roles. This fluidity is contingent upon the solidification of separate entities into ideas, analogous to Plato’s Forms or Ideas. The player is therefore able to experience fluidity of identity as a result of the image-evolution paradox, as opposed to in opposition to it.

If the player is able to take the subconscious process of falsely defining his fellow entities as solid selves and render it conscious through the repetition of the process in the synthesis of hybrid roles, the player will be able to escape the burden of the false self through redefinition, as opposed to the Buddhist approach of dissolution. He may perceive his own identity, as represented by the intermediary role, as an aggregate of images formed by falsely solidified, “empty” versions of his fellow entities. Thus he perceives the fluidity of identity as a summation of various static, platonic roles, rather than something that acts in opposition to this solidity. We will examine two aspects of “Majora” – the dynamics of time, and the theme of good and evil – and The Father’s declamation of The Manager’s insecure reality in “Six Characters” in order to defend this conclusion.

 

Time in Termina

            We recall the mechanics of Termina’s three-day “time loop,” wherein Link repeatedly resets time, advancing certain story events while all else returns to as it was on the Dawn of the First Day. A consequence of this is that Link may travel through an entire chain of events, help some characters, acquire a mask from them, and then return time to as things were before the person he helped ever met him. For example: the longest and most trying side-quest (i.e. a task not mandatory for completion of the story) is that of Link reuniting the star-crossed lovers Anju and Kafei, so that they might be married on the night of the carnival as they had planned (the same night on which the moon falls, unbeknownst to them). Following this quest to its conclusion, Link is rewarded with the ceremonial wedding mask, given to him to commemorate his role as their witness. This mask solidifies the marriage of Anju and Kafei and is an affirmation of their love – yet, when Link plays the Song of Time and returns to the Dawn of the First Day, Anju and Kafei are again separated, with Kafei M.I.A. and little hope of their ever being reunited, even though the mask remains in Link’s possession.

This temporal framework viscerally demonstrates to the player through the intermediary of Link that his solidification of people into platonic roles is a construct, and not representative of the people’s reality. This is the irony of “Majora’s Mask”: Link watches the same people develop through the same plotlines over the same three days ad infinitum, yet he can only develop himself through the accruement of platonic roles representing frozen moments in the development of those people – moments which need not even occur, were Link not there to help them. Thus, the player is able to understand platonic roles as a developmental component, rather than a developmental obstacle.

 

Majora vs. the Fierce Deity

            There are 24 masks available for Link to collect in his journey. The 24th mask is only made available to him after collecting all 23 other masks, and is acquired through a hauntingly ceremonial process, more resembling a rite than gameplay.

After Majora’s Mask shrugs off Skull Kid’s limp body, it enters the moon itself in a final effort to crash it into Termina. Link ascends to the moon through an ethereal beam linking it to the clock tower, and finds himself suddenly in a lush field of green. At the center of the field is the only noticeable object: a tall, vast tree, reminiscent of the tree under which Buddha became Enlightened. Under the tree sits a child wearing Majora’s Mask, and around the tree run four children at play (the “Moon Children”), each wearing one of the evil masks Skull Kid had used to imprison the four respective giants. Approaching one of the four running children, Link finds the child commenting on the “nice weather,” and then on the number of masks Link has. The child asks if he may have some masks. Link must surrender a certain number of his masks to the child, who then asks Link to play hide-and-seek with him. Link must find the child, who then asks for more masks. Upon receiving them, he deems Link a “nice person,” and asks him a question about the nature of friendship, happiness, and truth, one of which serves as this treatment’s epigraph. Link must repeat this process four times, using each of his different forms (regular Link, Goron Link, Zora Link, and Deku Scrub Link) to find one child. At the end of this process, all the children but the one wearing Majora’s Mask have left the area beneath the tree, and Link has surrendered all his masks but the three form-changing character masks.[19] Link then approaches the child sitting, wearing the heart-shaped mask of Majora, who looks around, then speaks to him.

“Everyone has gone away, haven’t they? Will you play with me? You don’t have any masks left, do you? Well, let’s play something else. Let’s play good guys against bad guys. Yes. Let’s play that.”

Majora then gives Link the “Fierce Deity’s Mask.” “You got the Fierce Deity’s Mask!” the game tells you. “Could this mask’s dark powers be as bad as Majora?”

