A New Theory of Video Games

With a Terrible Fate has been quieter than usual lately because, for the past few months, I have been working on a thesis to fulfill part of the requirements for my degree in philosophy. I am now pleased to say that this project is complete, and the result is a new theory of the ontology and metaphysics of video games. The theory comes with some surprising results—for instance, I don’t think there’s any deep sense in which the players of video games actually control or embody avatars.

Thank you to all those who have found this site and engaged me in conversation about video games, whether online or in person. Those conversations are a huge part of how my thinking on video games has evolved over the years. And, now that this project is complete, stay tuned for more new work coming soon (I heard, for instance, that a new Zelda game and Nier game might have been released recently?).

You can read the full thesis here.

The Philosophical Justification for FromSoftware’s DLC

Regulars to With a Terrible Fate know that I tend to be skeptical of the potential for justifying add-on video game content as artistically valuable to the video game experience. For example, even though I ultimately argued that Nintendo’s amiibo are philosophically justifiable, I rejected many of the typical reasons why someone might think amiibo are valuable. So, when it comes to DLC (“downloadable content”), you probably won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve historically been extremely skeptical of its value as well. Like many others, I’ve feared that DLC makes it all too easy for developers to release games that are, in one way or another, incomplete, and then compel the player to complete the game by paying for additional content later on.

However, as is often the case, FromSoftware, the studio behind Dark Souls and Bloodborne (among other games), has challenged my assumptions about game development. In this article, I’m going to discuss two cases of FromSoftware’s DLC that I take to be imminently justified as aesthetically valuable additions to their parent games: Dark Souls 3‘s “Ashes of Ariandel” and Bloodborne‘s “The Old Hunters.” First, I’ll outline what I take to be the general dilemma that makes DLC so difficult to justify as a supplementary work of art. I’ll apply this dilemma to System Rift, the recent DLC for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, to show how it helps to explain why DLC fails when it does. Then, I’ll argue that our two test cases solve the dilemma facing DLC in surprising and informative ways.

DLC and The Completeness Dilemma

To begin, we need to be more precise with how we’re defining ‘DLC’. After all, all sorts of material could potentially fit the broad label of “downloadable content”–for example, extra weaponry, bonus outfits for avatars, extra songs for a game’s soundtrack, and so on. In this article, I’m only concerned with DLC that purports to extend the narrative of a video game. Granted, that’s a rather broad definition, and I’m not going to try to provide a full analysis of ‘narrative’ for the purposes of this article. However, our intuitions should give us a good idea of what I’m talking about here: these days, many story-rich games feature DLC that “adds on” to the story of the main game by adding a new plot line, either in an old area of the game’s world or in a new area of the game’s world created just for that DLC. Think of DLCs like Skyrim‘s Dawnguard and Dragonborn, or Dishonored‘s The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches. These are all examples of the type of DLC I have in mind.

Why focus this particular type of DLC? As I’ve argued from the start of With a Terrible Fate onward, I believe that video games as a medium facilitate new, robust forms of narrative that wouldn’t be possible in other media. In light of this, I think it’s especially interesting to see what implications DLC has for video games specifically as a vehicle for storytelling. And indeed, I will aim to show here that DLC does have interesting implications and insights regarding the nature of storytelling in video games.

Before we dive into any concrete examples of DLC, I think it’s fairly easy to notice a problem for DLC on the level of pure theory. I call this problem ‘the completeness dilemma’, and the dilemma goes like this: for DLC to be possible, it must be possible to extend the narrative of the main video game to which the DLC is appended. However, video games, as a narrative art form, already have a complete world with a full story that has a beginning, middle, and end. So, for the narrative of a video game to be “extendable,” it stands to reason that the original game’s narrative must, in some sense, be incomplete. And so the completeness dilemma is that either a video game’s narrative is complete, in which case DLC for the game is impossible, or else DLC for the video game is possible, but the original video game’s narrative was incomplete.

There are two qualifications I have to make immediately about this dilemma, both of which have to do with exactly what I mean by “complete” and “incomplete.” As written, the dilemma might strike readers as wildly implausible. After all, you might say, countless narratives, in video games and in other media, have sequels, which would also seem theoretically impossible by the above logic. So something must be wrong with the above analysis.

I actually think there probably are substantive theoretical problems for sequels/prequels/etc. based on the above logic, but I’ll set those aside for now because I do think the completeness dilemma for DLC is a different issue than any problems that arise for sequels. The key is that DLC “extends” the narrative of a video game in a different way than a sequel “extends” the narrative. Broadly speaking, sequels tend to tell an entirely new narrative that takes the former game’s narrative as a starting point, whereas DLC tries to enrich a game’s narrative by adding other events that are coextensive with and subordinate to that game’s narrative. This makes sense when you think of DLC as “add-on content”: rather than telling a whole new story, like a sequel would, DLC “adds on” to a game’s narrative, aiming to supplement it with “more” story. So, for example, a DLC might add a storyline that happens during the events of a game’s main story, but that involves different characters than the main game’s avatar. This was the case with Dishonored‘s DLC, which had its own problems as a result. Or, alternatively, DLC might add a new episode that doesn’t strictly speaking occur at the same time as the events of the main game, but that nonetheless coherently fits as a constituent of the main game’s narrative. This is something like what Deus Ex: Mankind Divided just did with their System Rift DLC, which effectively folds a new “chapter” into the main game’s narrative of Adam Jensen trying to uncover details of a global, augmentation-related conspiracy. So the first crucial qualification to the completeness dilemma is that I’m talking about “completeness” in the sense that the self-contained narrative of a game is internally complete: more precisely, its various narrative constituents are more-or-less coherent with one another, and adding substantially more narrative would interfere with that coherency. This measure of completeness has no bearing on the justifiability of sequels to games.

The second qualification to make about the incompleteness dilemma is that this dilemma is largely grounded in the somewhat unintuitive way that the worlds of video games operate as narrative elements. I’ve argued previously that the worlds of video games are fundamentally designed to respond to the avatar in various ways, depending on player choices. This might seem obvious and trivial, but the result is that the ontology of video game worlds functions to create the game’s narrative. And if a designer has created a world that functions to create the narrative of a game, it isn’t at all clear how you could just “add on” more story or more world in order to extend that narrative. Indeed, doing so, one might think, would completely disrupt the ontology of the game’s world. This is the metaphysical basis for the completeness dilemma; once we see this basis, I think the dilemma itself becomes much more plausible.

Deus ExSystem Rift and The Completeness Dilemma

Beyond purely theoretical considerations, many concrete instances of DLC bear the hypothesis out: a large amount of DLC seems unsatisfying, and I think the reason for this lack of satisfaction just is the completeness dilemma in many cases. To take just one example, let’s look at System Rift, the Deus Ex: Mankind Divided DLC that I mentioned above. In broad strokes, Mankind Divided follows Adam Jensen, the protagonist of the earlier Deus Ex: Human Revolution, as he tries to mitigate rising tensions between the augmented and non-augmented in a world of human-augmentation-through-biotechnology. The main thread of the game’s plot is Jensen’s mission to uncover a secret, powerful group of people, the Illuminati, controlling and orchestrating the course of events at a global scale. At the end of the main game, while Jensen has successfully thwarted a major terrorist, he is left with most of the same questions about the shadow organization he’s been hunting for the entire game. The DLC then picks up with Jensen getting a request from an old colleague (from Human Revolution), Francis Pritchard, to help him infiltrate a major data storage bank, Palisade Blades. Though Pritchard has his own motives for wanting to infiltrate Blades, he also motivates Jensen to help him by pointing out that Jensen could well be able to uncover more information about the Illuminati while inside the facility–indeed, the DLC’s ad campaign actually motivated people to purchase the DLC for this same reason (i.e. finding out more about the Illuminati).

Without diving into too much depth about System Rift, we can pick out two overarching problems with the DLC that the completeness dilemma allows us to explain. The first problem is the selling point of the DLC’s story: uncovering more about the shadow organization that Jensen has been hunting all long. Many people reviewing the DLC have commented in one way or another that the story wasn’t especially satisfying; with our theoretical framework in the background, we can make this complaint more precise and understand just why the story isn’t satisfying. The DLC is predicated on getting answers about an organization that, throughout the first game, Jensen never really fully identified or confronted; in this respect, the main narrative force of the DLC explicitly directs players’ attention to the fact that the main game was incomplete in terms of uncovering the Illuminati. But Eidos Montreal (the developer behind Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Mankind Divided, and the DLC) put themselves in a difficult situation, because they also couldn’t provide in the DLC the real answers about the Illuminati that were missing from the main game: to do so would be to effectively treat the DLC as a resolution to the main game’s narrative, and that would imply that the main game had been “missing” an ending all along–meaning players had to pay extra for the ending. As a result of the above theoretical constraints, Eidos Montreal was effectively forced to make the DLC’s answers to questions about the Illuminati minimal: though Jensen and Pitchard discovered a little about Stanton Dowd’s involvement in the organization, there wasn’t much substantive information to be had.

Of course, if a player is familiar with the broader Deus Ex series, she will know more about the Illuminati based on the earlier Deus Ex games that (confusingly enough) take place in the future relative to Mankind Divided, but this doesn’t change the facts-of-the-matter in terms of what information Mankind Divided and its DLC promise and come short of delivering. The upshot here, I think, is that Eidos Montreal probably intends to make another full Deus Ex game more directly confronting the Illuminati–as we saw above, to have any such direct confrontation in any Mankind Divided DLC would just further compromise the completeness of the main game. But the result is that the DLC feels unsatisfying and unjustified.

I said above that there were two overarching problems with System Rift that the completeness dilemma could help us explain. The first, then, was simply that the story is unsatisfying; the second is that there are continuity problems owing to the fact that the DLC is more of a stand-alone mini-game than it is an add-on to Mankind Divided. By this I mean that none of the actions of the player in the main game has any impact on System Rift–in fact, you can even play System Rift before playing Mankind Divided, though the game warns you that you may spoil some of the main game by doing so. So, despite the game being billed as Mankind Divided DLC, it really ends up being a separable narrative. The most compelling way to recognize this is to notice that none of Jensen’s augmentations carries over from the main game to the DLC: this implies that you’re playing two different versions of Jensen, meaning that the main game and DLC actually can’t exist as part of the same reality (unless you hold a view claiming something like multiple iterations of Jensen exist in the same world and have the same relationships with other people, which strikes me as wildly implausible).

Now, there are real issues with continuity across multiple games in the same series more generally, and it might sound like those are the issues I’m talking about in this case. But again, I’m containing my critique here to focus solely on DLC. There may well be a way to make reasonable sense of multiple games in a series even if a player’s choices don’t carry over between subsequent entries in the series (but see this article on Final Fantasy VII for the serious theoretical challenges that such an explanation would need to overcome), but the problem for DLCs would remain as a result of the completion dilemma. Recall that the whole thrust of DLC is that it extends a game’s narrative; in order to do this, it seems to be a minimal prerequisite that the DLC and main game occur in the same reality, unless there are compelling science-fiction reasons why they don’t (e.g., BioShock Infinite and its Buried at Sea DLC). This might seem obvious, but it points to the heart of what makes crafting effective DLC so difficult: DLC bears the burden of staying in the same reality as the main game while also justifying why its narrative content did not exist as a part of the main game. This is just another formulation of the completeness dilemma.

I should say in closing here that I quite enjoyed Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, and there are plenty of theoretically interesting things to say about the game in a positive light–indeed, I plan to write more on it in the future (and you can read my work on Human Revolution here). My aim here was just to show that the completeness dilemma allows us to understand many of the reasons why DLC tends to fail, along with why it’s so hard for them to succeed in the first place. I encourage readers to take their own least-favorite DLC and see whether this framework can shed light on why it doesn’t work.

The other reason why I dwelled so long on how and why DLC fails is because I think appreciating the extent of the difficulties facing DLC makes us that much more impressed when DLC manages to succeed. I turn to two such examples, Ashes of Ariandel and The Old Hunters, next.

FromSoftware and Ontologically Sound DLC

We’ve seen that DLC, in order to be justified as part of a game’s narrative, must somehow find a way to overcome the completeness dilemma: either a video game’s narrative is complete, in which case DLC for the game is impossible, or else DLC for the video game is possible, but the original video game’s narrative was incomplete. I argue here that FromSoftware has recently released two pieces of DLC that found ways to avoid this dilemma, and that the ways these DLCs avoid the dilemma give us insight into what makes for a sound ontology for DLC and its world. I’ll first look at narrative of imposition found in the recently released Dark Souls 3 DLC, Ashes of Ariandel, and then I’ll go a bit further back in time to discuss the narrative of curiosity found in Bloodborne‘s DLC, The Old Hunters. What we’ll ultimately see is that the key to these DLCs avoiding the completeness dilemma is that they make their status as DLC, along with the player’s choice to purchase and play the DLC, narratively significant.

Ashes of Ariandel begins with an invitation for the player and her avatar to enter a new world and take on a new mission: Slave Knight Gael, prostrate on the ground of the Cleansing Chapel, enjoins you to show the Painted World of Ariandel flame in order to cleanse away its rot. The player is given the choice to either accept or reject this request; only once you accept will your avatar touch a scrap of painting and be sucked into Ariandel.

sister-friede-dark-souls-dlc

Sister Friede warns you to turn back.

