The following paper addresses metagames with an ecocritical twist and deals with their reflections on genre conventions and their relation to neoliberalism and the environment. Drawing primarily from Waugh’s perspective on literary metafiction, Wark’s Gamer Theory, and Deleuze’s concept of the society of control, I propose a theoretical framework of self-reflective videogames aiming at the ideology of neoliberalism within their conventions. These symptoms will be connected to the depiction and function of the environment in videogames. The final section provides an analysis of Shadow of the Colossus and Everything as examples of ecocritical metagames.
Metafiction in general is “fiction about fiction – that is, fiction that includes within itself a commentary on its own narrative and/or linguistic identity.” 1 Hutcheon: Narcissistic Narrative. 1988, p. 1. Waugh, however, considers it in her more focused definition as “fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact in order to pose question about the relationship between fiction and reality.” 2 Waugh: Metafiction. 1990, p. 2. Rather than offering a definition applicable to all metafictional occurrences, Waugh perceives the genre as a systematic approach within a certain kind of artifact. Additionally, she sees metafiction not only as commenting on the construction of fiction and its identity, but as posing questions about the complicity of fiction’s form in perpetuating world-views. The genre opposes the naturalization of a certain ideology transported through the re-iteration of the corresponding conventions, namely “[t]he materialist, positivist and empiricist world-view on which realistic fiction is premised.” 3 Waugh: Metafiction. 1990, p. 7.
Games as the Civilizing Momentum of Society
In an interesting argumentative maneuver, Waugh relates the aesthetic resistance of metafiction to Caillois’s notion of the civilizing momentum inherent in games. 4 cf. Waugh: Metafiction. 1990, p. 41. Ilinx and mimicry (as formative elements of the power structures in primitive societies) are vanquished by an awareness of their fictionality as rule-bound games. 5 cf. Caillois: Man, Play, and Games. 1961, p. 101-109. “The sorcerer’s mask becomes a theater mask”, 6 Caillois: Man, Play, and Games. 1961, p. 78. as, for example, certain shamanic practices in the primitive society become laid bare as a formal kind of play and transform into a ritual in the civilized society. Waugh sums up her concept of the relation between metafiction and Caillois’s cultivation theory:
‘Illinx’ [sic!] becomes associated with the attempts at pure mimesis and […] [t]he player loses him or herself in a fantasy world and actually becomes the role being played […] or attempts to impose it on others as ‘reality’. In literature, then, realism […] becomes the mode most threatening to full civilization, and metafiction becomes the mode most conducive to it! 7 Waugh: Metafiction. 1990, p. 41.
Through the naturalization of realism as a form of convention, positivism is transported as a form of ideology. Language is misrepresented as an objective medium free from ideology. Therefore, the predominant convention of realism in literature becomes a threat to civilized society, since language becomes an allegedly objective form of representing the world (without the potential to transport, perpetuate or create certain ideologies). Consequently, laying bare the rules of the literary game and therefore its corresponding ideology becomes the civilizing momentum inherent in metafiction. Realism and its corresponding ideology of positivism/empiricism become its opponent. Applying this theory to videogames raises the question: what is the mode most threatening civilization in contemporary society? What is the metagame’s antagonist?
Economization in the Time of the Control Society
Caillois calls agôn and “the inhibitions it usually places upon natural avidity [through] the system of moral, social, and legal constraints” 8 Caillois: Man, Play, and Games. 1961, p. 46. the prime exhibit of games and their civilizing role. However, this only applies if the rules are adhered. A society built around this principle can be corrupted through violence, will to power, and trickery 9 cf. Caillois: Man, Play, and Games. 1961, p. 54. . McKenzie Wark advocates that this is the case in our contemporary society through his term ‘gamespace’ which describes the structuring of reality as a form of rigged game. 10 cf. Wark: Gamer Theory. 2007, § 1-2. The videogame as a perfect rendition of agôn becomes a false promise for the reality they exist in and becomes “everything that gamespace merely pretends to be: a fair fight, a level playing field, unfettered competition.” 11 Wark: Gamer Theory. 2007, § 21. However, he sees videogames not as a misrepresentation, but deems reality “a gamespace that appears as an imperfect form of the computer game” 12 cf. Wark: Gamer Theory. 2007, § 22. . Videogames naturalize the ideology of gamespace as a utopian rendition of the agonistic and unfair reality of gamespace; gamespace’s neoliberal ideology corrupts agôn as a civilizing momentum. Consequently, agôn has become corrupted and lost its function to restrain the avidity deeply rooted within human nature . Therefore, videogames can be assumed to be “constitutive of twenty-first-century global hyper capitalism.” 13 Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter: Games of Empire. 2009, p. xxix.