“Are you ready?” the child continues, standing now beneath the tree. “You’re the bad guy. And when you’re bad, you just run. That’s fine, right? Well, shall we play?” At this, the world dissolves into the ethereal room where Majora presents his three forms, and the final battle commences.

It is worth noting that the sequence of Majora’s three forms, constituting an intensely difficult battle comparable to David against Goliath when Link goes forth unmasked, becomes child’s play when the Fierce Deity’s Mask is donned. The Fierce Deity, also seemingly human, is an adult, unlike the child who is Link, and projects devastating bolts of blue energy from an enormous broadsword with intricate blade resembling a Mobius strip. A once-fierce battle quickly becomes almost unfair to Majora – Link and the child are playing a game.

Over and over, “Majora’s Mask” poses the same question: where do the boundaries of good and evil lie? The entire conflict of the game is based on the premise that a lonely reject found a mask with the dark power to do what he wanted. He trapped the four giants, perhaps to stop them from interfering with his plan – or perhaps because he and Majora were both lonely. When Link is asking the spirits to help, Link’s companion (Tatl), serving as interpreter, remarks, “Their voices sound sad. You [giants] don’t want to help us? [They respond.] …‘Forgive your friend.’ What friend?” The giants were bound by evil masks, perhaps because Majora wanted friends the same way Skull Kid did. Yet the giants stayed friends with Skull Kid all the same, recognizing a lack of true malice on his part. They reaffirm this, once Majora is slain and the timeline is resolved, by standing before Skull Kid and offering their friendship. When Skull Kid is lying limp in the game’s climax, Link’s companion blames his succumbing to Majora’s power to his having “no strength of heart.” When you’re bad, you just run. That’s fine, right?

The game appears to offer a jarring perspective on morality: it is, in effect, child’s play. We adopt masks of good and evil, yet our humanity is distinct from these constructs. In the end, the conflict of the game is not malice – it is loneliness. All Skull Kid and Majora want is someone to play with. Link, in effect, sates Majora’s loneliness by adopting the persona of the Fierce Deity and playing with him. This provides depth to the platonic meta-role paradigm not seen elsewhere in research: the notion that good and evil are as much potential platonic roles as any other separate entity. This means that Link cannot be good any more than he can be Darmani: he may be perceived as good, but what is truly good is as fluid as anything else, and to perceive goodness is, as the analogy Nintendo presents suggests, as much a solidification of a single moment as assuming the role of a person is. Morality, then, might be equally perceived as the aggregate of many platonic perceptions thereof – a realization which would likely, in the long run, liberate and relieve those who feel overtly burdened by rigid conceptions of right and wrong.

 

“All the Illusions that were yours”

            Following the conflict between the actors seeking to play the Characters and the Characters’ refusal to accept the actors as representations of themselves, The Father offers one of his more memorable philosophical arguments to The Manager.

The Manager [astonished and irritated, turning to his ACTORS]. If this fellow here hasn’t got a nerve! A man who calls himself a character comes and asks me who I am!

The Father [with dignity, but not offended]. A character, sir, may always ask a man, who he is. Because a character has really a life of his own, marked with his especial characteristic; for which reason he is always “somebody.” But a man – I’m not speaking of you now – may very well be “nobody.”

The Manager. Yes, but you are asking these questions of me, the boss, the manager! Do you understand?

The Father. But only to know if you, as you really are now, see yourself as you once were with all the illusions that were yours then, with all the things both inside and outside of you as they seemed to you – as they were then indeed for you. Well, sir, if you think of all those illusions that mean nothing to you now, of all those things which don’t even seem to you to exist any more, while once they were for you, don’t you feel that – I won’t say these boards – but the very earth under your feet is sinking away from you when you reflect that in the same way this you as you feel it today – all this present reality of yours – is fated to seem a mere illusion to you tomorrow?[20]

The Father’s is perhaps the best synthesis of our theory of the platonic meta-role paradigm. To accept that development is the composite of platonic roles – constructs which are effectively illusory – we come to the conclusion that, inasmuch as solidity is concerned, we are “nobody.” Our existence is dependent upon an intricate web of assuming roles based on false selves, and our development is based upon the same. Yet we need not take this conclusion and cast out all notions of self to achieve our goal of assuaging the image-evolution paradox; the mere recognition of those platonic roles as illusory through their temporal confines and distortion as hybrid roles allows the player to perceive his own development as something which may be a progression of many constructed roles, rather than the struggle to maintain and modify the edifice of a single role over time. This shift in mindset will, of itself, release some of the constraints seemingly inherent in the paradox of development within the confines of reality.