This opening interaction with Gael sets the tone for the entire narrative of the DLC: the game constantly requires the player to reaffirm her choice to take on this alternative mission in Ariandel. When the player and her character first meet Sister Friede, who presides over the Forlorn members of the world (and thus, in one sense at least, presides over the world), she asks the player’s character to leave Ariandel, explicitly pointing out the bonfire next to her as a method of doing so: “Lord of Hollows,” she says, “I know not the missteps which led thee to this painted world. But thy duty is all, and thy duty lieth elsewhere. Return from whence thou cam’st. I presume it is visible to thee? The bonfire here, in this room. A meek and faded thing, but ’twill guide thee nonetheless.” Sir Vilhelm, a knight apparently in Sister Friede’s service, warns the player’s character to heed Friede’s words as well. If the

Sir Vilhelm.jpg

Sir Vilhelm warns you to turn back.

player instead chooses to press onward in the world of Ariandel, Vilhelm eventually confronts and attempts to kill the player’s character, deriding the character as he attacks: “I’ve seen your kind,” he says, “time and time again. Every fleeing man must be caught. Every secret must be unearthed. Such is the conceit of the self-proclaimed seeker of truth.” If the player goes still further, she ultimately returns to the Ariandel Chapel where Sister Friede sits; Friede speaks to the player’s character again: “Be forewarned, eager Ash,” she says, “Should this world wither and rot, even then would Ariandel remain our home. Leave us be, Ashen One. Thou’rt the Lord of Londor, and have thine own subjects to guide.” Ultimately, if the player chooses to continue, she encounters Father Ariandel, in chains in a vast room with vaulted ceilings just beyond Sister Friede. Entering the room does not trigger a cutscene or a battle. Instead, the player must walk her character all the way across the room to Father Ariandel and speak to him; only then does a cutscene initiate, followed by a battle (actually, several) against him and Sister Friede. If Sister Friede kills the player’s character during the fight, she tells the character to “Return from whence thou cam’st, for that is thy place of belonging.”

approaching-father-ariandel

The approach to Father Ariandel. You can still avoid fighting him at this point.

I describe all these moments from the DLC in such detail simply to make the point that the DLC figuratively beats the player over the head with the theme that she doesn’t belong in this world, this isn’t the proper quest or duty of the player’s character, and she should leave. The theme of this DLC’s narrative, if you do choose to play it all the way through, is that you are imposing yourself and your character upon a world and mission that don’t rightfully belong to you. The player cannot credibly claim that she just stumbled into the storyline, or that she just had to go along with the plot line: the DLC begins with a conscious choice to take up a new mission in a new world, and you have to constantly ignore and kill NPCs in order to finish the DLC.

What does this narrative of imposition have to do with the problem of completeness and Ashes of Ariandel‘s success as DLC? I claim that this narrative avoids the problem of completeness by, in a certain sense, “making narrative” the fact that the story is DLC and that the player chose to purchase and play it. To understand what I mean by this, step back for a moment and consider what it means for the player of a game like Dark Souls (or any other game) to purchase DLC for the game. Regardless of the player’s more peculiar, individual motives for purchasing the DLC, it’s fair to say that anyone purchasing the DLC wants something “more” than the main game, whether that’s more plot, more characters, more world, or what have you. But there’s something not quite rational about this desire on the part of the player: certainly players want to play games that are well designed and that contain complete, coherent narratives; yet at the same time, these players are eager for “more” in the form of DLC.

Returning now to the case at hand, the crucial feature of Ashes of Ariandel is that the game’s narrative reflects the player’s decision to play it. The player is trying to take a character that was designed for a specific, internally coherent quest, one that endlessly cycles with different possible endings, and put that character in  new environment that, by definition, could not have been a part of that original quest. The avatar, mirroring the player, is leaving its preordained, destined quest as an Ashen One (Sister Friede presupposes the Ashen One’s destiny as the Lord of Hollows, but the argument holds even if the Ashen One chooses a different path through the game) to instead take on an entirely different mission in an entirely different world–a world contained within an entirely different work of art (i.e. a scrap of a painting). Many pieces of the NPCs’ dialogue could be directed to the player just as accurately as to the player’s character: the player of DLC should hear herself reflected in Vilhelm’s words that “Every fleeing man must be caught [and every] secret must be unearthed,” and should recognize that she really is, as Friede says, going out of her way to walk her character through a world not at all related to that character’s initial purpose or design. This union of player and avatar, together with the union of the narrative and its status as DLC, culminates in the long walk down the hall to Father Ariandel: if the player has all been paying attention to the game, she should be acutely aware of the fact that she is choosing, throughout the entirety of the DLC, to disregard the vast majority of voices telling her to turn back.

So FromSoftware avoids the completeness dilemma in Ashes of Ariandel by turning the tables on the player: recognizing the player as part of the game’s narrative (which I have argued many times is the case in all game narratives, whether or not the game is self-consciously concerned with that fact), the DLC tells the story of a world that doesn’t claim to have anything to do with the narrative of the main game, and of a character who decided to ignore their real quest to instead, for want of a better word, invade a totally different world. In other words, FromSoftware avoids the completeness dilemma by pointing out that the player has chosen to purchase and play DLC in spite of the completeness dilemma.

Moreover, FromSoftware seems to have generally recognized the above method as a reliable way to develop aesthetically justifiable DLC. Turning to Bloodborne’s DLC, The Old Hunters, we can see that same method alive and well–but, typical of an adept storyteller, FromSoftware has altered the precise execution of the method to better fit with the themes and broader metaphysics of Bloodborne.

Bloodborne DLC

 

I can’t say enough positive things about Bloodborne, and if you’ve read my earlier work on the game then you know some of the reasons why I think it’s so philosophically rich, in the sense of rigorous metaphysical and epistemic themes and explorations. If you know my earlier work on the game, then you also probably won’t be surprised to learn that I was extremely skeptical when DLC was announced for the game. I thought (and still think) that the main narrative of Bloodborne is practically perfect in terms of internal coherence as a cyclical narrative, in which, no matter which ending the player chooses, they can never truly escape the dream of Bloodborne, nor can they learn whatever truth (if any) lies outside that dream. This was the reason why I continue to hope that Bloodborne never has a sequel, and it was the reason why I doubted that any DLC for the game could truly be justified. However, much like Ashes of AriandelThe Old Hunters challenged my expectations by making narrative the facts that it was DLC and that I as a player had chosen to play it; the difference was that, whereas Ashes of Ariandel crafted this narrative in terms of imposition, invasion, and shirking duty, The Old Hunters crafted it in terms of curiosity and the limits of our understanding.

The Old Hunters takes place inside The Hunter’s Nightmare, a previously unaccessible part of Bloodborne‘s world which the player can access by acquiring an Eye of a Blood-Drunk Hunter from a Messenger and using it to apparently lure an Amygdala into grabbing the player’s character and transporting it to the Nightmare. Once there, the player is able to unravel a variety of secrets about the origins of the Healing Church of Bloodborne‘s world: she witnesses the hideous beast that Ludwig, the Church’s first hunter, became; she sees the results of the Church’s covert (largely failed) experiments to transform humans into Kin of the Great Ones (the ethereal beings that exist at the edge of human comprehension and are largely responsible for the madness that infects Bloodborne); and she encounters a dead Kos, a Great One whose appearance apparently mutated the inhabitants of a seaside Fishing Hamlet, destroying their sanity in the process.

The Hunter’s Nightmare is a realm for hunters who have been driven insane; the player and her avatar are guided through it by the one remaining hunter with some apparent sanity, Simon the Harrowed. At the beginning of the Nightmare, he warns the player’s character to turn back, “Unless, you’ve something of an interest in Nightmares?” The player can choose to either respond that “I’ve no interest” or else that “Nightmares are fascinating,” and it is only in the latter case that Simon continues to guide the player through the DLC (though the player can of course progress on her own). Simon thus sets the tone of the DLC, albeit perhaps more subtly than the characters of Ashes of Ariandel did: only the curious player has any purpose being here.

lady-maria

The player’s character investigates Lady Maria’s corpse.

So, if the player chooses to continue in the DLC, it’s fair for the narrative to assume the player is curious: and indeed, the DLC punishes the player precisely for being curious, most notably in two specific instances. First, after seeing the Church’s experimentation facility, the player encounters an apparently dead hunter slumped in a chair at the far end of a clock tower: this is Lady Maria of the Astral Clocktower. The introduction to this boss fight is notably similar to the introduction to the Sister Friede/Father Ariandel boss fight: in both cases, the player must approach the boss

brador

Brador, the Church’s assassin, imprisoned.

from the other side of a long room and choose to interact with the boss before the fight actually begins. In Maria’s case, the player’s character must inspect her corpse, after which she rises from the chair and says that “A corpse… should be left well alone.” She continues: “Oh, I know very well. How the secrets beckon so sweetly,” concluding to the player’s character that “Only an honest death will cure you now. Liberate you, from your wild curiosity.” Later, as the player investigates the Fishing Hamlet, an imprisoned  Church assassin named Brador periodically invades and attempts to kill her character. Whenever Brador kills the player’s character, he proclaims that “Unending death awaits those who pry into the unknown.” Both Lady Maria and Brador reinforce the narrative of the Nightmare as the player’s tortured attempt to proceed through countless deaths and eventually satisfy her curiosity for secrets that don’t want to be uncovered.

orphan-of-kos

The Orphan of Kos, having just emerged from a deceased Kos.

In a very broad sense, The Old Hunters justifies its DLC in the same way that Ashes of Ariandel does: it tells the story of the player and her avatar trying to get something out of the game that they shouldn’t rationally expect the game to provide. But, as I said before, the details of how they tell this story are different because the narratives of Dark Souls 3 and Bloodborne are wildly different animals. In The Old Hunters, the narrative reflects the player’s desire to answer the game’s unanswered questions, combined with the overarching Bloodborne theme that the answers you seek often lie outside of your epistemic capabilities. The DLC does this in a tricky way: it promises that the Hunter’s Nightmare holds secrets to uncover, but what little the player uncovers only leads to further questions, showing that very little of the original curiosity has actually been satisfied and very few explanations provided by the DLC have been adequate. The DLC pretty obviously shows a connection between Lady Maria and the animated Doll who guides the player through the main game: the characters look the same, have the same voice actor (Evetta Muradasilova), and, once the player kills Lady Maria, the Doll exclaims that she feels liberated in some way. Yet the exact nature of the relationships between these characters is left unexplained. The exact relationships between the various, titular “old hunters” are left unexplained. And, most pointedly, the DLC ends with a battle against a Great One, one of the beings whose very existence is beyond the pale of human comprehension. The ending in particular points to the fact that, even if the player were able to parse out the entire history of the hunters and the Healing Church from the vague hints of the DLC, they would still have gone precisely no distance towards truly understanding the otherworldly Great Ones, the ultimate grounds of Bloodborne‘s horror and narrative force. So the DLC plays on the player’s curiosity by hinting at some explanations of plot elements while also highlighting that the entire crux of Bloodborne is that some great and terrible things–e.g., the Great Ones–are entirely outside human frameworks of explanation and understanding. The player can learn that Kos cursed the hunters who investigated and mutilated the mutated villagers of the Fishing Hamlet, but she cannot learn the truth of what Kos itself truly is.

The world of the Hunter’s Nightmare is not separate from Bloodborne‘s main world in exactly the way that Ariandel is separate from Dark Souls 3, but the framework remains the same–albeit thematically transformed. The base assumption is that the player who has played Bloodborne wants more answers than the game provides, and purchases the DLC in the expectation of having that curiosity sated. Yet the DLC tells a story of explanations and forces that ultimately prove elusive, feeding the player scraps of new information while ultimately returning to the same incomprehensible plane of unknowability that grounded the main game. Just as in Ashes of Ariandel, we have a narrative grounded in the player’s choice to irrationally want more from a complete game–in this case, it’s just couched in terms of the limits of comprehensibility and the madness that follows curiosity, seamlessly marrying its themes to those of Bloodborne.

Conclusion

The completeness dilemma isn’t easily overcome, and those DLCs that simply promise additional story content face a serious challenge as a result. This makes it all the more remarkable that FromSoftware has managed to develop DLC in which not only are the narratives are interesting and engaging, but they are also narratives that would only work as DLC. The narratives overcome the completeness dilemma by inviting the player into the narrative, and telling a story of how bizarre and paradoxical it is that the player would want an extra story to extend a world and story that was already complete. The amazing result is DLC that is justified both intrinsically and also in relation to the main game. Ashes of Ariandel and The Old Hunters set a high bar in this regard, but they also show us that DLC falling short of this bar just won’t work. Try these DLCs out if you haven’t already, and, as you play, reflect on your choice to buy DLC in the first place; and the next time you buy a new DLC, ask yourself whether and how it avoids the completeness dilemma.

 

 

Teaser Metaphysics: Storytelling in Xenoblade X.

A professor of mine once presented a lecture as “an expression of doubt and a plea for help.” He wanted very much to believe that a particular argument we were discussing was true, and yet he saw too many problems with the argument to believe in it. Thus, he was expressing doubt in the argument, while also asking his students to help him find a way to make that argument work better.