However, videogames are not only representations of a neoliberal reality (or vice versa, as Wark presumes). They are also re-iterations of the ‘society of control’, which can be described as an interdependent network of independent actors and variables, in which “ultrarapid forms of apparently free-floating control […] are taking over.” 14 Deleuze: Postscript. 1995, p. 178 It is the massive occurrence of networks and their protocological nature molding reality and emerges from “different sites [of discipline] converging in an owner, whether the state or some private power, but transmutable or transformable coded configurations of a single business where the only people left are administrators.” 15 Deleuze: Postscript. 1995, p. 181 This shift within the society is accompanied by a shift in media from the disciplinary “physical semiotic constructs such as the signature and the document” to control’s “immaterial ones such as the password and the computer.” 16 Galloway: Algorithmic Culture. 2006, p. 87. They function through subtle control and not direct disciplinary measures. But how is control achieved? Deleuze uses the metaphor of the highway to clarify how control works:
A control is not a discipline. In making high-ways, for example, you don’t enclose people but instead multiply the means of control. I am not saying that is the highway’s exclusive purpose, but that people can drive infinitely and “freely” without being at all confined yet while still being perfectly controlled. This is our future. 17 Deleuze: Idea in Cinema. 1998, p. 18.
Deleuze here utilizes the metaphor of the highway to foreshadow the development of a networked society, in which possible decisions are already predetermined by the technological design of the media and the related social structures. Galloway further explicates that control is based upon the subject’s desire being created within the system. 18 cf. Galloway: Protocol. 2004, p. 241. He uses the example of speed bumps: This measure makes the subjects want to decrease their speed as the system already implies the methods to be deployed (driving fast is not a desirable option within this system). 19 cf. Galloway: Protocol. 2004, p 241. Therefore, systems of control are based on the desire they create and the potential most advantageous use they enforce through their design. In turn, they produce expectable results and, therefore, control.
The most pervasive convergence of games and reality as a system of control is ‘gamification’, which is usually defined as “the use of game design elements in non-game contexts.” 20 Deterding et al.: Gamification. 2010, p. 10. The Chinese financial app Sesame Credit 21 Ant Financial Services: Sesame Credit, 2015. rates its users with a score ranging from 350 to 950 points and according to five factors: credit history, the ability to fulfill contracts, personal characteristics like address and phone numbers, behavior and preferences, and interpersonal relationships. 22 cf. Botsman: Big Data. 2015, n. pag. Whereas the first three categories are standard in rating the credibility of a person, the latter ones seem to derive from dystopian fiction. In the fourth category, behaviors like shopping preferences and frequent activities are analyzed and translated into character traits: long sessions of playing videogames indicate a lazy person (negative rating) and buying diapers indicates a parent and responsibility (positive rating). 23 cf. Botsman: Big Data. 2015, n. pag. The fifth category rates the user’s and her friends’ interpersonal behavior and their conformity along the party lines and politics: “[i]t ‘nudges’ citizens away from purchases and behaviours [and interactions and friends] the government does not like.” 24 Botsman: Big Data. 2015, n. pag. What Botsman describes as ‘nudging’ are the workings of the society of control, since the user tries to make optimized use of the system to fulfill the created desire (i.e. a good rating). Therefore, she will adapt her habits, consumption, and social interaction according to the algorithm. What is most disturbing about this application is that the app becomes mandatory in 2020 and will have real-life consequences for low ratings, ranging from a slower internet connection to exclusion from certain areas and even worse job opportunities and schools for the user’s kids. 25 cf. Botsman: Big Data. 2015, n. pag. Therefore, gamification as illustration for the workings of the society of control in both videogames and reality is not only “the keyword for a generation of social entrepreneurs and marketing experts, […] and the trends of quantification and self-governance.” 26 Fuchs et al.: Introduction. 2014, p. 9. Rather, it transforms conventional videogame mechanics into a corrupted form of control to enforce self-governance in the empirical reality.
Consequently, we can distinguish certain symptoms of neoliberalism in the control society as “a mutation of capitalism” 27 Deleuze: Postscript. 1995, p. 180 and in contemporary videogames alike. Since my focus here lies on the function of the environment in videogames, the next step will deliberate on these symptoms and connect them to three roles of environment in videogames. 28 cf. Abraham and Jayemanne: Climate Change. 2017, pp. 78-84.
The Symptoms of Neoliberalism and the Functions of Videogame-Environments
Building on the assumption that neoliberalism allows their “subjects to choose how they would act under conditions of freedom” 29 Baerg: Governmentality. 2009, p. 120. , economic choice conquered other social areas, and became the connecting element of neoliberalism and videogames. Their logic is that of “the neoliberal free market economy”, since both offer the player/the subject choices to act according to their own desires while staying within the confinement of the game’s rules. 30 cf. Baerg: Governmentality. 2009, p. 119. The subject in videogames and the neoliberal society of control is forged into a “homo oeconomicus” 31 Foucault: Biopolitics. 2008, p. 225. , who acts based on quantified parameters “in keeping with a neoliberal calculative rationality” 32 Baerg: Governmentality. 2009, p. 124.
