WEEK IN GEEK: This week, Andrew and D. Bethel let you in on the newest in modern entertainment. Andrew takes a dip into Nickelodeon’s 2005 animated show, Avatar: The Last Airbender, while Dan finds himself charmed by the 2015 RPG by CD Projekt Red, The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt.
Shortcast 76 – “A Sense of Place” (30 Nov. 2020): Where D. Bethel mentions Red Dead Redemption 2 in a conversation with Andrew (who uses Fallout 76 as his example) to talk about world-building in video games and how they can be subtle with giving information to players to draw them in.
“Playing the Menu” (20 March 2020): Where Andrew picks up The Witcher 3 after being inspired to do so by watching the Netflix show.
“A Casualty of the Rhyme” (22 May 2020): Where Taylor Katcher shows up to talk to the hosts about the Snyder Cut being released on HBO Max.
After (approximately) ten weeks of teasing, Andrew and D. Bethel finally talk about the newest series of Doctor Who, which not only introduces Jodie Whittaker as the new Doctor (as well as her substantial crew) but also new showrunner, Chris Chibnall, and his team to bring the world a fresh look at a 55 year-old character.
Far Cry 5‘s muddled political message is better for gaming than a perfect one.
Upon its announcement last year, Far Cry 5‘s political promise attracted the liberal gamer base (and disconcerted conservative gamers) as it seemed to be aiming strictly at the American Christian fundamentalism and rural conservatism that have been at the front and center of the country’s political discourse since the last presidential election. With the game’s release and the reviews rolling out, it’s clear that while it is, mechanically, a fun game to play, it doesn’t stick the landing in terms of cultural political commentary.
Instead of taking a hard stance on the current political climate, it tries to straddle the fence, to not take sides and, instead, treat the threat of fundamentalist conservatism as an exaggerated skin draped over the ludic need for opposing forces to attack the player. In this game, the cannon fodder is simply “crazy cult member”, similar to the shift Resident Evil made away from zombies to Othered, uneducated, Spanish, feral, rural villagers in the fourth game (which they doubled-down on in the fifth game by moving out of Spain and into Africa). They may have a different story and context, but they were basically just zombies to shoot down––targets to hit for a “higher score.” Despite oblique references to modern political situations (including a mission built around obtaining a “pee tape”), Far Cry 5 seems to play the politics off as a joke when it pops up at all.
The last few years have really seen an effort to fold political commentary into game narratives and, as it stands now, the results seem to be less than effective albeit provocative. From the nuanced existential dread of the indie darling, Papers, Please, to the hyperbolic but consistent Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, the efforts have been teaching us that developers, at the very least, are ready to tackle such subjects even if their hold on the language, narrative agility, or tools to effectively enact such commentary remains debatable.
This static speaks to the point that how to tell a good story in a game is nebulous at best as gaming is not––unlike books, movies, comics, and tv––a one-sided narrative act. Games are by their very nature interactive and, therefore, the success of the narrative quite literally falls into the hands of the players, be it their attention to the story as they play or the choices they make in-game and how they line up with the intent of the developers. Narrative is still a messy, complex, and delicate aspect of video games.
This results in a lot of “flawed masterpieces”––good games like Far Cry 5 that don’t quite stick the landing. The aforementioned Wolfenstein II offers distinct answers to the political problems it confronts, but can be undermined by its wildly shifting tone from the touchingly serious to cartoonish absurdity. Watchdogs 2 (also from Far Cry‘s developer, Ubisoft) was largely a success but dropped the ball in crucial instances that harmed the efficacy of its thesis. Most publicly, Bioshock Infinite had a huge backlash to its initial critical success as people ruminated on its message after playing the game and found a lot to be troubling. Mafia III, in contrast, seemed to have a strong, clear, and evocative stance on race in the sixties, but the game part kind of faltered. Similarly, Papers, Please had a strong emergent political statement that was powerful for those who played it, but its indie status and, perhaps, esoteric retro aesthetics (as well as limited availability) probably kept it out of the hands of many potential gamers.
Arguably, no game has hit the landing when it comes to political commentary. Something always comes along and taints the potential and lays the game down as a “flawed masterpiece.” If it were to happen, no doubt it would most likely be out of accident than design. Video game narrative is arguably still in a fledgling state, with detractors even stating that story is not wholly useful to the medium (which Andrew and I talked about in Episode 133). So, it’s important to keep in mind that the growth of the medium (of any medium) includes heavy-footed attempts and stumbles.