I want to frame this commentary on Xenoblade Chronicles X in the same way that my professor framed that lecture: an expression of doubt in the game, and a plea for readers to help me see something in it. Regulars of With a Terrible Fate know that I am a vocal proponent of the philosophical richness of Xenoblade Chronicles; I eagerly dove into Xenoblade Chronicles X (I’m just going to call it “Xeno X” from here on out) expecting that same sort of philosophical richness. I was tremendously disappointed, and quite frankly felt robbed–that’s how much I was let down when I compared Xeno X with its most immediate predecessor. Although this piece is an explanation of why I felt so let down, I don’t want to feel robbed by the game; so, please, if there is something I am missing or that I have overlooked, I am eager for someone to let me know.

With preliminaries out of the way, this article, as I said, is in principle a very negative review of Xeno X. More specifically, I argue that Xeno X promises to confront deep, interesting, metaphysical questions especially salient in video games, but ultimately only confronts broad, generic philosophical questions that can be addressed virtually anywhere. I first discuss the promised philosophical themes: the ways in which the game hints at certain philosophical puzzles, encourages (and indeed requires) the player to pursue missions that seem likely to shed light on those puzzles, but never actually follows through on these ideas. Next, I discuss the philosophical themes that are present in the game, and argue that, although certainly interesting in other contexts, the overall architecture of the game precludes these themes from being salient. Finally, I consider the fact that Xeno X is obviously set up for a sequel–I argue that, far from being an excuse for the game’s unfulfilled promises, this particular sequel dynamic is symptomatic of a severe problem in popular storytelling today.

(As always, spoilers abound–for this game, and for Xenoblade Chronicles.)

 

I. Teaser Metaphysics

The best way I’ve found to describe the universe of Xeno X on its most fundamental level is as a “teaser metaphysics.” I mean to say that every deep metaphysical concern that’s apparent in the game’s universe is of obvious importance throughout the game, and yet we never actually discover the substance of those concerns. Elma says multiple times during the game that “there’s something about this planet.”[1] In my estimation, this is a perfect tagline for the game: it’s always clear that something strange and interesting is happening on the alien planet of Mira where mankind has relocated post-alien-annihilation-of-Earth, but it’s never clear precisely what that “something” is. I’m going to offer a list of the three (and only three) moments I felt were interesting in this way, which the game never followed up on; then, I’ll discuss why I think the game’s architecture forced the focus onto these moments in a self-destructive way.

 

  1. What are we talking about? (Ch. 5) 

When the player’s character, together with Elma, Lin, and the irredeemable Tatsu discover a group of imperiled Ma-non in Chapter 5–alien races abound on the world of Mira–Elma makes an observation about how strange it is that she and the other humans can perfectly understand all of the aliens they’ve encountered thus far.

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Elma: “Tatsu, the Ganglion, and now these Ma-non… Don’t you find it a little odd that we can understand these alien languages?”

Lin: “Huh…good point.”

[…]

Elma: “Tatsu, did you study our language?”

Tatsu: “Friends’ language?”

Elma: “What language are we speaking right now?”

Tatsu: What language? Nopon, of course! Friends’ Nopon very good, by the way.”

Elma: “See? Xenoforms have different anatomy, physiology–different vocal setups in general. It seems likely they would struggle with out pronunciations. And yet, here we are, conversing.

Lin: “But if they can’t even produce the sounds… this shouldn’t be possible.”

Elma: “No, it shouldn’t be. Unless, our words aren’t being perceived as sounds at all. Maybe our intent is getting across some other way… But how? Could it be something about this planet?”

Lin: “Heh. Someone sounds pretty intrigued, huh.”

Elma: “Well, what if it IS some kind of new phenomenon? Aren’t you curious to learn more?”

Lin: “All right, now you’re starting to sound just like L.”

Tatsu: “Okay, already! Friends talk less, help Ma-non more!”

 

And, with that, the scene devolves into one of the story’s many jokes about Lin cooking and eating Tatsu. Just as we’re broaching metaphysically salient territory, the game drags us back into tired jokes about eating its most frustrating character.

Why is this dialogue so interesting? Well, besides the obviously interesting idea that different species are somehow able to perfectly understand one another as though they were all speaking the same language, I initially thought this dialogue was suggesting that the game was philosophically aware that it was a game. What I mean by that is this: I’ve argued several times that one of the most philosophically interesting things about Xenoblade Chronicles is that you actually can’t make sense of its story unless you understand the player to be a character within the game’s narrative. In this way, the philosophical content of the game depends on its status as a video game, which I think makes it uniquely interesting. So I initially thought that, like Xenoblade Chronicles had done previously, Xeno X was created interesting philosophical content based on its status as a video game: perhaps everyone could understand one another because their intents were being represented directly to the player. This would make sense since the entire game is literally conveyed to the player, and the player is at various times able to hear Elma’s thoughts (for example). It would also be a way of explaining Elma’s cryptic comment here that speaker intent is being expressed without relying on the phonetics of language: perhaps the idea might be that the entire world, in virtue of being a video game, is simply encoded information that is then represented to the player in a comprehensible manner.

The above analysis is speculative because, so far as I can tell, the game never follows up on this discussion. This is teaser metaphysics at its finest: as though mocking to the player directly, Lin responds to Elma’s curiosity by saying, “Heh. Someone sounds pretty intrigued, huh.” But perhaps I’m being unfair–perhaps other philosophically salient material in the game provides us with the analytic resources to make sense of this language puzzle.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the case: everywhere I turn, the game just provides more teaser metaphysics.

 

The unstoppable success of an avatar. (Ch.8)

This case is a little less straightforward than the language puzzle we just discussed, but I hope to convince you that it’s just as much a case of teaser metaphysics. In Chapter 8 of the game, in which alien forces attack the human city of New L.A., two aliens–Ryyz and Dagahn–confront Elma, Lin, and the player’s character within the city. As Ryyz approaches, Lin trembles in fear.

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Ryyz: “You’re right to be afraid, little girl. [To Dagahn:] Let’s kill her first.”

Elma: “Lin, stay calm. Don’t let them into your head. We’ve faced worse than this before–and we’ve won, every single time. Don’t forget that.”

Lin: “I know…”

 

I want to suggest that, because Xenoblade X is a video game, Elma’s words of encouragement to Lin are much more interesting than they appear at first.

Here’s an obvious fact about most video games: if the player of the game makes a mistake, the character(s) she controls can end up dying, and then the player has to repeat the narrative from a certain, earlier point, until she succeeds in progressing without dying. Certainly not all games work this way, but the majority does, and Xeno X is in that majority. Moreover, the exchange I quoted above comes two thirds through the main storyline of Xeno X–so, while it’s certainly possible that an adept player could have reached this point without her party ever dying, it’s very likely that her party has died at least once, requiring her to “try again” in the very standard way that video games expect of their players.

But now we have an interesting puzzle: there’s a sense in which what Elma says to Lin is just not true, because, if the player has failed at some earlier point in the narrative, then the party hasn’t won “every single time.” There’s also a sense in which Elma is right: the player, after all, have to succeed once in every story mission in order to make it to the current point in the narrative, regardless of how many times she might have failed along the way. So, this seemingly throwaway line actually suggests that something very interesting is going on in the world of this game: somehow, the game only “counts” the player’s successes as meaningful, disallowing the player’s failure as constitutive of the game’s narrative. This could be an interesting commentary on the discrepancy between a player’s experiences on the one hand, including both failures and successes, and the experiences of the game’s characters on the other hand. Indeed, the mere fact that Elma says something so unusual and applicable to the nature of video games suggests that some sort of special relationship between the player and the game’s world is at work.

But again, I must speculate because the game never follows up on this idea. There is hope that it might be explored–after all, the fact that all the humans on Mira live in replaceable, robotic, “mimeosome” bodies points to this same theme of the game’s world having video-game-esque metaphysical dynamics–but the idea is never fully articulated. Nor does the game offer us the resources to meaningfully theorize about this dimension of its world. I held out hope until the very end of the game, and a single line led me to believe that these metaphysical dimensions of the world might be explored after all; but, as we shall see, that line ultimately turned out to be another red herring.

 

The one being who wasn’t on the computer. (Ch.12)

After the final confrontation in the Lifehold Core against Luxaar and Lao, Elma pauses to reveal something unexpected to the rest of the party.

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Elma: “The truth is, exactly one mim in New LA…actually is being controlled remotely from a real body held in stasis here.

Lin: “Wait, someone isn’t stored in the database with the rest of us?

Elma: “That’s right. This was a special case.”

 

Whereas everyone else who fled Earth and arrived on Mira had their consciousness stored digitally in a computer database, controlling mims (i.e. robotic mimeosome body) from that database, there is one mim controlled by a real person. At this juncture, I was prepared to be very impressed with the game. It seemed to me as if the game were about to answer all of my questions. What better way to explicate the special metaphysics of a video-game world than by having a character within the game point out that the player’s character is being controlled by a “real” person–i.e. by the player?

If Elma had said that a real person was remotely controlling the player’s character, various otherwise inexplicable or underwhelming aspects of the game might have started to make much more sense.

Character Creation

For instance: the character-creation aspect of the game, I submit, feels very contrived and forced. The player initially appears to have a wide variety of choice in being able to customize nearly every aspect of her character–appearance, voice, catch phrases, etc. But it quickly becomes clear that this aspect of choice is superficial: the player’s character never has an actual voice in cutscenes, and has a limited number of oft-repeated catchphrases when engaged in combat. The only way the player’s character can have input in cutscenes is by the player choosing, at various junctures, between several lines of text for her character to “say” (though, again, these lines aren’t vocalized). And this choice element is superficial: virtually no text choices the player makes can seriously influence the plot of the game. The game’s narrative is linear, and, as a result, the player will be “pushed” towards a single outcome of events regardless of the “choice” she makes. When my party discovered Tatsu, I tried to use every dialogue choice available to me to leave him behind and not let him join the party (as I mentioned, he seems, consistently, to be more of a nuisance than he’s worth–and not in the trope of a character you “love to hate”).

So the choices the game appears to offer the player don’t really matter, whereas at obvious choice-points in the narrative, the player has no power. For instance: after Lao betrays the party and the party defeats him, Elma wants to kill Lao as punishment, and Lin tries to stop her. This is an obvious choice point where, if choice really matters, the player should be able to choose a side for her character to take: side with Elma, or side with Lin. But this doesn’t happen: the player’s character automatically sides with Lin, forcing Elma to stand down. And of course, this must be the case–since Lao ultimately reappears in the final battle of the game, and the narrative is linear, it couldn’t be an option for Lao to die here. But this makes the game smack of fake choices: the player, presented with an illusion of choice, ultimately lacks any sort of real input over a character that everyone notices “doesn’t say much.”

However, if Elma had said that a real person was remotely controlling the player’s character, I would have forgiven this design choice. The notion of a custom-designed character works extremely well if it’s true within the conceit of the narrative that the character was created as a proxy for the real player. We might then also have more supporting evidence for the theory I suggested about how language works within the game: perhaps the player’s character never needs to literally speak because his intentions are conveyed representationally through the medium of the game, along with everyone else’s. And perhaps this could even help explain the mechanics of success and failure that I described in the last section: perhaps the player’s knowledge of her failures, imputed to her character, are part of the narrative explanation of how the party was able to progress so far successfully. To say as much would be to marry the form of the narrative as a video game with the content of the narrative in a novel, metaphysically and epistemically interesting way.

But of course, Elma doesn’t say that a real person was remotely controlling the player’s character. Instead, she reveals that she is actually an alien, whose real body has been stored in the Lifehold Core, controlling the mim who has followed the player’s character throughout the whole game. While certainly a plot twist, it offers no help in making sense of the game’s teaser metaphysics, nor of the ontological status of the player’s character. Thus the game leaves us with many questions, the promise of many answers, yet no actual answers.

 

II. Backgrounded Philosophical Issues 

The reader might think me unfair to Xeno X. After all, broadly speaking, I’m comparing it to Xenoblade Chronicles, and maybe it’s simply not trying to be the same kind of game as Xenoblade Chronicles. Well, the reader may be partly right: Xeno X does try to explore a number of issues that aren’t deeply addressed in Xenoblade Chronicles, and it’s a different game in many other ways, as well (Skells, mission-based storylines, etc.). But I contend that, even taking this into account, Xeno X fails as a cohesive narrative because its game design suggests to the player that the kind of metaphysical issues I described in Part I will be central to the game: and because the game is designed in this way, it’s hard to deeply explore any of the other philosophical issues the game raises.

Some of the putative philosophical issues in the game include: enslavement (the Ganglion race, representing the game’s main antagonists, has enslaved the Prone race), xenophobia (the various alien species are called “xenoforms” and much of the game focuses on dealing with inter-species difference), and the value of one’s body (humans are initially told that their real bodies were preserved in the Lifehold Core and that they are controlling their mims remotely from there; ultimately it is revealed that their real bodies were left on Earth and destroyed, and all that remains are digital representations of their consciousness, contained in a Lifehold database). All of these themes are certainly interesting on their own terms, and great stories have considered all of them in the past. So the problem with Xeno X isn’t that it lacks any interesting themes: the problem is that it directs the player’s attention away from these themes and towards its teaser metaphysics, leading to ultimate disappointment in the game’s philosophical salience.

Story Mission

The story in Xeno X is broken up into missions, each with certain “progress requirements” that the player must meet before she can begin the mission. Many of these requirements are “survey” requirements: you have to go out into Mira and survey a certain amount of land in a particular region before you can take on the mission in question. This means that you can’t go through the entire story of Xeno X continually because the game effectively requires you to stop in between missions and explore the world.