 

Synthesis: Your True Face

Upon slaying Majora’s Wrath, Majora cries out in agony, then faces upward toward the camera in a manner reminiscent to the camera sequence when Link dons a mask to change form, and disintegrates into light. The timeline is resolved, and Termina is restored to its natural state.

 

            Majora asserted upon Skull Kid’s demise that “[a] puppet that can no longer be used is mere garbage.” We have seen that the inverse is also true: a puppet whose usefulness is perceived is of immense value. By engaging in the exercise of seeing everyone an a potential platonic role and oneself as an aggregate of hybrid roles, one perceives not only the developmental and fluid nature of accrued solid forms, but also the interconnectedness of all entities. To fully perceive the dynamics of the platonic meta-role paradigm is to understand the following: if one’s self is based upon an assumption of the roles of those around oneself, then the same must hold true for everyone else. We are, in effect, influencing each other’s development in a highly interdependent way.

Not only, then, does practice of the platonic meta-role paradigm relieve some of the tension of the image-evolution paradox, but it also instills within the player a sense of purpose and responsibility in his own life. Through these dynamics of the meta-role, he learns on a deeply personal level that people model their own transitory selves off of his image as much as he does off of theirs. Thus, he shares responsibility for the development of all those around them, and, in acting positively, may lead them to construct a more positive self, leading to a domino effect through everyone with whom they interact. Our lesson from the platonic conception of the meta-role, then, is simple, yet profound: the entirety of your development is contingent upon the whole of humanity, and the whole of humanity’s development is entirely contingent upon you.

[1] We acknowledge that the social framework of reality can be quite fluid – a fact which greatly contributes to the self-revisionary process. When we speak here of “the rigid framework of reality,” we refer to the literal spatiotemporal construct of reality – a framework which, at least in our earthly context, is unchanging by virtually all accounts.

[2] Thoughts without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective, p. 152.

[3] The Alphabet of Grace, p. 26-27.

[4] We must also note that psychological disorders and dissociative states also provide a distortion of perceptual reality, yet these are even further removed from the solutions we are seeking because they lack the quality of choice. The role player and drug user both willfully choose to alter their functional reality, and are thus aware of its transformation; the psychologically-afflicted typically have no such choice in perceptual alteration, often not even knowing that such distortion is occurring until after the episode has already passed. Such disorders therefore are more likely to complicate the image-evolution paradox than to resolve it.

[5] It is here worth noting that the secondary “role” in a meta-role is taken to be understood in a broad sense, perhaps best defined as a situation in which the verity of the primary role is questioned. While this includes such traditional scenarios of an actor playing an actor in a play, it also includes cases in which the character the actor is playing loses basic integrity – e.g. the mental deterioration and insanity of Lady Macbeth. In this scenario, ‘sane Lady Macbeth’ would be defined as the primary role, while ‘insane Lady Macbeth’ would be defined as the secondary role. Interestingly, as we will later see, the intensive acting methodology behind playing an actor who must “dissolve oneself” in his part and that behind playing a queen who “dissolves herself” in a loss of all rationality are, on a fundamental level, largely the same process.

[6] The player, of course, is still tied to his reality via his hands, which must manipulate the controller, and his mind, controlling his hands. It is nonetheless true that his representative in the game’s reality is unencumbered by the player’s own pretext in a way fundamentally different from an actor’s role playing in a play.

[7] “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” Act III.

[8] Another common term for this concept is “emptiness,” but this word would muddle our argument due to the inapplicable negative connotation placed on the word in the western tradition.

[9] Thoughts without a Thinker, p. 59-60.

[10] Ibid., p. 110 & 122-123.

[11] “Six Characters,” Act II.

[12] Thoughts without a Thinker, p. 105-106.

[13] It is worth noting that this entire process is virtually impossible without X first having practiced mindfulness and bare attention in her own life. If this were not the case, then the emotional content of her own experiences would probably be too muddled to effectively employ as as-if’s.