In relation to the environment in videogames, these connect to the first two modes of the media scholars Abraham and Jayemanne made in their article Where are all the Climate Change Games? Locating Digital Games’ Response to Climate Change: The environment as backdrop and the environment as resource. Chang already stated these functions in her seminal article Games as Environmental Texts, which she deemed typical mistakes in handling natural environments: “relegating environment to background scenery […] and predicating player success on extraction and use of natural resources.” 33 Chang: Environmental Texts. 2011, p. 58. The first function is defined as “static or unchanging backdrop, or a smooth empty space in relation to which efficient movement takes place.” 34 Abraham and Jayemanne: Climate Change. 2017, p. 79. Obvious examples here include 2D platformers, in which the background scenery is merely illustrative, whereas the usable or perilous objects are in the foreground, easily distinguishable from the mechanically defunct background. 35 Abraham and Jayemanne: Climate Change. 2017, pp. 79-80.
In connecting the points made about the market-logic inherent in digital games to the environment, it effectively becomes the playground of free choices to be made according to said logic. Consequently, the environment is part of the system of control in videogames, their protocological logic. The player is socialized within the gameworld; the design of the game already implies the optimal usage. Thus, the player appears to act freely, but is always guided by the principles of the system and effectively becomes its slave 36 Kato and Bauer: Marionette. 2016, p. 173. . This corresponds with Bogost’s argument that “procedural representations often do not allow the user to mount procedural objections through configurations of the system itself.” 37 Bogost: Persuasive. 2007, p. 37 and cf. Baerg. Governmentality. 2009, p. 125. Freedom may be perceived by the player in her potential to make decisions for herself, but the protocological market-logic of the digital game implies the optimal usage by its design, and therefore imposes it on the player-subject. To sum up, the videogame’s implied player structures the behavior of the actual player in a predictable manner according to the calculative rationality of market-logic, demanding efficiency in every action, and in the case of the environment oftentimes movement to keep progressing through the game.
Enabling efficiency is therefore a strong indicator and conventional use of the environment in videogames usually not only indicative of the potential to optimize the players’ movement through the environment, but rather their usage of it by draining its resources. This connects to the second mode of videogame-environments as resources: Here, “the environment [i]s something to be exploited. Games deploy this relationship whenever they utilize extractive or collecting mechanics for the sake of development, deployment or creation.” 38 Abraham and Jayemanne: Climate Change. 2017, p. 81. This goes hand in hand with the quantification of the game environment along the lines of the control society, which predominantlty works through the abstraction into data. 39 cf. Shaviro: Bitterness. 2011, p. 75. Deleuze clearly states the role digitalization plays in the society of control: “the various forms of control […] are inseparable variations, forming a system of varying geometry whose language is digital (though not necessarily binary)” Deleuze: Postscript. 1995, p. 178.
Within these data-streams everything “can be analyzed in terms of investment, capital cost, and profit.” 40 Foucault: Biopolitics. 2008, p. 244. Quantification (the numerical depiction of data within an increasingly networked world) therefore splits the environment into different kinds of quantified data (oftentimes through the interface and its enhancements, compared to the perception of the pure storyworld). This functionalizes the environment as a kind of mining field for resources the players need to further their interest within the game rules. This logic becomes most apparent in the real time strategy genre, which is built around the gathering of resources according to pre-defined micro- and macro-goals: “whenever environment as resources is present, almost inevitably it is harnessed for and in the context of some kind of economy.” 41 Abraham and Jayemanne: Climate Change. 2017, p. 81. Like Deleuze’s dividual, the environment is split into various data-streams according to the different resources and their purposes within the control system of the videogame. 42 Dominant quantification-strategies aside from the environment include measurement of general progress (percentages), character development and traits, in-game commodities (for example the numerical depiction of traits like fire rate, clip size, weight etc.) and the general statistics often to be found (for example bullets fired, enemies killed, checkpoints used etc.) cf. Stallabras: Gargantua. 1996, pp. 89-90 and Baerg: Risky Business. 2012, pp. 159-161.
This, again, creates an environment (and implied player) subjecting the player to the neoliberal logics of the society of control, since the parameters depicted in the dividual-environment imply their optimized use and afford the players to act as homo oeconomicus to further their interests.
In the third mode, ‘environment as antagonist’, “the environment itself becomes an obstacle or an ‘antagonist’ that resists the player. […] In games which present the player a challenge to progress all elements participate to various degrees in an ecosystem of antagonism directed at the player.” 43 Abraham and Jayemanne: Climate Change. 2017, p. 83. This mode of playing (which is the predominant mode in games of progression) is inherently connected to neoliberalism. It enacts the antagonistic struggle on the level of the environment. However this does not only include environmental obstacles hindering traversal (like traps, cliffs to be scaled, or human-made perils), but also the mobile enemies within the gameworld in all their possible shapes; both can be considered part of an “ecosystem of antagonism”, 44 Abraham and Jayemanne: Climate Change. 2017, p. 83. since in Dark Souls 45 FromSoftware: Dark Souls. 2011. for example “the world itself is often just as dangerous as the actual ‘enemies.’” 46 Abraham and Jayemanne: Climate Change. 2017, pp. 82-83, at 83.