Although I do think that game’s shouldn’t require players to explore the game’s world extensively in order to complete the story (meaningful exploration in games ought to be left to the discretion of the player, or else it ceases to really be exploration and instead becomes a chore), that isn’t the problem I’m pointing out in Xeno X. The problem is far deeper than that: they’re effectively using the game’s world to tell a story that forces the player’s attention toward the game’s teaser metaphysics.

It’s no secret that video games can use the very world of the game as part of its narrative, in order to tell unique and interesting stories. Xenoblade Chronicles, again, is an excellent example of this: the entire world of the game is two monoliths, which, without getting into details, represent both the central conflict of the game and the themes on which the game is centered. The more I’ve looked, the more it seems to me that many of the most philosophically interesting games use their worlds as storytelling elements in this sort of way. Xeno X, on the other hand, is a clear example of how using a game’s world as part of its storytelling can handicap the game’s central themes and messages.

From as early on as Chapter 5, when the dialogue about the language puzzle happens, it’s clear that Mira works differently than the player and various characters were originally led to believe. Humans and Ganglion alike mysteriously ended up there with little-to-no explanation; everyone can understand one another without sharing the same language, etc. As Elma suggests in Chapter 5, and again at the end of the game, the overriding theme of this strangeness is “there’s something about this planet” that explains all of these bizarre phenomena. And there’s a very easy inference we can draw about a game that claims “there’s something about this planet” and then requires the player to explore that planet in order to progress through its story: by exploring the planet, the player will discover the mysterious aspect of the planet that explains its special dynamics. That is how the game’s very world, in conjunction with the requirement that the player explore that world, forces the player to focus on the game’s teaser metaphysics. And when it becomes evident at the end of the game that all the many hours of exploration did not shed any light on the true nature of the game’s world, the player, I contend, feels and ought to feel cheated: the game has effectively reneged on its promise to explain itself and its world.

In the absence of any such explanation, the required exploration feels contrived within the context of the game’s narrative; indeed, the best explanation I’ve found for all the required exploration built into the game’s story is that developers wanted to ensure that they could show off the entirety of their world to players. But the developer saying “look at this world I built” should not be an explanation for the most foundational elements of a game’s narrative dynamics. The result is that the game focuses on the philosophical issues on which it never follows through, and the philosophical issues that it does explore are left in the background. Indeed, discussions of race, enslavement, and the status of body all felt distracting to me because I was always waiting for the true nature of the world to be revealed–and it never was.

 

III. The Problem with a Promised Sequel

Maybe I’m being unfair to Xeno X because, judging by its ending, the game is quite obviously set up for a sequel. Elma discovers at the end that the database supposedly holding everyone’s consciousness is and has been in ruins (this is when she says again that “it’s something about this planet); after being mutated and destroyed by the party, an apparently regenerated Lao washed up on a beach. The game leaves so many questions unanswered, you might argue, because it intends to resolve them in a sequel (or DLC, or what have you). So perhaps we should excuse the game’s apparent incompleteness and focus on what it does, as opposed to what it promises that its sequel will do.

Screen Shot 2016-05-11 at 8.24.34 PM

I think that this sort of reasoning is a mistake. Speaking candidly, it seems to be increasingly more common nowadays for stories to be predicated upon sequels. The ending of Final Fantasy XIII-2 was nothing more than a cliffhanger leading into Lightning Returns; books-remade-as-movies are split from a single book into multiple movies (e.g., Harry Potter, The Hunger Games). This strikes me as a disingenuous way of getting consumers to spend more money just to get the second half of a story in which they’ve already invested. Worse, though, this kind of storytelling that builds a sequel into the first story simply doesn’t work, especially in video games–and there are deep theoretical reasons why it doesn’t work. I argued precisely this in my work about why Final Fantasy VII shouldn’t be remade as multiple games. I’m going to quote, rather lengthily, the relevant argument, since it also applies to the case of Xeno X. The argument starts with two basic claims about how video game narrative works.

 

Claim 1: The player of a video game is able to substantially, causally influence the events in that game’s universe, in virtue of her actions through the proxy of her avatar(s).

Claim 2: The causal influence of a player on a video game’s universe is essential to the narrative of that game.

(Note: when I say ‘video game’, I’m not talking about all video games, strictly speaking. I’m primarily concerned with analyzing story-based, single-player games.)

Intuitive though these claims may be, they are substantive claims nonetheless. I don’t expect to offer conclusive proofs of them as “principles of game narrative” within the scope of this paper, but I do hope to convince readers that they are two very plausible assumptions to make about a very broad set of video games. […]

Claim 1 just says that the player of a video game is able to shape its world in a significant way. At first glance, this claim might seem obvious—“This is a trivial fact,” one might say, “because the player literally controls someone in the game’s world (the avatar), and the avatar’s actions, derived from the player’s control, clearly influence the events of a game’s universe.”

But this response is too quick for two reasons. First, it’s not readily apparent that people in a universe really do have causal power over the universe—it could just be that the universe as a whole evolves over time, with its various parts only appearingto interact in a series of causes and effects. That’s very different from a universe in which people can genuinely modify the events of the universe through their own actions.

Second, even if we grant that game avatars do have causal power within their universe, it’s not obvious that this power is derived from the player. Even though the player is controlling the avatar, you might think that, within the context of the game’s narrative, the avatar’s actions can only be properly understood as choices that the avatar chose to make. It would be unwarranted, unnecessary, and bizarre to make sense of the plot of a Mario game by saying something like “Bowser kidnapped Peach, and so then the player took control of Mario in order to make Mario save Peach.” Rather, we just say, “Bowser kidnapped Peach, and so then Mario saved Peach.” Claim 1 suggests that we really have to analyze the story of a game partly in terms of the player’s causal influence, which seems like an odd thing to do.

But a closer examination suggests that Claim 1 survives these two criticisms intact. We can get around the first criticism by considering replays of a single video game: when we play through the same video game more than once and have the avatar make different choices, the events of the game evolve differently. This doesn’t require that the game have choice-determined endings, or anything like that: the mere fact that we can move an avatar either left, or right, or not at all, in the same moment of the game’s narrative during different playthroughs of the game, suggests that avatars really are agents within their universes—their actions aren’t wholly determined by the universe external to them.

What about the worry that the avatar’s causal power is enough, without invoking any implausible causal power on the part of the player? Though this point may be more controversial, I think we have fairly clear-cut cases (and less clear-cut cases) suggesting that we do have to analyze the stories of games partly in terms of player agency if we are to adequately explain and understand those stories. In many games, the player will be provided with information that her avatar could not reasonably know—perhaps something is revealed through a cutscene where the avatar is absent. This knowledge may well lead the player to make decisions in the game and direct her avatar in ways that could not be adequately explained by appealing to what the avatar believed and desired—instead, we need to appeal to what the player believed abut the world of the game, and how she acted on those beliefs through the avatar. We see this phenomenon even more clearly in replays of games: a player may well make different choices during her second playthrough of a game based on certain facts that were only revealed to her (and her avatar) very late in the narrative of her first playthrough—and so it would be even less plausible to account for these choices purely using the avatar’s mental life. We need a concept of the player acting as a causal agent through the avatar.

So I think that Claim 1 remains plausible. The player, acting through her avatar, can causally influence the events of a game’s universe. This influence is substantial in the sense that the player’s actions, by influencing the game’s universe, influence the whole causal chain of the universe thereafter—the actions aren’t somehow “negated” by some counterbalancing force. I think that we typically think of causal influence in this way (i.e. a single action has ripple effects through time and space), and so this is a fairly intuitive view of game narratives.

What about Claim 2? This claim says that the causal impact a player has on the world of a game is an essential part of that game’s narrative—without that same impact, the game wouldn’t have the same narrative. So it isn’t just enough for a player to be able to make a choice in a game’s universe that has nothing to do with the story: in some sense, the game’s story must be inextricable from the player’s choices. But this seems to be patently true. Witness first: in many games […] the events of a game’s narrative will not transpire at all unless the player chooses to engage the game and exercise her causal force. More to the point, the player’s avatar often constitutes the point-of-view through which the narrative is conveyed, and the avatar’s actions are crucial determinants of the events of that narrative. As a result, the narratives of games do seem deeply dependent on player choice.

Even in cases where game narratives seem to suggest that the game’s universe is ultimately indifferent to the actions of the player—e.g., Bloodborne—the narrative functions on this level as a denial of the impact that the player and avatars actions had. This narrative function is still irreducibly a claim about the player’s causal impact, and so it does not threaten Claim #2. The claim, when considered, seems both intuitive and sound.

If we accept these two claims—and I think that we should—then we are faced with an interesting consequence. The consequent claim is this: if a player’s causal impact extends over the entirety of a game’s universe, and that causal impact is essential to the narrative of a game, then it seems that the entirety of a game’s universe, insofar as a player causally impacts it, is essential to that game’s narrative.

Another way to put our newfound consequence is this: it’s not enough for a game’s narrative to essentially involve the choices of the player in a local, finite sense. Rather, game narratives of this sort involve the impact of a player’s choices on the game’s whole universe, however narrow or broad that universe may be specified. I think that this, too, tracks with our intuitions about how game narratives often work: oftentimes, a primary element of a game’s story is demonstrating how player’s choices have impacted the game’s world. Nor is this a feature of heavily “choice-based” games: perfectly linear games nonetheless reflect the impact that a player’s actions have on the game worlds, even though the player didn’t have much of a choice as to how to act. (Think of Shadow of the Colossus: linear though it may be, it’s hard to deny that the game’s narrative is heavily focused on the ways in which the player’s actions have permanently altered the game’s world.)”

 

If the argument I presented is right–and I think it is–then, just based on the storytelling dynamics of video games, you can’t present a video game narrative that “points beyond itself” to reference events in a future sequel. The totality of the game’s world is causally related to the actions of the player: if the nature of the player’s influence is rendered mysterious in the game’s narrative, promised to be explained as a sequel, then that game simply doesn’t work. Its narrative, metaphysics, world structure, and so forth, end up depending on a world alien to both the game itself and the purview of the player: and thus the game is render deeply, thoroughly incomplete. This, I submit, is precisely what we see in Xeno X.

 

As I said at the outset, I would very much like to be wrong about this argument: I had very high expectations for the Xeno X, and was saddened to finish it with such disappointment. The world that Monolith Soft built is expansive and intricate, but that alone doesn’t make for a compelling story. Indeed, in this case, by pointing to the game’s teaser metaphysics and unfulfilled narrative commitments, I think the world actually damages the story. At this point, I truly don’t know whether I would invest in the inevitable sequel.

 

[1] To my knowledge, she says it twice: once during the brief scene where the party discusses the bizarre language dynamics of Mira, and again when she discovers the annihilated Lifehold computer in the game’s post-credit scene.

Why 3 disks were acceptable for Final Fantasy VII, and why 3 games are not for its remake.

“The book I’m looking for […] is the one that gives the sense of the world after the end of the world, the sense that the world is the end of everything that there is in the world, that the only thing there is in the world is the end of the world.”[1]

 

I promised as part of With a Terrible Fate‘s one-year anniversary that I would present further analysis on Final Fantasy VII (I’ll be shortening the title to “FFVII” in this paper). With a remake of the game on its way and Cloud newly added to Super Smash Bros. 4, it’s clear that the title is far from outdated, despite being nearly twenty years old.  At the time I made this promise, I was hoping to further analyze the content of FFVII‘s story; however, I’ve come to believe that it’s currently more important to discuss Square Enix’s announcement that FFVII‘s remake will be released as “a multi-part series,” as opposed to as a single game.

Just as most people who play video games have an opinion on FFVII, most people who are following news on the remake have an opinion on this choice to develop it episodically. I want to write about this decision because I think I have two unusual perspectives to contribute to the topic. First, I ended up changing my mind on whether this was a prudent development choice. Second, I think this case actually provides crucial insight into the ontology of video game worlds, and how this ontology intersects with the way that video game narratives work. Accordingly, I’m going to first tell the story of the way my view on the issue changed over time, and then I’m going to present my argument for why I now believe the developers are probably making the wrong choice. If all goes well, I’ll say something interesting about the general form of video game stories along the way.

(Please note that, as always, spoilers abound.)

I. Wrestling with Narrative Form

I think it’s fair to say that the first, “pre-theoretic” response that many people have when developers announce substantial changes in remakes of beloved games is that the changes are a terrible mistake. Maybe, on some level, the response is both intuitive and defensible: “After all,” the fan might say, “the reason why the game was so well-received in the first place was because it worked. If the developer changes the game, they’ll ruin what made it special all along.” But of course, this isn’t always the case, for the game almost certainly wasn’t “perfect” (whatever that means) to begin with—and besides, the point of a remake is, in part, to make changes to the original game. So if we find ourselves with this initial intuition, we need to seek out reasons why the particular change in question might be detrimental to the particular game in question. As someone who did feel the initial rage at Square Enix’s announcement that the FFVII remake would be episodic in form, I set about seeking out such reasons.