Narrative is still a messy, complex, and delicate aspect of video games.
As a whole, we are still learning how to tell stories in games. It’s problematic because the technology for game development continues to surge forward as well and the bouncing between the two often feels like a scrimmage rather than a handshake. However, the key word there is “learning.” The way we generally learn is through metacognitive reflection of what we have already done, examining our past missteps in order to make the next attempt better.
And that is where these flawed masterpieces are actually helping the community rather than harming the medium. When Far Cry 5, in this case, so overtly stated that it would be a game with something to say at its announcement, only to walk that back as quickly as possible, the final product’s failure to live up to that promise got the community talking about politics in games, much as games––flawed as they are––like Wolfenstein II, Papers, Please, and Bioshock Infinite did before. This conversation exposes the nuance in the medium and actually helps to establish a baseline of what the community wants, expects, and hopes for in the future. These missteps encourage the audience (gamers, critics, and journalists) to become part of the process instead of simply waiting for the developers to simply say what they want to say (or say what they think we want to hear) and wait with gritted teeth to hear if they got it wrong. While that very scenario was the impetus here, the resulting conversation seems productive rather than agonistic.
That the community is talking about how to tell a political story in a game narrative is generative and progressive for the medium and the culture. Even among gamers themselves, having a game act as the discursive crux around politics, gaming, and narrative shines a light of hope on a community that has done more than its share to darken the skies on those topics. Our culture has evolved us to a point where political discussion mimics sports fandom––picking a team and shouting at the competition. Productive conversation is less about right and wrong and more about looking at the successes and failures of an idea, pointing them out, and making decisions based on them.
More importantly, the community needs to have these conversations with itself more than it needs an effective political statement in a game. If a flawed game gets us to not only intelligently critique and what-if a game but also examine ourselves as a community––to reflect on our goals and diversity––then I would rather have that than The West Wing of video games.
The fallout from Far Cry 5‘s narrative failure will fuel more nuanced and interesting attempts (that will no doubt fail in their own ways) in the future, but the point is that those attempts will be better. What effect does a “perfect” statement have? What benefit comes from the community just sitting back in admiration? What happens to the knowledge we gained from the experience if we treat it as something that has been checked off of a list?
Perfection is boring. Gaming, like politics, always changes as time moves forward. The conversation about the successes, failures, and potential of a game serves as inspiration to be and do better next time be it from Ubisoft, a competitor, or an independent developer––as long as it keeps us talking.
WEEK IN GEEK: Andrew plays the mashup tabletop game, Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate while Dan goes for the yards in Supergiant Games’ latest release, Pyre.
THE RELATION BETWEEN TEXT AND AUDIENCE: Andrew, spurred on by his experiences playing Fallout 4‘s DLC, “Automatron,” and Dan, inspired by his playing of Pyre, talk about how texts can have different impacts––and lead to very different experiences––for their audiences. Movies have spoilers and twist endings while video games of optional side-quests and branching paths of narrative. How much of a role does the audience have in telling the story? How much control do we, as an audience, want?
Episode 09 – Podcastin’ All Night: Where D. Bethel talks about Supergiant Games’ first game, Bastion, and how it emphasizes the audience’s role in completing the narrative.
LUDO-NARRATIVE DISSONANCE: Noted video game critic, Ian Bogost, got blood boiling when he wrote the salaciously titled, “Video Games Are Better Without Stories,” for The Atlantic. D. and Andrew investigate the argument Bogost is making––its good points and its flaws––while also talking about why people play games in the first place. Dan talked about Ian Bogost’s book, How to Talk About Video Games, back in “Episode 76 – Beepop.”
Picture this: A dream-like fantasy world––not unlike something you’d imagine from a children’s book––becomes the victim of a devastating catastrophe. What’s left is little more than hunks of earth, adorned with scraps of vegetation and ruins of homes and castles floating in space. Survivors are few, but they know––as part of their history, mythology, or religion––that their world can only be brought back to life through the mystical, restorative will of something pronounced “Bass-chyuhn.”