Also including the fourth mode, environmental storytelling, Abraham and Jayemanne conclude that in all these modes “the environment is largely subject to the activity of more lively entities that inhabit it: either an index of their movement (background) or subject to their extractive (resource), militarist (antagonist) or cognitive (text) gameplay.” 47 Abraham and Jayemanne: Climate Change. 2017, p. 84. This can be connected to Moore’s perspective on capitalism as a project: “Capitalism’s governing conceit is that it may do with Nature as it pleases, that Nature is external and may be coded, quantified, and rationalized to serve economic growth, social development, or some other higher good.” 48 Moore: Capitalism. 2015, p. 2. However, with videogames being a primarily spatial medium, we can also conceptualize the virtual environment as a large constituent of the implied player, and therefore connect the genre to his notion of co-production of life: “[H]umans make environments and environments make humans – and human organization.” 49 Moore: Capitalism. 2015, p. 2. The environment and its functions in videogames are not only a form of submitting nature to the influence of neoliberal strategies, but it also forms the player into its subject and imposes its ideology on them, since they are a systemic part of the implied player creating a role for the actual player to fill. 50 cf. Aarseth: Transgressive Play. 2007, p. 132.
In the first part of this paper, I have outlined how the theory of literary metafiction translates to videogames. Instead of criticizing an objectivist ideology by addressing its corresponding convention of realism, metagames’ opponent becomes neoliberalism present in the conventional approach to game design. Metagames reveal the rules of the game and show how reality does not uphold the rules like a videogame, but is nevertheless structured alike due to the underlying systems of control deployed in digital games and the empirical reality. The second part has translated several symptoms of neoliberalism to the functions of the environment in videogames. Neoliberal approaches to environmental design are an inherent element of videogames. However, the environment is not only subject to economical rationality, but also imposes this ideology on the players in a reciprocal movement. Nevertheless, there are games aware of their own medial and real conditions that could offer “lines of exodus from it.” 51 Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter: Games of Empire. 2009, p. xxix.
A Short Theory of (ecocritical) Metagames
Nguyen already addresses the need for ecologically- and self-aware videogames, which are critical of the inherent environmental harm their “creation, operation, and disposal” causes and further states that “games of environmental responsibility must challenge the logics of fun […] [and] consider alternatives.” 52 Nguyen: Digital Games. 2017, p. 20.
Lehner also addresses the potential of (aesthetically complex and especially self-referential) videogames in influencing a discourse in the sense of Zapf’s cultural ecology 53 cf. Zapf: Cultural Ecology. 2016. in connection to the critical player-type of the emancipated player 54 Farca: Emancipated Player. 2016. : “Cultural ecology as well as the emancipated player are based upon multifaceted and aesthetically complex works of art, through which their positive influence as a regenerative force [in the cultural system and discourse] can emerge in co-operation with an active reader/player.” 55 Lehner: Videogames. 2017, p. 61. Especially the case of self-reflexivity in videogames that “deliberately violate[s] the ludo-narrative conventions of [its] genre and the medium itself” 56 Ensslin: Unnatural. 2015, p. 55. contains the possibility “to trigger metaludic reflections which might include the potential emergence of ecocritical thought.” 57 Lehner: Videogames. 2017, p. 62.
Based on these observations on self-reflective videogames and their impact on ecological awareness, I want to address ecocritical metagames that offer either a critique of or an escape from the perpetuation of neoliberal ideology within their design and narrative. First, I want to discuss Shadow of the Colossus as an example of a critical approach to neoliberalism and the environment (connecting it to the notion of neoliberalism as project). Second, there will be a discussion of Everything, as a positive example of environmental awareness and an anti-neoliberal approach to game-design.
Shadow of the Colossus: Making the Player feel her Environmental Impact
Shadow of the Colossus’s eponymous creatures are not mere enemies hindering the player’s progress, but are actually representations of the videogame environment itself. Their “hybrid materiality of fur, stones, and ruins also renders them representatives of the environment” and their inhabitants alike. 58 Lehner: Videogames. 2017, p. 67. Seeing them as clearly belonging to both realms, the perceived separation between lively creatures and inanimate environment is dissolved. This is also mirrored in their gameplay-function as their role within the game is to replace the actual dungeons usually set within the environment as “puzzle[s] that the player must solve.” 59 Fortugno: Losing. 2009, p. 173. The line between lively enemies and the environment is blurred. The colossi can be seen as a symbolic implementation of the “ecosystem of antagonism” 60 Abraham and Jayemanne: Climate Change. 2017, p. 83. comprising of enemies and the environment as antagonists. However, the colossi can also be seen as a kind of resource to be harvested by the player. In defeating the colossi, the player effectively gathers the means to fulfill the narrative desire the game creates (i.e. saving the girl from death).
Therefore, the colossi do not only incorporate these two functions of videogame environments, but rather are a representation of the environment under the influence of neoliberalism in videogames exactly through both their hybridity in representation and gameplay purposes. However, the colossi are not a mere symbol for the environment as subject of the neoliberal player, but serve a critical function in the game’s procedural rhetoric combined with their visual and audio representation.