I’ll confess that I don’t normally endorse episodically structured video games, but my hope was that there was a more principled reason behind my worries concerning FFVII. I decided that this reason was justified doubt in Square Enix: even though the studio is rightly renowned for some exceptional games (including FFVII), their track record in the past few years has been less than stellar. Case-in-point for our present concerns is the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy: Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy XIII-2, and Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. Though a comprehensive critique of the trilogy is well beyond the scope of this paper, one criticism that I have shared with many other gamers is that the three games, taken together, have very little semblance of any compelling, unified narrative. Whatever you may say about each of the three titles taken individually, it seems almost impossible to reconcile their stories, themes, and even characters with one another when you consider the games as a comprehensive trilogy. The saga of Lightning &co challenging the Fal’cie in XIII has little in principle to do with the saga of Noel, Caius, and Yeul, which dominates the narrative of XIII-2; and if anyone can offer me a reasoned argument as to how Lightning Returns has anything to do with XIII and XIII-2 besides reusing character names and some visual assets, I’d love to hear it.

FFXIII Lightning Serah Mog

Pictured: Lightning, Serah, and a Moogle that is somehow integral to the plot of the FFXIII trilogy.

As I said, a more thoroughgoing analysis of the FFXIII trilogy is outside the scope of this article.[2] Suffice it to say, I initially took the problems of that series as sufficient grounds to worry about Square Enix releasing FFVII’s remake as a trilogy. However, I ended up changing my mind when I reconsidered an obvious fact about FFVII: it was originally released as a set of three disks of game content.

When I had first considered FFVII, I hadn’t thought that its separation into three disks mattered. I assumed that the fact that the original game took place over three disks was nothing more than a technological limitation of its platform, the PlayStation 1: the game simply had more content than could fit on a single disk, but it was still just one game. But then I realized that this wasn’t quite fair to Square: technological limitations aside, they had actually done quite an impressive job of making the separation between the game’s three disks narratively meaningful. Disk #1 concludes with most of the most famously shocking and final deaths in the history of video game stories: the death of Aerith, a romantic interest of Cloud and the last of the magical Cetra race. Disk #2 ends with the player’s party killing Hojo, the creator and father of Sephiroth. Both of these moments pivotally influence the overall trajectory of the game: the death of Aerith hangs over Cloud and his friends for the rest of the game, and largely shapes the events of the game as well as Cloud’s growth; and the death of Hojo paves the way for the final confrontation with Sephiroth on Disk #3.

Sephiroth and Aerith

The famous moment at the end of Disk 1 when Sephiroth kills Aerith.

Perhaps because it was conceived as a single game rather than the three games of the XIII trilogy, FFVII masterfully divided itself into three narratively distinct, potent, interconnected segments on its three disks.[3] Once I contemplated this, I started to think that a three-game remake of FFVII could actually work quite well.(Because this seems like the most plausible defense of how to break the game up in a remake, I’m going to assume for the rest of the article that FFVII will be remade as three games, although Square Enix has only said, to my knowledge, that it will be a “multi-part” remake.) After all, if Square Enix expanded each of the original disks to fill an entire game, perhaps adding more content while keeping the overall narrative arc the same as in the original, then it seemed perfectly reasonable to suppose that the narrative progression through the three games would be just as cogent and well crafted as the narrative progression through the original FFVII’s three disks.

–well, “it seemed perfectly reasonable” at the time. I no longer believe that the three-disk success of the original FFVII justifies it being remade as a three-game series. Moreover, understanding the reason why FFVII shouldn’t be transposed into a trilogy sheds light on one of the many ways in which the player’s agency in videogame worlds directly influences the way videogame stories work.

II. Player Causality and Narrative Teleology

I’m going to argue that, because of the ways game worlds and game narratives function, it is inappropriate for FFVII to be remade as three standalone games. The argument depends on two more general claims about the dynamics of video game stories. Although I take both claims to be intuitively plausible, I’ll offer some arguments in further support of each of them.

 

Claim 1: The player of a video game is able to substantially, causally influence the events in that game’s universe, in virtue of her actions through the proxy of her avatar(s).

 

Claim 2: The causal influence of a player on a video game’s universe is essential to the narrative of that game.

 

(Note: when I say ‘video game’, I’m not talking about all video games, strictly speaking. I’m primarily concerned with analyzing story-based, single-player games.)

Intuitive though these claims may be, they are substantive claims nonetheless. I don’t expect to offer conclusive proofs of them as “principles of game narrative” within the scope of this paper, but I do hope to convince readers that they are two very plausible assumptions to make about a very broad set of video games. If I’m right, then FFVII falls into that very set, and that, I shall argue, explains why it ought not to be separated into three distinct games.

Claim 1 just says that the player of a video game is able to shape its world in a significant way. At first glance, this claim might seem obvious—“This is a trivial fact,” one might say, “because the player literally controls someone in the game’s world (the avatar), and the avatar’s actions, derived from the player’s control, clearly influence the events of a game’s universe.”

But this response is too quick for two reasons. First, it’s not readily apparent that people in a universe really do have causal power over the universe—it could just be that the universe as a whole evolves over time, with its various parts only appearing to interact in a series of causes and effects. That’s very different from a universe in which people can genuinely modify the events of the universe through their own actions.

Second, even if we grant that game avatars do have causal power within their universe, it’s not obvious that this power is derived from the player. Even though the player is controlling the avatar, you might think that, within the context of the game’s narrative, the avatar’s actions can only be properly understood as choices that the avatar chose to make. It would be unwarranted, unnecessary, and bizarre to make sense of the plot of a Mario game by saying something like “Bowser kidnapped Peach, and so then the player took control of Mario in order to make Mario save Peach.” Rather, we just say, “Bowser kidnapped Peach, and so then Mario saved Peach.” Claim 1 suggests that we really have to analyze the story of a game partly in terms of the player’s causal influence, which seems like an odd thing to do.

But a closer examination suggests that Claim 1 survives these two criticisms intact. We can get around the first criticism by considering replays of a single video game: when we play through the same video game more than once and have the avatar make different choices, the events of the game evolve differently. This doesn’t require that the game have choice-determined endings, or anything like that: the mere fact that we can move an avatar either left, or right, or not at all, in the same moment of the game’s narrative during different playthroughs of the game, suggests that avatars really are agents within their universes—their actions aren’t wholly determined by the universe external to them.

What about the worry that the avatar’s causal power is enough, without invoking any implausible causal power on the part of the player? Though this point may be more controversial, I think we have fairly clear-cut cases (and less clear-cut cases) suggesting that we do have to analyze the stories of games partly in terms of player agency if we are to adequately explain and understand those stories. In many games, the player will be provided with information that her avatar could not reasonably know—perhaps something is revealed through a cutscene where the avatar is absent. This knowledge may well lead the player to make decisions in the game and direct her avatar in ways that could not be adequately explained by appealing to what the avatar believed and desired—instead, we need to appeal to what the player believed abut the world of the game, and how she acted on those beliefs through the avatar. We see this phenomenon even more clearly in replays of games: a player may well make different choices during her second playthrough of a game based on certain facts that were only revealed to her (and her avatar) very late in the narrative of her first playthrough—and so it would be even less plausible to account for these choices purely using the avatar’s mental life. We need a concept of the player acting as a causal agent through the avatar.[4]

So I think that Claim 1 remains plausible. The player, acting through her avatar, can causally influence the events of a game’s universe. This influence is substantial in the sense that the player’s actions, by influencing the game’s universe, influence the whole causal chain of the universe thereafter—the actions aren’t somehow “negated” by some counterbalancing force. I think that we typically think of causal influence in this way (i.e. a single action has ripple effects through time and space), and so this is a fairly intuitive view of game narratives.

What about Claim 2? This claim says that the causal impact a player has on the world of a game is an essential part of that game’s narrative—without that same impact, the game wouldn’t have the same narrative. So it isn’t just enough for a player to be able to make a choice in a game’s universe that has nothing to do with the story: in some sense, the game’s story must be inextricable from the player’s choices. But this seems to be patently true. Witness first: in many games (FFVII is one of these), the events of a game’s narrative will not transpire at all unless the player chooses to engage the game and exercise her causal force. More to the point, the player’s avatar often constitutes the point-of-view through which the narrative is conveyed, and the avatar’s actions are crucial determinants of the events of that narrative.[5] As a result, the narratives of games do seem deeply dependent on player choice.

Even in cases where game narratives seem to suggest that the game’s universe is ultimately indifferent to the actions of the player—e.g., Bloodborne—the narrative functions on this level as a denial of the impact that the player and avatars actions had. This narrative function is still irreducibly a claim about the player’s causal impact, and so it does not threaten Claim #2. The claim, when considered, seems both intuitive and sound.

If we accept these two claims—and I think that we should—then we are faced with an interesting consequence. The consequent claim is this: if a player’s causal impact extends over the entirety of a game’s universe, and that causal impact is essential to the narrative of a game, then it seems that the entirety of a game’s universe, insofar as a player causally impacts it, is essential to that game’s narrative.

Another way to put our newfound consequence is this: it’s not enough for a game’s narrative to essentially involve the choices of the player in a local, finite sense. Rather, game narratives of this sort involve the impact of a player’s choices on the game’s whole universe, however narrow or broad that universe may be specified. I think that this, too, tracks with our intuitions about how game narratives often work: oftentimes, a primary element of a game’s story is demonstrating how player’s choices have impacted the game’s world. Nor is this a feature of heavily “choice-based” games: perfectly linear games nonetheless reflect the impact that a player’s actions have on the game worlds, even though the player didn’t have much of a choice as to how to act. (Think of Shadow of the Colossus: linear though it may be, it’s hard to deny that the game’s narrative is heavily focused on the ways in which the player’s actions have permanently altered the game’s world.)

More specifically, I think that the consequence we just drew provides the theoretical foundation for a very common narrative structure in role-playing games (especially JRPGs): the game concludes with the entire universe being metaphysically changed forever—essentially, one world ends and another begins. Oftentimes, a RPG narrative will culminate in a confrontation with some god-like figure; upon defeating him or her, the structure of the universe will be irrevocably changed (hopefully, for the better). So in a certain sense, the narratives of these games are intrinsically apocalyptic: they lead to the end of one world, and the start of something else. As Calvino beautifully writes in the quote I’ve taken as an epigraph for this paper, “the world is the end of everything that there is in the world, that the only thing there is in the world is the end of the world.” This is a natural way to marry the widespread impact of the player’s causal power with the narrative significance of that impact: tell a story in which that causal power actually brings about the end of the game’s universe in one way or another.

We can think of narratives that fit this quasi-apocalyptic structure has having a special kind of narrative teleology: that is, the entire world of the game is designed in such a way that the player’s causal influence drives the world towards its conclusion. That this is a feature of how the game is designed underscores the fact that this narrative teleology is not something that the player alone has the power to bring about—rather, game stories are made in such a way that the player’s power within the universe is made meaningful through this apocalyptic storytelling. I underscore this to make the point that this narrative teleology is by no means an essential feature of how video game stories work: it’s just one possible design choice that is especially intuitive and appealing as a means of respecting Claim 1, Claim 2, and their consequent—and I have argued that those three claims are much more generally applicable to video games as a storytelling medium.

Games that espouse this narrative teleology constitute an interesting type of narrative because they are so common in modern gaming and because they all respect Claim 1, Claim 2, and the consequent in (roughly) the same way. And such games are very common. Let me offer a brief selection of examples to give readers a sense of what I mean. (Again, and especially because this narrative teleology largely involves the ends of games, spoilers abound.) In Xenoblade Chronicles, the actions of the player’s party (and Shulk, in particular) culminate in the killing of a god, the destruction of the game’s universe, and the creation of a new universe. Dark Souls culminates in the player’s avatar killing Gwyn, who had used his own soul to perpetuate the world’s Age of Fire; thus, killing him threatens to end the Age of Fire, at which point the player must choose to either sacrifice her avatar to perpetuate the Age of Fire, or else let the fires die out and usher in the Age of Dark. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker leads to a fated battle between Link (the player’s avatar) and Ganondorf, which culminates in the ancient land of Hyrule being buried in the sea by the King of Hyrule—once Ganondorf is defeated and Hyrule lies buried, Link and his companion Tetra set out to find New Hyrule—a “new world,” for all intents and purposes. I could go on, but my hope is that those who play video games recognize the narrative I’m picking out as fairly standard for many modern video games.

Meteor

Holy and the Lifestream stopping Meteor.

What’s important for our current purposes is that FFVII also fits into this category of narrative teleology. On one level, the story of FFVII is a struggle to prevent the antagonist, Sephiroth, from radically reshaping the game’s universe by unleashing Meteor on the planet and subsequently merging with the planet’s energy (which would gather at the point of Meteor’s impact in order to heal the planet) to become a god. Ultimately, the player, controlling Cloud, is able to defeat Sephiroth—both preventing Sephiroth from becoming a god and preventing the full force of Meteor’s impact by releasing Holy—a spell that Aerith had cast, and that Sephiroth had been preventing from taking effect—which combines with

Midgar Healed

The ruins of Midgar, 500 years after Meteorfall.

the spiritual force of the plant’s Lifestream to stop Meteor. Meteor still damages the planet—it reduces most of the city of Midgar to rubble—but the game’s final scene, five hundred years after the party’s confrontation with Sephiroth, shows that the planet ultimately healed. Through the party’s actions, the world of the game is replaced with a different world: the world post-Meteorfall. The party’s (and player’s) struggle against Sephiroth permanently changes the structure of the game’s universe, which satisfies the analysis of narrative teleology that I have laid out.