[14] The Leading Lady’s experiences and their related emotional content will, of course, be richer than that presented literally in Pirandello’s script, because part of the process of X’s assumption of the Leading Lady’s role is the establishment of a personal history for the Leading Lady outside of the script’s bounded events. This creates a wealth of experience and emotion upon which to draw in the subsequent assumption of The Step-Daughter’s role.

[15] It is tempting to equate the term ‘primary role’, as we have previously defined it in meta-role terminology, with the newly dubbed ‘intermediary role’, but this is erroneous. As is often the case with categories and their contents, all intermediary roles are primary roles, but not all primary roles are intermediary roles. The nuance of the intermediary role is in its purpose: it is intended for the purpose of assuming other roles. The primary role that is itself an actor, as we have been discussing, is a prime example of this; so, too, is Link in “Majora,” because his operative nature in Termina is contingent upon his assumption of roles. The contrast between the overarching category of the primary role and the specific nature of intermediary roles will be thrown into greater relief as we examine qualitatively different primary roles in later treatments.

[16] “Six Characters,” Act II.

[17] We will not dwell here on the fact that Darmani’s grave is literally within a cave, but it is rather fitting, all things considered.

[18] Thoughts without a Thinker, p. 70.

[19] It is interesting to note that this ending sequence perfectly recapitulates the entire journey of the game in a symbolic, metaphysical interpretation: the four giants, represented as children, are liberated from their evil masks as Link finds and befriends them, until only Majora itself is left to confront.

[20] “Six Characters,” Act III.

“A soldier who has no heart”: understanding the Elegy of Emptiness.

In any analysis of “Majora’s Mask” that purports to be comprehensive, there must be an account of the Elegy of Emptiness.  One cannot avoid the haunting, barely-explained plot device that spawned the horror story “BEN drowned,” along with countless memes of a Link Statue vacantly grinning at you. This is the song taught to Link by Igos du Ikana (5:40 in the video), the king of the Ikana whom I mentioned much earlier in this series.  It allows Link to create a statue version of whatever form in which he is currently manifested — Hylian, Deku, Zora, or Goron.  These statues are crucial to navigating the Stone Tower Temple, and they also look quite disturbing, resembling Link while at the same time seeming utterly inanimate.  But is there anything to say about the Elegy of Emptiness, besides shuddering and declaring it creepy?  I think that there is, and that is the heart of my argument in this article.  I will offer two separate interpretations of the song within the context of the game, and, by showing how these two interpretations coexist, will aim to reveal another aspect of precisely how the narrative of the game takes the player as one of its central elements — a theme which we’ve been working with for a while. Igos teaching Link the Elegy of Emptiness When Link defeats Igos du Ikana, returning him to his senses, Igos charges Link to seal Stone Tower in order to return light to Ikana Canyon, which has been clouded in spirit by darkness.   He adds, however, that “[it] is far too reckless for one to take on such a challenge.”  His solution is to teach Link the Elegy of Emptiness. And so… I grant to you a soldier who has no heart.  One who will not falter in the darkness.  This soldier who has no heart is your twin image.  A shell of yourself that you will shed when your song commands it. (It’s worth noting, in passing, that this is also a subversion of the classic moment in “The Legend of Zelda” when an old man whom Link encounters tells him that “[it’s] dangerous to go alone,” and gives him a wooden sword.  The cleverness here comes from Igos solving the problem of Link being alone by multiplying the number of Link, albeit in a manner far more out-of-joint than, say, the Four Sword.) The difference in my two interpretations will turn on how we interpret the word ‘of’ in ‘Elegy of Emptiness’.  We can see at first glance that its usage is ambiguous:  we can either say that the song is an elegy which is performed from a position of emptiness, or we can say that the song is an elegy to emptiness — that is, a song which mourns the death of emptiness.  I will endeavor to show that each of these provides insight on a part of “Majora’s Mask,” but that neither encompasses the entirety of the game.  More specifically, what we will find is that the interpretive juxtaposition turns on the duality of Link as both an element of the game’s world and the conduit linking the player to that world. Interpretation 1:  the Elegy which is performed from a position of Emptiness

Link Statue

Each interpretation emphasizes different components of Igos du Ikana’s description of the song; Interpretation 1 emphasizes his claim that “this soldier who has no heart is your twin image.”  To pick out the vacant statue generated by the song as Link’s twin image is tantamount to forcing what I’ve been calling ‘flat analysis’; put another way, claiming that Link the Character is identical to Link the Statue cuts Link off from his connection to the player’s agency, defining him as “just another object” in the world of Termina.