The narrative premise of slaying monsters to save a girl is a familiar trope in videogames. It creates the urge to act upon the premise and embark on a hero’s quest. The desires forged by the core of the gameplay (taking down the colossi) and the narrative (saving the damsel in distress) clearly overlap at first. Through the act of play, however, this changes and the player “becomes gradually less willing to fulfill the narrative premise.” 61 Lehner: Videogames. 2017, p. 66. She realizes that her actions are not justified by any aggressive behavior of the usually calm and content creatures 62 see Cole: Tragedy. 2015, p. 4; Fortugno: Losing. 2009, pp. 174-175. and renders her the aggressive force within the gameworld, disturbing the natural environment. 63 cf. Lehner: Videogames. 2017, p. 66.
Further, despite the fact that defeating one of the colossi is a challenging endeavor and supposed to “lead to a sense of triumph” 64 Fortugno: Losing. 2009, p. 173. , there is no sense of heroism in killing them 65 cf. Lehner: Videogames. 2017, p. 66. . Slaying a colossus leads to a slow-motion cut-scene showing “a gory stream of black blood in an awful hiss” 66 Fortugno: Losing. 2009, p. 174. with a “sorrowful female choral [in style of] a requiem” 67 see Cole: Tragedy. 2015, p. 5. accompanying the dreadful scene.
The empathetic design of Shadow of the Colossus comes to its conclusion with Dormin (the quest-giver) revealing their plot, taking over the hero’s body and turning him into a colossus-like creature. The guards and the priest of the village the protagonist stole from have eventually reached the temple and attack. Nevertheless, despite yielding the enormous power of the colossi, the protagonist is still doomed.
Transforming into a colossus shifts the player’s experience: “confusing controls, limited vision, and encumbered movement” create a new and unknown situation for the player. 68 Fortugno: Losing. 2009, p. 173. Despite the enormous power that comes with this transformation, the player feels desperate while defending herself and relieves the situations she created attacking the colossi. The player is put into the perspective of the colossi and forced to sympathize with them as symbols of the environment as “the anthropocentric perspective of the protagonist is disrupted [by substituting her] whole mechanical and perceptual system.” 69 Lehner: Videogames. 2017, p. 68.
Therefore, one can discern an incongruence between the desires evoked by the narrative and gameplay and the actual act of play 70 cf. Cole: Tragedy. 2015, p. 7 and Lehner: Videogames. 2017, p. 67 Through the game’s procedural rhetoric as friction between the actual presentation of the alleged victory and the expectations and desires the gameplay and narrative premises, 71 Lehner: Videogames. 2017, p. 66. the player acknowledge her own complicity in her obedience to the rules of the game 72 Milburn: Green. 2014, p. 217. . This, however, is not only an acknowledgement of the neoliberal rhetoric found in videogames, but a recognition of her complicity “in videogames as well as in the empirical reality”. 73 Lehner: Videogames. 2017, p. 67. This is what Fest calls ‘metaproceduralism’: “If videogames produce a self-reflexivity specific to their medium, […] it follows that it will be found in the ways their machinic and operational procedures reflect upon themselves, in their metaproceduralism. 74 Fest: Metaproceduralism. 2016, p. 9. Similarly to metalanguage, metaproceduralism reflects upon the processes in videogames via process. In the case of Shadow of the Colossus, this includes a procedural commentary on “the morality of conventional game-mechanics and rewards” 75 Lehner: Videogames. 2017, p. 66. in connection to the environment. Partly, this resembles Ngyuen’s argument about the complicity of videogames in ecological harm throughout all their states of production and consumption and the implicit complicity of the player in taking part in such a system 76 Nguyen: Digital Games. 2017, p. 20. . However, this also addresses the problems of a neoliberal mindset and its implications for the environment in general: “the player is confronted with the immediate response of the environment to the naturalized convention of neoliberal capitalism in games.” 77 Lehner: Videogames. 2017, p. 67. The player’s progression and the consequences of her deeds paired with the decidedly empathetic notion of the game’s conclusion enforce deliberations about the environmental impact of neoliberalism and its logic found to be in videogames. These conventions are scrutinized by the games’ (procedural) rhetoric as metaproceduralism and can lead to awareness for them in reality.
Nevertheless, the ending’s cut-scene strikes a different note, hopeful in tone. The damsel in distress is actually resurrected and Agro (the player’s trusty stead sacrificed in order to reach the last colossus and achieving the player’s/the protagonist’s final goal) returns, though gravely injured. In the pond remains the protagonist turned into a child. 78 This child actually has horns, resembling the children in Ico (Ueda: Ico. 2001/2011) situating Shadow of the Colossus as presumably set in the same timeline and rendering the protagonist as one of the ancestors of these cursed children. As the credits role, each corpse of the defeated colossi is shown. Agro and the girl ascend the stairs of the temple and reach an utopian space of natural beauty filled with animals (as opposed to the empty environment of the temple’s surroundings).