 

What does this have to do with an argument against a multi-game release of a FFVII remake? Well, if the two claims and the consequent that I initially laid out all hold, and if FFVII really does respect those parameters of storytelling by invoking the conception of narrative teleology with which I have been working, then (I submit) the singular game of FFVII can’t be remade into three separate games while still representing essentially the same story.

My reasoning here is as follows. FFVII makes meaning out of the player’s actions by telling a narrative about a global cataclysm, the defeat of that cataclysm’s instigator, and the new universe that results from these two events. This follows from the consequent of Claims 1 and 2—i.e. the entirety of a game’s universe, insofar as a player causally impacts it, is essential to that game’s narrative—and the game’s narrative teleology—i.e. the entire world of the game is designed in such a way that the player’s causal influence drives the world towards its conclusion. In order for this structure to work, the causal force of the player’s actions must seamlessly persist over the entirety of the game’s narrative—otherwise, the player’s actions won’t have the sort of universal influence required for the sort of story that the game is telling. This seamlessness can easily be effected by separating a single game into three disks—the switching between disks is little more than the videogame equivalent of turning the page in a book, and, as I’ve already mentioned, these “page turns” are made even more meaningful in FFVII because they happen at pivotal points in the story. However, the seamlessness is lost when the game is divided into multiple games. This is so because of two reasons.

First, it’s implausible to suppose that the causal influence of a player extends across multiple games, such that the very same actions made by a player in one game directly influence the world of another game. In part, this is because the storytelling of any given game seems primarily designed to be limited to that game’s world and no others (something that I address further below); but it’s also because it is oxymoronic to design a game that both stands on its own and is a direct extension of a different game.

Mass Effect

Wait a minute…

The reader might be ready to object, “But what about the Mass Effect trilogy?” However, that trilogy is actually the perfect example of what I’m talking about. Despite its many virtues and the fact that it does try to continue a singular story across three games, no one would argue that the transition between the three games is as seamless as inserting the next disc in a single, multi-disc game. The later games do of course note certain aspects of a player’s playthrough of the earlier games, but this process does not preserve the entire state of the prior game’s universe. For example, much content, rather than being directly preserved between games, is “translated” in some way: if you start Mass Effect 2 using a Mass-Effect-1 character that was between level 1 and 49, then you begin Mass Effect 2 at level 2, with 20,000 credits, and 2,500 of each resource. This is not the sort of literally direct continuation of story that’s required to preserve all the effects of player actions throughout the universe of a narrative. But it’s of course perfectly reasonable that Mass Effect is designed this way: after all, even though the trilogy is meant to convey a single narrative, each game is also a stand-alone title, which is precisely my point: you can’t release a stand-alone game and say that it is literally just an additional part of an existing game. It needs to be playable on its own terms. This is why, for example, Mass Effect 2 (prior to the Mass Effect Trilogy collection) had to include Mass Effect: Genesis: this was an interactive comic allowing the player to make the principal choices that Mass Effect 2 was designed to carry over from Mass Effect 1. In order for Mass Effect 2 to be its own game, it needed to be playable without necessarily presupposing that the player had played the original Mass Effect—and this is what Mass Effect: Genesis accomplished. This is wildly different from a multi-disk game, which of course presupposes on each later disk that the player has played the prior disks. In fact, on multi-disk games like FFVII, there’s no way (without hacking the game or something like that) to play the later disks without playing through the earlier disks sequentially and thereby reaching the later disc. “Skipping” Disk 1 and playing Disk 2 in the way that one could ostensibly “skip” the original Mass Effect and play Mass Effect 2 (though that isn’t recommended) isn’t really possible within the constraints of the narrative.

The second reason why the narrative seamlessness needed for a game like FFVII can’t be achieved through multiple games is that each individual game needs its own narrative responding to the constraints of Claim 1, Claim 2, and their consequent, which opposes the possibility for multiple games to work together as mere components of a single, larger game narrative. If I am right and the entirety of a game’s universe, insofar as the player causally impacts it, is essential to the game’s narrative, then video games will be aimed (at least partly) towards making their own universes meaningful. In order for a game to do this while retaining a sense of cohesion in its narrative, the game’s story must address the totality of its universe on its own terms—that is to say, the game’s narrative must not stretch beyond its own universe. For to do otherwise would be to make a game whose narrative focuses on a universe other than the game itself, and it’s not obvious why or how a narrative could address something other than its own universe.

If we accept this argument, then it looks as if video games really do need to each be concerned with their own particular world. I think that the landscape of modern video games reinforces the truth of this observation: even in series of games, each member of the series is directly concerned with its own world—other members of the series are only relevant insofar as their events relate to the world of the particular game in consideration. While Twilight Princess and Ocarina of Time both nominally take place in Hyrule, the narrative of Twilight Princess is not concerned with Hyrule as conceived in Ocarina of Time—and indeed, Ganondorf only becomes relevant once he appears in the world of Twilight Princess, irrespective of his presence in Ocarina of Time. And returning to the example of FFXIII, I actually think the trilogy does quite well with demonstrating the need for each game to be principally concerned with its own world: the worlds of FFXIII, FFXIII-2, and Lightning Returns are very different from one another. In fact, I think this is part of why the trilogy, when taken as a single narrative, fails to be compelling: each entry is so different from one another in virtue of the very different worlds that it feels confusing and disingenuous when the games lead us to believe that these are really the same characters who exist across the three games. The narrative arcs of the three games are so distinct that attempts to tie them together fail, which further demonstrates the tension between developing independent games and trying to make them part of a single narrative.

Lightning posing as Cloud

Pictured: the main character of Lightning Returns trying to distract you from the game by pretending to be Cloud.

My hope is that it is now evident why remaking FFVII into three games is not at all similar to the original game being split across three disks. When we stop to consider just what world-building and player agency mean in the context of video game narratives, we realize that it fundamentally doesn’t make sense to separate one game into three. I should note, however, one other possibility raised by previously Featured Author Dan Hughes: Square Enix could conceivably take a broader swath of the FFVII oeuvre—say, Crisis Core, FFVII, and Advent Children—and remake that collection of material as a trilogy. I don’t see any problem in principle with such an approach. And of course, if the remake ends up simply being some sort of reimagining or retelling of the FFVII series, then such a new story could have exciting. However, if the goal, as has been suggested, is to remake just FFVII‘s narrative as a trilogy of games, we have a problem—and I worry for the future of a true classic in the pantheon of gaming, when it seems as if a remake could turn that classic into a lesson in the limits and constraints on game narrative.

Cloud Strife

[1] Ludmilla in If on a winter’s night a traveler, by Italo Calvino, Chapter Ten.

[2] I actually do think that XIII-2, in particular, has a lot of redeeming features as a standalone narrative—but that’s a story for another time.

[3] In fact, further evidence for the fact that FFVII’s three-disk split only worked so well because it was conceived as a single game can be found by considering the FFVII oeuvre collectively. FFVII’s overarching story—spanning other games (Dirge of Cerberus; Crisis Core; Before Crisis), a movie (Advent Children), an OVA (Last Order), and a novella (On the Way to a Smile)—is famously intricate and confounding to try to grasp in its entirety.

[4] In certain “less clear-cut cases,” I think that you need to stipulate the player as a causal force in the game’s universe in order to make sense of the game’s narrative at all. I won’t belabor the point here, but you can see examples of this in my analyses of Majora’s Mask, Xenoblade, and BioShock Infinite.

[5] I discuss this determinacy relation in a paper on Dishonored.

Beyond the Panel’s Frame: The Transformation of Comics into Video Games

 

by Laila Carter, Featured Author.

Having read comics and played video games throughout my life, I have noticed that the two media rely on visual interaction in a similar way. Comics let the eye travel and let readers explore settings within the panels, giving readers a sense of direction and journey that words alone cannot. Artists and writers create most of the visual aspects of the story’s world, so the reader’s job is to traverse pages and discover the content between the pages. Video games take the exploration of comics a step further: once players figure out the main goals of the narrative, they can choose to follow the designed path, or stray off of it. The game does not confine a player like a comic confines its reader, who has to follow specific panels depicting specific places: players go where they want, even if it is the wrong way. Now, the more linear a game is, the less this is true, so this applies specifically for explorative video games: games where more than one path is available, games that give players little guidance on how to complete the game, and games where the choices a player makes determines the ending a player gets. The evolution from comics – panels with limited view with a set narrative  – to games – moveable panels with a greater player interaction- follows a simple rule: the more a comic allows readers narrative exploration and deviates from limited visual framing, the more the medium becomes like a game, allowing player interaction and control over certain characters’ actions.

To see this transformation, we must first discuss print comics to understand both framing and interactive narration.

The frame of a comic contains a scene or part of an action. It can be a small box with black outlining that isolates certain moments in time, or it can be an entire two-page spread. The frame can show either an entire landscape that stretches on for miles, or it can show the smallest tear falling from an eye. In either instance, the artist cannot fit an entire world within the limits to the frame, so it is up to the reader to create the rest of the world in their imagination. 

For example, in the beginning of Fabien and Kerascoet Vehlmann’s Beautiful Darkness, the characters all escape a weird, oozing liquid that floods their home; small panels show fragments of action, of people, and of the environment. Throughout the dramatic scene, the frame zooms in on the action, showing little of the claustrophobic space from which the characters escape. Because of the limited frame, readers can only guess where the characters are, envisioning something akin to a cavern or tunnel. Turning the page reveals one page-sized panel depicting the decaying and leaking environment: a young, human girl’s corpse (Vehlmann, 6-8). Here, the panel opens up, and the artist finally welcomes the reader to examine the comic in a bit more depth, with the shocking image consuming the page. The artist allows readers to see the entire image of a child’s corpse and thus wonder what the characters were doing inside the body in the first place.

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 9.37.31 PM

Fabien and Kerascoet Vehlmann’s Beautiful Darkness, p. 5-6.

For print comics, the frame’ s immovable structure hides certain details from the readers, creating narrative suspense – not knowing where the characters are or the nature of the decaying environment – and reveals specific scenes and action only when the artist wants the readers to see them. The narrative of the comic is set: no reader is going to change what characters do or how they reach their goals. The frame then is the device that allows readers to “explore” the story by guessing what lies beyond the frame, and by figuring out the secrets the artist does not want the readers to know quite yet. Readers can only know the truth and entire narrative, though, if the artist allows it. Framing is the artist’s choice of perspective within a border. How did the artist picture this scene with a limited scope, and why? Usually, the answer to “why” is because the artist wants to create narrative suspense, as seen in Beautiful Darkness. As Scott McCloud states in his book Understanding Comics, “comics can be maddeningly vague about what it shows us. By showing little or nothing of a given scene, and offering only clues to the reader, the artist can trigger any number of images in the reader’s imagination” (McCloud, 86). Readers piece together the images the artist gives us and create the actions that were not shown, the settings that were not detailed, and all the images that potentially make up the rest of the comic’s world. If the reader sees everything that happens in a scene at the very beginning, then the thrill of reading the story disappears. There is no mystery to sustain the reader’s curiosity, and the comic becomes dull. Framing subtly keeps the reader on edge, not showing every detail of situations and thus letting the reader’s imagination create everything else that extends far beyond the frame’s border.

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 9.40.29 PM

McCloud, Understanding Comics, p. 68. Be sure to check out this book for comic theory. I’ll be using his arguments in my later pieces as well.

If framing allows readers to expand on a given world, interactive narration lets readers go one step further. Interactive narration is when the artist lets the readers discover the story of their own. The story itself is set, and the readers cannot change what happens or how events occur; however, readers can move panels around, finding certain paths in the story until it leads to the conclusion, the ending the artists wants you to see. Comics in a web-based format provide this kind of reader interaction. “Click and Drag,” by Randall Munroe of XKCD fame, seems like short strip comic, consisting only of four panels. At first, the fourth panel seems lackluster for a conclusion, only depicting a scene of some rocks and a tree. In reality, through, the fourth panel extends into a grand world, but the frame only shows a small part of it. The reader must use the mouse to literally “click and drag” the panel around to see the entire world, one much grander and fuller of life than expected. Readers may scroll to the corners of the world, to the airy heights, or to the depths below the surface to see the full extent of the characters’ world, with the sad and the funny and the wonderful all in one ginormous panel. The only way this sprawling comic could have worked is on the web: if the author printed out the giant panel and gave it to people, it would not have the same effect, for the comic would not give the reader any sense of journey. By seeing the entire picture, the reader becomes a god, seeing everything, and cannot travel across the landscape as a normal adventurer. In this way, the moveable frame becomes a telescope, allowing readers to see only a small image of the much bigger picture. In print comics, the frame can seem like a limited view because it hides the rest of the world from readers (and then they have to use their imagination to create the rest of the picture), but, in an interactive setting such as the web, the frame becomes a tool to start a journey. A frame that shows only a small segment of the world forces readers to explore the rest, to choose a direction in which they will go, and to choose how fast or slow they will “click and drag” through the entire landscape. Many other web-based comics use animation and user interaction to create vast landscapes and complex narratives, pulling the reader even deeper into their worlds. The interactive frames in such comics allow readers to choose their own path and explore a world that they must discover on their own, one drag at a time.