Another way into this interpretation is the fact that, when Link dons the Zora Mask or Goron Mask and plays the Elegy of Emptiness, the statues generated are not images of Zora Link or Goron Link — rather, they are images of Mikau and Darmani, respectively.  These fallen heroes are categorically fixed points in Termina, devoid of agency; in fact, I argued much earlier that a useful way of understanding the act of Link healing them is as Link actualizing their quests by imparting the agency of the player to them.  Instantiating a statue of Link that takes the same form as these fallen heroes highlights the fact that Link, by virtue of existing within the video game, is, in one sense, a character not dissimilar to NPC’s.  This is why NPC’s can interact with Link, whereas it makes no sense to speak of NPC’s directly engaging the player, who exists outside the bounds of the video game.

On this view, the Elegy of Emptiness anchors Link as a fixed point within Termina, reinforcing the fact that he ultimately is bound within the three-day timelines of the world, without the opportunity to ever really “stop playing” the game.  In my article analyzing the metaphysics and ontology of “Xenoblade,” I characterized the narrative as a reworking of the ‘death of the author’ motif.  We might rightly call this view the very opposite:  an elegy refers to a song mourning the death of someone, and this elegy seems to mourn the death of the player’s agency within the universe.

Interpretation 2:  the Elegy to Emptiness

Link and his Statue

Is all hope lost for the player?  Are we going through the motions of little more than a movie, in which are actions are of no consequence to the story?  If you’ve read even a small portion of the analysis up to now, then you know the answer:  of course not!  And, thankfully, Interpretation 2 of the Elegy of Emptiness is something of an antidote to Interpretation 1.

Notice the obvious in the above picture:  even though Igos du Ikana may call Link’s statue his twin, the two are not numerically identical:  they are discrete entities.  This interpretation takes as its basis different components of Igos du Ikana’s lines:  namely, that the soldier created by the song “has no heart,” and that it is “a shell of [Link] that he will shed when [his] song commands it.”  As the player dungeon-crawls through Stone Tower, an interesting subtext emerges to the gameplay:  Link relies on a combination of the song’s static statues to hold switches down, and on his own capacity to move in order to pass through doors or negotiate terrain when the statues are properly positioned.  In this way, the song actually seems to underscore the stark contrast between Link as an agent, and the static forms of other characters.

Igos recognizes that Link needs the aid of soldiers without hearts because Link actually has a heart.  I contend that one way to parsimoniously explain what is meant by the ‘heart’ that differentiates Link from the statues is his connection to the player, which renders him significantly more animate than any NPC, let alone any statue.  The act of Link playing this song to “shed his shell” is a symbolic representation of Link exerting his own will outside of Termina’s determined structure.

What of the characteristics of the statues, and the fact that the Goron and Zora Statues represent the static fallen heroes?  Well, this interpretation gives us another plausible theoretic lens through which to view this state of affairs:  by instantiating a Link Statue which exists on the same level as these fallen, static heroes, the song differentiates the Link playing the song from those heroes.  That is to say, Link establishes his uniqueness as an agent by differentiating himself from the NPC’s of Termina.  We might expect a consequence of this argument to be that Link has a greater level of observable agency in Ikana than elsewhere; while I don’t presently want to enter into a proof of this, I would point to the fact that Link can invert the entire Stone Tower, an act which the Garo Master compares to inverting the natural order of the world.  This suggests that Link’s level of observable agency could in fact be amplified in Ikana.

Stone Tower

Yet as much as we may like Interpretation 2, we cannot simply eschew Interpretation 1.  Something more complex is going on here:  the song is called neither of my pedantic reformulated titles, but is called merely “the Elegy of Emptiness.”  So part of the theory I offer here is one of irresolvable ambiguity.  Part of what makes Link, and avatars in general, so narratologically peculiar is that they are at once part of the universe described by a video game, and also related to the player who exists outside of that universe.  Like the Stone Tower Temple, they have two faces:  one is the in-game character who can speak with NPC’s and directly engage the game’s world, and the other is the agent who, by virtue of the player, can exert willpower beyond the abilities of any NPC and thereby change the game’s world.  Interpretation 1 describes the former face, and Interpretation 2 describes the latter; together, they describe an existential tension from which the discourse of the video game emerges.