The ending offers a utopian space for the protagonist and the player in offering a second chance for both to atone for the deeds they have done and to start again without their harmful impact on the environment. Despite having achieved the resurrection of the girl, the price paid for this is made more than clear in the dreadful reminders in both the depiction of every slain colossus and the irreparably injured Agro. However, the protagonist has returned to the innocent form of an infant, but is still marked with his demonic horns. This indicates the potential to learn from the events and how they played out in Shadow of the Colossus, not only for the protagonist, but on an additional level for the player herself. While still being marked by her deeds, the game offers space to learn from those mistakes and lead to societal change, on the diegetic level in an eco-utopian realm atop the temple and outside of the game world with the player realizing the mechanisms of control and neoliberalism driving her in the empirical reality.
Everything: A Defamiliarized, Ecologically Positive Design
Everything is, at its core, playable philosophy, heavily based on the lectures of Alan Watts (included as voice-over within the game itself) describing the interconnectivity of systems and their defining nature in relation to each other. Everything does not operate with the power-fantasies conventional videogames offer the player; instead of allowing them to remain within their ego-fantasy, this game tries to transcend this perspective on the subject and dissolve the ego of the player in its environment. As Hennig notes, usually videogames are built around the movement of the avatar gaining control over the Other space (Fremdraum) of the videogame. 79 Hennig: Spielräume. 2017, p. 146. While presumably still iterating this premise with the player learning the basic mechanics of Everything (ascending and descending the different levels of perspectives and spheres of the game), the lack of a fixed avatar of abstract or figurative quality suggests that there is no space of the Other, since the player has always been part of the system she inscribes herself into. Therefore, I will address different instances of defamiliarized or unnatural design Everything utilizes to create a sense of interconnectivity in working against the usual functions of the environment. First, we will look at the avatar and its relation to the environment.
Gorsolke describes the convention of the avatar as generally player-centered, since they usually deal with topographically taking possession (visualized through an increase in power), graphically are built around her, and subordinate themselves technically to the actual player 80 Gorsolke: Interaktivität. 2009, p. 281. According to Hennig, this is re-iterated on the interadiegetic level, as environments in videogames usually belong to certain intradiegetic personae resembling their depiction and character. 81 Hennig: Spielräume. 2017, p. 142. Environments, therefore, often become part of the subjectifying processes in videogames, subordinating them not only to the player-avatar (feeling alienated in a world not in her possession), but also to human or humanoid inhabitants of the gameworld. Connecting this to Abraham and Jayemanne’s functions, the environment is the subject defined by its functions and the separation of the living and the non-living. In Everything, however, there is no underlying structure of function to the environment, which can be acted upon. It is never subject to the player’s gameplay, as it is always part of the (potential) avatar of the player, since switching one’s representation within the gameworld is possible at any time. The individualistic approach iterated in conventional videogames is neglected. This is also reflected in the different perspectives the player can inhabit. In six different scales of time and size ranging from the mathematical concepts on which the world is built to galaxies themselves, the things the player steers are connected to different perceptions of time. This means that movement and time are slower for the microscopic entities, and that time rushes for a continent, which for example can be seen in the rapid alternation of day and night. Of course, the scope of things that surround the player also changes with the inhabitance of things of different magnitude. All these perceptive and variable elements force the player into the perspective of the non-human (animals and the environment), letting her see things from their point of view.
Despite the fact that the third-person camera angle on a technological basis obviously caters to the player in front of the game (which otherwise would make the act of playing impossible) and their existence in the world, there is no need for her in this game. After running it, Everything is entirely capable of playing itself. This is meaningful, as it highlights the occurrence of a player as a random and minor note in a system of interconnected entities: the player is not the sole center of attention anymore.
Therefore, the environment (if one can still speak of it like that in Everything) becomes devoid of its usual functions in videogames. The trope of environment-as-backdrop is avoided as there is no need for efficiency and the background does not need to feature as a smooth setting for the player’s action to take place. Every ‘thing’ in this game appears to be as meaningful as the other. Consequently, there are no “hollow surfaces intended to give the impression of substantive objects” 82 Abraham and Jayemanne: Climate Change. 2017, p. 81 . Even the ‘interior’ of the surrounding air (in form of molecules and atoms) is actually there and to be entered by the player, up to the point where all there is are mere mathematical constructs holding the world together. Through the circular construction of the different levels (as descending into the smallest level, leads to galaxies and vice versa), even on the smallest one this interior dilemma of environmental design is avoided. This construction supports the game’s message of dissolving the player-centric attitude of videogames; the environment is not there to serve the player’s action, but its elements are rightful entities of their own.
Looking at the function of the environment-as-resources, it is also non-existent. Since there are no mechanics supporting an economic circulation of resources, there are no methods of quantification through the player’s interface or in-game mechanics (like progression, increasing or decreasing character values) or even quantifiable challenges or penalties on certain behaviors.
Further, there is no need for agonistic or economical struggle in world of interconnectivity and equality of elements. The subject-object disposition and challenges would be devoid of meaning in this setting: If the player is everything, there is no need for an antagonistic struggle or neoliberal play.