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 9.39.30 PM

Randall Munroe’s “Click and Drag.” Dragging the final panel with one’s cursor reveals the enormity of the world.

 

In both print and interactive comics, the frame usually depicts a 2D realm of images; a giant leap in the comic medium occurs when panels start moving in 3D space and the reader can control where the frame goes in such a space. This interactive framing happens in most Point-and-Click games. For example, in Hood: Episode 3, a game by the creator Hyptosis, the player starts inside a village, facing some of the locals. You can either talk to them or click the arrows leading deeper into the woods. Each click of the arrow takes you to a new scene, a new landscape, a new frame – the artist’s choice of  perspective for a scene. Each jump to a frame indicates a player’s movement to the next area, making the game play like a succession of comic panels. Because the frames are part of an interactive medium, artists draw each scene with detailed environments, hiding clues in garbage piles or kitchen cabinets for the player to pillage. Some things can be picked up, such as shovel, and others objects indicate a riddle you must solve. At one point in the game, you find a tree with weird, moveable markings. It is a puzzle, and you know you must solve it in order to progress; but (presumably) you have no idea how to do this, so it is up to you to go back and find the answer, which you will discover by talking to a creature living in the woods (Hyptosis). In most Point-and-Click games, each time you click the arrows that move you to the next area, you discover a new frame to explore like interactive comics. But unlike the latter, the story does not continue unless the player acts: the game does not automatically give the next set of panels, nor is there only one way for a player to read the story. Players can get stuck in one panel, become lost in the world, or head in the wrong direction.

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Hyptosis’ Hood: Episode 3.

Usually, Point-and-Click games follow one character, the main character whom the player controls, as he or she travels through a world and embarks on a grand quest. Most Point-and-Click games (as the name implies) relies on the player scanning the environment and clicking for any object, person, or path that could be useful, such as a hidden door, a bottle to carry the special water needed to grow a beanstalk, or a code carved into the tree that stands in the left corner of the screen. Point-and-Click games are all about searching for clues in order to progress; the games are essentially one giant puzzle that players have to solve, piecing together certain items and connecting plot points in order to complete the adventure. Some games function like Hood, where the player sees the world in first person, but in other games the player can see the character in third person. The transition of environments is always the same, though: players move from scene to scene exactly as they do in comics – with a frame by frame jump of perspective. The difference between comics and Point-and-Click games is that, in the latter, the player determines which frames to travel to. Point-and-Click games, then, are movable comic panels that the player visit several times and choose to be in; players discover the narrative and the adventure at their own pace.

While comics have a set narrative that readers cannot alter in any way, games allow players to roam around the environment and make the character act, if they choose to do so. Players can change certain elements of the story, such as what the player had when they arrived at a specific point in the game, or whether the character completed a side mission (a part of the game not relevant to the main plot).  Some games even forgo most of the interactive landscape and focus on the interactive storytelling, leaving all of the main character’s choices – dialogue, quick decisions, moral obligations – in players’ hands (see A Wolf Among Us or The Walking Dead, both by Telltale Games – and both were originally comics).  Some games, like side scrollers, coincide closer with comics because there is only one way to go: left to right. Other games, like open world games, greatly deviate from comics by providing a seemingly endless amount of paths to take. In the same sense, some comics start to act like games when they provide multiple ways for the story to end, giving readers paths of panels. These types of comics can also allow players to complete certain tasks that a character must do, such as spinning a cog wheel by spinning the mouse. Showing how comics can gradually convert into video games and vice versa shows how much one medium can transform into another and how the two mediums feed off of each other in terms of narrative, landscape, and reader/player interaction.

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Daniel Goodbrey, “Never Shoot the Chronopaths” (check it out here). In the interactive comic, you are given three paths, or “strips,” to read, but all three converge into a jumbled impact toward the end. Afterwards, the paths branch out again; so, you have to read the comic more than once.

In future articles, I plan to analyze specific video games in their relation to comics, touching upon ideas such as framing, narrative interaction, and game design (how a player interacts and completes the story) in relation to visual design (how the player or reader sees the story) in both comics and game. I will compare video games to other interactive comics (or even print comics) to demonstrate the profound relationship the two mediums have and why it is important to cherish both. I will examine other Point-and-Click games (Deponia, Machinarium, Fran Bow), RPGs with turn-based combat (Undertale), Telltale Games’ franchises as, and, ultimately, longer console games (Okami, Batman Arkham Asylum).

Laila Carter is a featured author at With a Terrible Fate. Check out her bio to learn more.

“What Is It Like to Be a Gamer?” A speech on the value of video games.

Regular visitors of With a Terrible Fate may recall that, last February, I delivered a speech as part of the Lowell House Speech Series at Harvard University. In it, I discussed my decision to pursue the study of video game philosophy instead of medicine. This year, on 1.26.16, I delivered another speech as part of that same Speech Series; in it, I discuss why video games are worth playing and studying at any age.

I offer the transcript below, in full:

What are video games good for? I study the stories of video games, so I worry about that question a lot. I want to share one way I think the special stories of video games, and the way we engage them, teach gamers to learn from one another.

We often try to communicate with one another by referencing our experiences. We argue about aspects of society that offend us; we talk about aspects of our identities that other people lack direct knowledge of – if you are a woman and feel that your employer treats female employees worse than men, you might want me to understand what that is like, although I am a man. We want to convey to others what it is like to be us – but how can we, when others have no way of standing in our shoes?

Video games can help us share who we are. Let me explain why.

When I was in high school, I played a little-known video game called “Nier.” The game tells the story of a man, Nier, who will stop at nothing to save his daughter, Yonah, from a deadly plague. The emotional depth and complexity of this game were what first motivated me to study and analyze video games in school. If you haven’t yet, you owe it to yourself to play it some day.

At the same time that I dove into analyzing Nier, I also felt compelled to share the game with two of my closest high school friends, Dan and Nate. Just as I wanted everyone I knew to read The Catcher in the Rye after I first encountered the classic in middle school, I now wanted Dan and Nate to experience this game. One after the other, I passed my copy of the game along to Dan and then Nate in the hall between classes.

But when I spoke with them both after they handed the game back to me, I discovered something I hadn’t expected: although they had played the same game as I had, we each made different choices in the game—something that couldn’t have happened if we’d all seen the same movie or read the same book. I had focused on exploring the secrets of the game’s world, digging through virtual basements for classified government records to learn what had caused the apocalypse. Dan focused instead on exploring the relationship between Nier—the player’s character—and Yonah. He completed quests collecting food for Yonah, and she surprised him by making him a cake to thank him. Nate found the desolate wasteland of the game depressing, so he completed it once and moved on.

As I discussed Nier with my friends over lunches and in between classes, I learned about my friends and myself through the choices that we each made. We talked about how a single story prompted us to act differently from one another, and we accounted for our actions. Through these conversations, I learned how much Dan valued the intimacy fathers share with their daughters; I learned that Nate wanted to be excited about the environments of video game worlds, so that he could jump at the opportunity to explore them. Through these conversations, I began to articulate to my friends my desire to unravel mysteries.

Video games allow players to share their experiences with one another by grounding them in a common story. Games invite players to enter a single world, chart their own course through it, and compare their journeys with their friends. By giving us a special position in an artistic world, our choices become part of the work of art—something we can discuss and make meaning out of with others.

When I think about video games’ practical value, I always reflect on the degree to which they can unify people and allow them to understand and share their way of being. This invitation to share ourselves with others is the hidden utility of the engaging, epic stories waiting in the many worlds of video games.

But be warned, it can take a lot of work to get to know someone else—so you may just need to spend many hours playing video games.

Why Booker’s Name is a Red Herring in Understanding BioShock Infinite

When I first played BioShock Infinite, I appreciated the game, but I refrained from analyzing it because it seemed like a game already buried in analyses and discussion. After all, one can hardly finish the game without wanting to analyze it in one way or another. Now, however, I want to offer readers my own discussion of the game, offering an argument that, to my knowledge, hasn’t been advanced elsewhere yet. I want to show you why you, the player, are a crucial element to understanding the narrative of the game, and why your avatar’s name leads you astray from this understanding. Ultimately, I hope to convince you that this makes BioShock Infinite one of the most cohesive and well-crafted works of modern science fiction.

(Be warned: a “spoiler alert” is in effect for the duration of this analysis. The argument probably won’t make much sense unless you’ve played the entire game, anyway.)

In order to do the game justice in this analysis, we’re going to have to start by putting two theories of quantum mechanics on the table: one called the ‘Copenhagen’ interpretation of quantum mechanics, and another called ‘Many-Worlds’ quantum mechanics. If you’re already familiar with these theories, then feel free to skip the first two sections of the article.

 

A Review of Quantum Mechanics

The Double-Slit Experiment

A huge amount of today’s science fiction tosses around terms like ‘quantum physics’, ‘multiverse theory’, and so on. My contention is that BioShock Infinite succeeds in using actual quantum mechanical theory in developing an impactful and innovative narrative. To see why, we need to explore the bizarre ways in which small particles behave, and how people have tried to make sense of this behavior.[1]

Let’s suppose that we’re shooting small particles—say, electrons—from some device in the direction of a wall. Between the shooting device and the wall is another wall, with two slits in it, so that electrons can only hit the back wall by passing through one of the two slits. The dimensions of the experimental setup are such that there is a chance of the shooting device aiming the electron through either one of the slits, and the back wall has a way of recording precisely where electrons collide with it. Unsurprisingly, this is known as “the double-slit experiment.”[2]

If the electrons behaved like small particles—i.e. small discrete packets of matter, like tiny bullets fired from a gun—then we would expect to observe two discrete bands on back wall, each one corresponding with electrons that went passed through one of the slits on a straight path and collided with the back wall.

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Electrons are fired from a device on the left. Our intuition tells us that each electron will pass through either one slit or the other, resulting in two lines on the back wall (pictured on the right).

But when we run the experiment and then examine the back wall, we don’t see two discrete bands: instead, we see a variety of symmetrical bands, consistent with the idea that electrons are behaving like waves instead of particles: the wave-like electron passes through both slits, interferes with itself, and leaves the distinctive pattern on the back wall.[3] (If you think of each electron like a ripple in a pond, emanating from the shooting device, then you’ll have the right idea as to what this behavior is like.)

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Electrons, illustrated as horizontal waves, pass from the left through both slits at once, interfere with themselves, and generate a pattern of lines on the back wall (pictured right).

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Electrons illustrated as particles, but behaving as waves, as pictured above. You can see here the difference between the actual pattern generated on the back wall and the expected pattern from the first illustration.

So it seems as if these small particles behave more like waves than they do like particles. And in fact, it turns out that we have good empirical reason to believe that the physical properties of these particles can be completely described by functions describing waves—i.e. by ‘wave functions’. This in and of itself is already bizarre: how can a single electron somehow pass through both slits, like a wave? But when we further investigate the phenomenon, things get even more bizarre.

It seems as if a single electron should only be able to pass through one of the two slits at most. So, we could investigate this strange wave-like behavior by placing a detector by the slits, measuring which electrons pass through which slit. And now things get truly strange: when we add a detector in this way, suddenly the electrons do behave like little bullets. The wave-like interference patterns disappear from the back wall, and we see two discrete bands instead.

The baffling conclusion drawn from experiments like this is that small particles behave like waves unless we are able to measure their position, in which case they behave like particles. Particles are in a “superposition” of being in many positions simultaneously (this is the wave-like behavior), until we measure them: then, they appear to determinately be in just one position (in our example, the position of going through one slit or the other)—and it turns out that quantum mechanics can give us extremely accurate probabilities describing how likely it is that we will find a given particle a particular position.[4]

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Adding a detector to the experimental setup (labeled “Recorder” in the illustration) yields the experimental results that we expected in the first place (i.e. the results in the first illustration).

How can we make sense of this? It seems like science fiction to say that measuring particles can fundamentally change how they behave—and yet this seems to be how the world really works. And even then, there is another problem: how can we make sense of the fact that we don’t observe the strange dynamics of the double-slit experiment in everyday life? As far as we know, the macroscopic physical world is made up of a (very) large number of microscopic particles, so why doesn’t the behavior of electrons lead to, say, people behaving like waves until someone else looks at them?

There is a variety of ways to resolve these questions. As I said at the outset, we will be concerned with the Copenhagen and Many-Worlds interpretations of quantum mechanics, which answer the questions at hand in different ways. To understand how these interpretations relate to one another, it will be useful to reframe the exact problem that they aim to solve.

 

The Measurement Problem and Two Potential Solutions

The above quantum mechanical behavior gives us good empirical reasons to believe the following three claims, which cannot all be true at once.[5]

  1. The physical properties of systems are completely described by their corresponding wave function.
  2. Wave functions always behave like waves.[6]
  3. We always see determinate outcomes when measuring physical systems—i.e., when we measure particles, the particles are in a single position, not wave-like superpositions.[7]

The problem that these empirically plausible three claims cannot all be true is called ‘the measurement problem’. If physical systems are all and only waves, then it makes no sense that that they sometimes act like particles instead of waves.

Various interpretations of quantum mechanics aim to resolve the measurement problem by rejecting the truth of one of the above three claims. I will explain, roughly, how the Copenhagen interpretation rejects Claim #2, and how Many-Worlds rejects Claim #3.

The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is what most textbooks endorse. It is the view that wave functions sometimes don’t behave like waves—i.e. Claim #2 is not true. Instead, whenever we measure a physical system, its wave function undergoes a “collapse,” resolving its bizarre wave-like superpositions into determinate, singular positions—and which positions the system ends up in are determined probabilistically. So, in the double-slit experiment, when we add the detector to the experiment, there is a 50% probability that a given electron will “collapse” to passing through Slit #1, and a 50% probability that the electron will collapse to passing through Slit #2. And according to Copenhagen, that is all we can say: there is no experimental data available to explain anything about why collapse is something that happens.

Many-Worlds, in contrast, rejects the notion that particles stop behaving like waves when we measure them—i.e. it rejects Claim #3. Instead, it says, we also start behaving like waves when we measure the system. Return to the double-slit experiment. There are two possible definite outcomes to the experiment: either the electron in question passes through Slit #1, or it passes through Slit #2. According to Many-Worlds, when we measure the particle, the particle does not “collapse.” Instead, reality “splits” into two realities: one in which we observe the electron passing through Slit #1, and one in which we observe it passing through Slit #2. Physical systems, on this view, never stop acting like waves: reality just splits at every measurement event, such that every possible outcome is represented in some reality. We never notice this weird wave-nature of the world because we only ever experience one branch of reality at a time.[8] The whole universe, in other words, is wave-like. It is crucial to note that all of these realities are discrete from one another, and it is theoretically impossible for them to ever overlap—if this were not the case, then the theory could not get off the ground in the first place.

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We can understand Copenhagen graphically by supposing that the universe really works the way it appears to in the double-slit experiment: measurement causes wave functions to collapse, yielding singular determinate outcomes.

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We can represent Many-Worlds graphically, in contrast, by imagining the entire universe as the wave-model of the double-slit experiment. The universe’s evolving wave function leads to a proliferation of realities at each measurement event.

We now have a rough idea of two theories explaining the bizarre quantum behavior of the universe. It is time to see how these theories relate to BioShock Infinite.

 

Booker DeWitt as a Red Herring

With an understanding of Copenhagen and Many-Worlds in hand, I want to show you why Booker, the avatar and main character of BioShock Infinite, is a red herring in understanding the dynamics of the game’s narrative. I will then show what we gain by moving beyond this red herring and understanding the player as crucial to the game’s narrative.

One thing I neglected to mention above was the history of Many-Worlds as a theory. In 1957, Hugh Everett developed the foundational work that made it possible; however, Many-Worlds itself did not come along until another theorist interpreted Everett’s work as describing a multiplicity of realities. That man’s name was Bryce DeWitt.

Elizabeth Opening a Tear

When you’re dropped into a game whose narrative centers on multiple realities, and your avatar is named Booker DeWitt, it should now seem obvious that there’s homage to Many-Worlds at work. I’m nowhere near the first to notice this, to say nothing of the fact that BioShock creator Ken Levine has confirmed it in interviews. So I initially imagined that BioShock Infinite was just very smart, creative science fiction: it’s a period piece in the sense that everything, including the intellectual history, is set in 1912 (this was when the first discoveries in quantum mechanics were happening), and it explores what the universe would be like if Many-Worlds were true and various realities could somehow bleed together.

Of course, there’s a problem with this understanding of the game: as I noted above, it must be the case that each and every reality is non-overlapping in order for Many-Worlds to get off the ground in the first place. If the realities could interact, then the theory could not be tractable at all. So if we look at BioShock Infinite in this way, then we have to accept that its science fiction, period-piece accurate though it may be, is much more fiction than science—and it becomes obvious why it is so difficult to make sense of sequences of events and causation between different realities. I would go so far as to say that the game, in this context, ends up being more fantasy than science fiction.

However, I realized that there’s another way to view the dynamics of the game’s science that makes its science fiction much more science than fiction—it just requires moving beyond Booker’s last name, and recognizing the role of the player in the game’s story.

 

Collapse in Video Games

Regulars to With a Terrible Fate will be familiar with my argument that we often need to recognize the player of a video game as an element of the game’s narrative in order to adequately understand the game. I originally called this thesis the ‘Majoran Critique’ because I first discussed it in my analyses of Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask; I later argued that we also need this thesis to make sense of Xenoblade Chronicles, because the player’s agency is the only way to make sense of the main character killing an omniscient god. Once we apply this thesis to BioShock Infinite, we can see that the Copenhagen interpretation is actually just as relevant to the game as Many-Worlds is—and this reformulation of the game renders it one of the most cohesive and well-crafted works of modern science fiction.

What would happen to the universe if someone observed it from the outside? In our own world, from a scientific perspective, this is practically a nonsense question: if we conceive of the universe as all time and space, then it doesn’t seem as if anything can be meaningfully “outside” of it. But we can easily explore this sort of question in video games, because video games present discrete worlds and universes—the player looks on these worlds and engages them from the outside. The world of a game is confined to a computer system, which the player can engage and influence. And so they present an opportunity to talk meaningfully about someone observing a universe.

If we think of the player as an observer of the universe of a video game, then we can think of the video game’s universe as analogous to the double-slit experiment: the contents of the universe are in superposition of many different outcomes until the player engages the game, thereby “measuring” the system. And when measurement happens, we have the same choice of theories by which to make sense of what happens.

I think that a standard Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is especially useful for making sense of video games as a medium in this regard. This is a useful interpretation to choose because it reflects how players actually engage video games. Prior to player input, the worlds of video games are mere potentialities, a variety of disparate outcomes encoded by the game’s program; but when the player engages the game “from the outside,” a single, determinate series of events emerges as output, which the player observes as the game’s narrative. Out of superposed potentials, one coherent world emerges—a phenomenon very similar to collapse. Of course, there are obvious differences between this phenomenon and collapse—in particular, it is not clear how probabilities figure into the engagement of players with video games—but for aesthetic purposes, this is sufficient to make video games a uniquely well-suited medium for quantum-mechanical science fiction. This, we will see, is the grounding for why BioShock Infinite is a remarkable work of art.

 

Understanding BioShock Infinite as a Metaphor for Collapse

BioShock Infinite’s story is difficult to understand because, as Ken Levine himself has noted in an interview with Forbes, “Our brains are not really designed to understand [quantum mechanics], and even having gone through a game where I’ve researched this […] it’s still something that challenges your brain in a way that few scientific notions can.” The story is derived from a conflict between Booker DeWitt and Zachary Hale Comstock, two different versions of Booker derived from whether or not Booker chose to be baptized in a quest for redemption for his actions at The Battle of Wounded Knee; using technology that allows for communication and travel between realities (developed by the Luteces), various versions of Comstock seek world domination and kidnap the daughters of various Bookers to serve as their heirs (Comstocks are sterile due to overuse of reality-traversing technologies). Ultimately, the only way for the struggle across infinite realities to end is for Booker to be annihilated at the moment of his choice to be baptized or not: Elizabeth, his/Comstock’s daughter with the capacity to traverse realities, drowns him in the baptismal waters, effectively preventing him from bifurcating into infinite Bookers and infinite Comstocks. After Booker drowns and the game’s credits roll, a scene plays of Booker waking up in his office in 1893, calling out to Anna (his daughter), and walking into a room with a crib before the screen fades to black.

Elizabeth and the Sea of Doors

There are myriad problems with understanding the whole of this narrative in a purely Many-Worlds context. First, as I mentioned earlier, the very notion of disjunctive realities existing as a result of quantum mechanics can only get off the ground if those realities never overlap or intersect. But even if we allow for communication between realities, narrative issues remain. How can we make sense of the passage of time and events within a single reality if they are coextensive with time and events from another reality? And, similarly, how are we to make sense of causation in this context? It is hard to make sense of questions such as these, let alone answer them, because it is not obvious how to parse time-dependent claims when they involve the fundamental constituents of reality being modified. And this is to say nothing of the fact that, if Elizabeth was successful at the end of the game and truly annihilated Booker at the moment of potential baptism, then the entirety of the game narrative that the player just completed would never have existed. This is not to say it would have simply been “just a dream,” or an illusion—it literally would never have obtained within the game’s universe, by stipulation of the game itself. To paraphrase Levine, our brains are not designed to think about things in this way.

Booker, Comstock, and Anna

You might object that I am being obtuse and not playing the game by its own rules; it is, after all, science fiction, and you can question its scientific dynamics just as much as you can question those of any time-travel story or multiverse story. It is better, you might argue, to appreciate the tremendous artistic merit of the game’s world, characters, and story, without pressing its overall coherence. But the only point I am driving at here is that it is extremely difficult to make sense of the entirety of BioShock Infinite’s narrative if we understand it, as people typically have, in terms of Many-Worlds. Praising how much the game makes us contemplate questions of free will and choice will do nothing for us here: the problem is our basic conception of its universe, on the level of scientific law. So if there is an alternate interpretation available to us that allows us to make better sense of what is going on, then we ought at least to seriously consider the merits of that interpretation. I contend that a collapse theory is just such an alternate interpretation: in particular, I think that we ought to conceive of BioShock Infinite’s narrative as a metaphor for quantum collapse, in the Copenhagen sense of ‘collapse’.

On the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, collapse of wave functions happens when measurement occurs—and that’s all that we can say about it. But what if we could tell a story about this phenomenon? What if we put characters and events to the notion of a system being in many different positions collapsing into a single, determinate position? This would be an artistic exploration of a real, scientific process—collapse—and it would also defy our traditional notions of narrative because the scientific process being explored has yet to actually be explained. This is precisely what we see in BioShock Infinite. The player encounters a universe with many possible series of events—many possible realities—and by engaging that universe—by playing the game—the player causes the universe to collapse from a superposition of realities into a singular, determinate reality: the scene presented at the end of the game. Recall that the question of which position a system in superposition will collapse to is probabilistic. This, on my interpretation, is why the last scene is so vague as to which reality it is: the game itself reflects the fact that the final, determinate reality could be an infinite number of the prior superposed realities, and which particular reality has been made determinate is fundamentally a matter of chance. The game’s narrative, beautiful as it is, puts a story to the confused, inexplicable collapse of disjunctive, entangled realities into one determinate reality: we do not need to make sense of things like time or causation within the story because the story is a metaphor for the instantaneous annihilation of all but one component of the universe’s superposition.

This analysis allows appreciators of BioShock Infinite to engage the story while also making sense of its world’s scientific dynamics. In so doing, we can avoid the analytic pitfalls of the approach that ignores the player and instead conceives of the game’s universe using a Many-Worlds interpretation alone. But the analysis has another benefit beyond this: it allows us to see clearly a special insight that BioShock Infinite provides into the aesthetics of quantum mechanics.

Elizabeths Confront Booker

Now that we have moved beyond the red herring of Booker’s last name, it is time to return to it. There is something very Many-Worlds-esque about BioShock Infinite, although we cannot make sense of its universe using Many-Worlds alone. Until collapse happens, its universe is in a superposition of multiple, discrete realities—and this could be likened to a Many-Worlds universe. Note that we never see this universe in the game: by stipulation, this is impossible, because our engaging the game’s universe causes it to collapse. This universe would not feature an Elizabeth who crossed over realities, since each reality is discrete, but it would presumably be populated by a variety of Comstocks and Bookers in various realities. And this allows us to notice something illuminating: if we consider a universe in conjunction with an observer external to that universe, then there is a way in which we can contemplate a combination of Many-Worlds and collapse dynamics: the universe alone, in superposition, can look like a collection of disjunctive realities—but, in virtue of the outside observer, we could imagine there being collapse dynamics such that the observer causes all but one of those realities to vanish by measuring the universe. When the subject of inquiry is our actual universe, this notion makes little sense; yet BioShock Infinite shows that exploring conjunctions of quantum theories such as this is both possible and compelling in the arts.

I agree with the popular sentiment that BioShock Infinite is one of the most compelling story-based video games in recent years; I also believe that it has set a new standard for cohesive, well-crafted science fiction. By making use of the dynamics of video games as a representational art form, the game manages to take real quantum mechanical theory and philosophy as a basis for its elaborate storyline. It allows us to imagine collapse as an emotional, human experience, in which our various identities, desires, and potentials violently resolve in an instant.

Welcome to Columbia

[1] This is a simplified explanation of quantum phenomena. For a more involved introduction to the same concepts, I recommend David Z. Albert’s Quantum Mechanics and Experience (1992), or Richard’s Feynman’s “Quantum Behavior” from his Lectures on Physics (1964).

[2] A more thorough and technical discussion of the double-slit experiment can be found in Feynman, ibid.

[3] This is an oversimplification and technically wrong. It is more accurate to say that the electron passes through Slit #1, Slit #2, both slits, and neither slit, all simultaneously—but that is beyond the scope of this article.

[4] These are the probabilities given by Born’s Rule.

[5] I borrow the general structure of this formulation of the measurement problem from Tim Maudlin’s “Three Measurement Problems,” Topoi 14: 7-15, 1995. This is what Maudlin refers to as ‘the problem of outcomes’.

[6] More precisely, wave functions always obey linear dynamics.

[7] More precisely, linear dynamics are violated when we measure physical systems.

[8] Of course, if we measure something and reality splits, then versions of us exist in both resulting realities—and so it is not obvious how to parse the meaning of “we” in this sentence or in Many-Worlds more generally. The point is simply that our conscious experience, what it may ultimately amount to, seems to only ever engage one branch of reality at a time.