Consequently, Everything can be deemed as a defamiliarization of the concepts of environment, avatar, and non-player-character and their general function. The distinction between those elements (conventionally used in videogames to cater to the player) fades and enforces the notion of interconnectivity of everything. This subverts the perception of the environment as something subject to gameplay (and thus the player) and lets it actively take part in it. In Everything, everything becomes the avatar and the player that the world is built around. Everything offers a solution to the problem of survival in digital environments and the ecological message in videogames: “The extent to which players themselves are also refashioned according to ecological imperatives is typically quite limited: often simply by the imperatives of survival itself.” 83 Abraham and Jayemanne: Climate Change. 2017, p. 84
Through this approach and its procedural rhetoric, the player is encouraged to reflect upon the systems usually used in videogames and the empirical reality, with the latter being as anthropocentric as videogames are player-centric.
Shadow of the Colossus offers a representational and procedural commentary on how the environment and (as its extension) its inhabitants are treated within a neoliberal mind-set. The colossi are symbolic for the living and non-living parts of the environment as well as for its ludic function as a kind of resource to be gathered. Through a friction between the ludic core and the narrative/representational shell, however, Shadow of the Colossus does not offer a triumphant power fantasy in the spirit of neoliberal logic, but makes the player painfully aware of the consequences of her actions and choices. She is forced to realize her own complicity in the destruction of the environment in playing by the rules of the game, which can be connected to the same behavior in the empirical reality. The ending, however, leaves hope for the protagonist and the player, since both are left with the marks of their deeds; the protagonist with his demonic horns and the player with her dreadful feeling of defeat and complicity.
Everything, however, offers a positive depiction of environmental game-design in defamiliarizing the usual player-centric approach to making games and enforces the connectivity of all life. It dissolves the conventional concepts of avatar, (game) environment, and NPCs in order to revoke the special position of the player. The environment, usually structured around its characters and the player’s avatar, becomes the sole center of attention, and – in keeping with its theme – everything of the above-mentioned concepts. The game’s mechanics make a conventional approach using the three stereotypical functions of design impossible. As a non-antagonistic game, there is no use for a violent treatment of the environment, the missing economical mechanics render quantification and capitalist rationality useless, and the connectivity of all the things existent in this world neglects the environment-as-background function.
Both games offer approaches to make a receptive player aware of ecological issues, Shadow of the Colossus in a rather nihilistic approach to persuasion and Everything in an more positive atmosphere. Both use unconventional design-choices to enforce reflection upon the structures and conventions in videogames and their connections to a neoliberal ideology in relation to the environment. Meta-commentaries on the mediality of the videogame, therefore, seem to be an ideal way of cultivating environmental thoughts in the player and can contribute to this civilizing momentum of Caillois saw for games and Waugh saw for metafiction.
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Scene from the level of mathematical concepts of David OReilly’s Everything. Quelle: http://www.everything-game.com/presskit/
Fußnoten [ + ]
|1.||↑||Hutcheon: Narcissistic Narrative. 1988, p. 1.|
|2.||↑||Waugh: Metafiction. 1990, p. 2.|
|3.||↑||Waugh: Metafiction. 1990, p. 7.|
|4.||↑||cf. Waugh: Metafiction. 1990, p. 41.|
|5.||↑||cf. Caillois: Man, Play, and Games. 1961, p. 101-109.|
|6.||↑||Caillois: Man, Play, and Games. 1961, p. 78.|
|7.||↑||Waugh: Metafiction. 1990, p. 41.|
|8.||↑||Caillois: Man, Play, and Games. 1961, p. 46.|
|9.||↑||cf. Caillois: Man, Play, and Games. 1961, p. 54.|
|10.||↑||cf. Wark: Gamer Theory. 2007, § 1-2.|
|11.||↑||Wark: Gamer Theory. 2007, § 21.|
|12.||↑||cf. Wark: Gamer Theory. 2007, § 22.|
|13.||↑||Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter: Games of Empire. 2009, p. xxix.|
|14.||↑||Deleuze: Postscript. 1995, p. 178|
|15.||↑||Deleuze: Postscript. 1995, p. 181|
|16.||↑||Galloway: Algorithmic Culture. 2006, p. 87.|
|17.||↑||Deleuze: Idea in Cinema. 1998, p. 18.|
|18.||↑||cf. Galloway: Protocol. 2004, p. 241.|
|19.||↑||cf. Galloway: Protocol. 2004, p 241.|
|20.||↑||Deterding et al.: Gamification. 2010, p. 10.|
|21.||↑||Ant Financial Services: Sesame Credit, 2015.|
|22.||↑||cf. Botsman: Big Data. 2015, n. pag.|
|23.||↑||cf. Botsman: Big Data. 2015, n. pag.|
|24.||↑||Botsman: Big Data. 2015, n. pag.|
|25.||↑||cf. Botsman: Big Data. 2015, n. pag.|
|26.||↑||Fuchs et al.: Introduction. 2014, p. 9.|
|27.||↑||Deleuze: Postscript. 1995, p. 180|
|28.||↑||cf. Abraham and Jayemanne: Climate Change. 2017, pp. 78-84.|
|29.||↑||Baerg: Governmentality. 2009, p. 120.|
|30.||↑||cf. Baerg: Governmentality. 2009, p. 119.|
|31.||↑||Foucault: Biopolitics. 2008, p. 225.|
|32.||↑||Baerg: Governmentality. 2009, p. 124|
|33.||↑||Chang: Environmental Texts. 2011, p. 58.|
|34.||↑||Abraham and Jayemanne: Climate Change. 2017, p. 79.|
|35.||↑||Abraham and Jayemanne: Climate Change. 2017, pp. 79-80.|
|36.||↑||Kato and Bauer: Marionette. 2016, p. 173.|
|37.||↑||Bogost: Persuasive. 2007, p. 37 and cf. Baerg. Governmentality. 2009, p. 125.|
|38.||↑||Abraham and Jayemanne: Climate Change. 2017, p. 81.|
|39.||↑||cf. Shaviro: Bitterness. 2011, p. 75. Deleuze clearly states the role digitalization plays in the society of control: “the various forms of control […] are inseparable variations, forming a system of varying geometry whose language is digital (though not necessarily binary)” Deleuze: Postscript. 1995, p. 178.|
|40.||↑||Foucault: Biopolitics. 2008, p. 244.|
|41.||↑||Abraham and Jayemanne: Climate Change. 2017, p. 81.|
|42.||↑||Dominant quantification-strategies aside from the environment include measurement of general progress (percentages), character development and traits, in-game commodities (for example the numerical depiction of traits like fire rate, clip size, weight etc.) and the general statistics often to be found (for example bullets fired, enemies killed, checkpoints used etc.) cf. Stallabras: Gargantua. 1996, pp. 89-90 and Baerg: Risky Business. 2012, pp. 159-161.|
|43.||↑||Abraham and Jayemanne: Climate Change. 2017, p. 83.|
|44.||↑||Abraham and Jayemanne: Climate Change. 2017, p. 83.|
|45.||↑||FromSoftware: Dark Souls. 2011.|
|46.||↑||Abraham and Jayemanne: Climate Change. 2017, pp. 82-83, at 83.|
|47.||↑||Abraham and Jayemanne: Climate Change. 2017, p. 84.|
|48.||↑||Moore: Capitalism. 2015, p. 2.|
|49.||↑||Moore: Capitalism. 2015, p. 2.|
|50.||↑||cf. Aarseth: Transgressive Play. 2007, p. 132.|
|51.||↑||Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter: Games of Empire. 2009, p. xxix.|
|52.||↑||Nguyen: Digital Games. 2017, p. 20.|
|53.||↑||cf. Zapf: Cultural Ecology. 2016.|
|54.||↑||Farca: Emancipated Player. 2016.|
|55.||↑||Lehner: Videogames. 2017, p. 61.|
|56.||↑||Ensslin: Unnatural. 2015, p. 55.|
|57.||↑||Lehner: Videogames. 2017, p. 62.|
|58.||↑||Lehner: Videogames. 2017, p. 67.|
|59.||↑||Fortugno: Losing. 2009, p. 173.|
|60.||↑||Abraham and Jayemanne: Climate Change. 2017, p. 83.|
|61.||↑||Lehner: Videogames. 2017, p. 66.|
|62.||↑||see Cole: Tragedy. 2015, p. 4; Fortugno: Losing. 2009, pp. 174-175.|
|63.||↑||cf. Lehner: Videogames. 2017, p. 66.|
|64.||↑||Fortugno: Losing. 2009, p. 173.|
|65.||↑||cf. Lehner: Videogames. 2017, p. 66.|
|66.||↑||Fortugno: Losing. 2009, p. 174.|
|67.||↑||see Cole: Tragedy. 2015, p. 5.|
|68.||↑||Fortugno: Losing. 2009, p. 173.|
|69.||↑||Lehner: Videogames. 2017, p. 68.|
|70.||↑||cf. Cole: Tragedy. 2015, p. 7 and Lehner: Videogames. 2017, p. 67|
|71.||↑||Lehner: Videogames. 2017, p. 66.|
|72.||↑||Milburn: Green. 2014, p. 217.|
|73.||↑||Lehner: Videogames. 2017, p. 67.|
|74.||↑||Fest: Metaproceduralism. 2016, p. 9.|
|75.||↑||Lehner: Videogames. 2017, p. 66.|
|76.||↑||Nguyen: Digital Games. 2017, p. 20.|
|77.||↑||Lehner: Videogames. 2017, p. 67.|
|78.||↑||This child actually has horns, resembling the children in Ico (Ueda: Ico. 2001/2011) situating Shadow of the Colossus as presumably set in the same timeline and rendering the protagonist as one of the ancestors of these cursed children.|
|79.||↑||Hennig: Spielräume. 2017, p. 146.|
|80.||↑||Gorsolke: Interaktivität. 2009, p. 281.|
|81.||↑||Hennig: Spielräume. 2017, p. 142.|
|82.||↑||Abraham and Jayemanne: Climate Change. 2017, p. 81|
|83.||↑||Abraham and Jayemanne: Climate Change. 2017, p. 84|