For some of you––probably gamers of the recent era––this synopsis may remind you of the 2011 Supergiant Games release, Bastion. A post-apocalyptic action-adventure game, the player controls a character simply known as “The Kid,” a youthful adventurer who lives in a world of suspended ruin, literally. Pieces of the world that used to be float in space, seemingly unconnected like leaves in a pond. What’s interesting about the game is two-fold: first, the game is narrated as you play by another character in the game. The narration is kind of dynamic, responding to how the player controls The Kid as well as revealing story. Second, but related, is that the world only exists as your character exists; where he stands is all that is real. For example, at the outset, The Kid wakes up in his bed in a room, which is just a bed on a rock with half a wall and a doorway just floating in the middle of nothingness. The player can see other floating islands in the background, all at different depths, in different sizes. The player moves the control stick which causes The Kid to get out of bed and as you guide him up and out through the door the ground literally rises up underneath his steps in disparate pieces, creating a path only as you move forward on it. It’s an unsettling feeling at first, but you quickly get used to it, especially when creepy creatures are trying to do you in. The crux of the story is that, despite the utter destruction of the world, The Kid is trying to collect fragments of the world to run a machine called The Bastion (a combination of terraformer, time machine, small town, and space ship) which––when fully powered––has the ability to undo the effects of the Calamity––the event that made the world what it is.
“The Kid” wakes up amid floating ruin. Source: Supergiant Games.
For others, after listening the description at the beginning, it may remind you of the classic 1984 children’s fantasy film, The Neverending Story––the last third, specifically. The movie is based around a child in our present day finding an old book in a book store called, The Neverending Story. The viewers watch as he reads the book, which is about a hero, a warrior-boy named Atreyu, trying to save an ill princess and, at the same time, stave off the oncoming cataclysmic event called The Nothing.
Not for lack of trying, Atreyu ultimately fails at the latter part of the to-do list and the fantasy world is left in literal fragments, highlighted by the image of the princess’ castle floating on a lonely bit of land in the vacuum of space, surrounded by other bits of the once beautiful world floating along side it. Even amid such destruction, the princess assures Atreyu––and the reader of the book––and the viewers of the film––that there was still hope to reverse the effects of The Nothing––in this case, it was an otherworldly entity called Bastian, which happened to be the name of the kid reading the book, a name I’m assuming it’s short for “Sebastian.” Instead of a floating city––a veritable planet all its own––the child named Bastian is imbued with the willpower to affect Fantasia, the fantasy world in the book he’s reading. What’s interesting about this is that even though, to us viewers, Bastian is as fictional as Atreyu and the princess, but he represents reality and the fact that the fictional characters of the book he’s reading can’t repair their world––and that only a person in the “real world” can––speaks to the very nature of fiction and narrative itself: the readers are as important to the creation of a story as the writer is.
Fantasia becomes a world of floating ruin.
While I have drawn distinct parallels between these two apocalyptic fictions––and in my research I have seen no overt mention of the movie by the game’s designers––the similarities I found most interesting weren’t the obvious ones, though they are eerie. Instead, these are fictions about fiction and use absolute destruction and vacuous absence as metaphor for a person’s engagement with fiction––how a reader or viewer actually completes the process that is “fiction.” Games, like books, when unused sit there on a shelf (or hard drive) and figuratively don’t exist when not in play simply because the whole purpose of a book or video game (or a movie, or an album, etc.) is to be consumed. Entertainment products are the closest things we have to tangible verbs in the sense that verbs only happen when they’re happening: a runner only runs when she is running, a painter only paints when he is painting. They are realities conjured by action. When looking at how this existential dilemma is brilliantly illustrated in the Toy Story movies, it’s not a far reach to think that, were things like books or video games sentient, they would be fighting night and day against this sense of non-existence––call it The Calamity, in the case of Bastion (the video game), or The Nothing, in the case of The Neverending Story.
This is my suspicion.
What this means for the player or reader is that consuming entertainment is not completely a passive act. The books you love don’t exist as you know them until your eyes glance over the words on the page––only then do those characters exist at all for you and they cease to be when you close the book for the night. With regard to Bastion and video games, the imagery of the ground flying up to meet your every step is a not-so-subtle metaphor for not only how games are processed internally but that polygons are only really processed at all once the player engages the controller––the real world’s umbilical connection to the virtual world. The point is that these fantastic worlds don’t just exist because someone wrote them––Emily Dickinson wouldn’t be important at all had her poems not been found locked away in a chest; they would be nothing in the cultural and historical schema otherwise because they weren’t being read––fiction exists in individual bursts of imaginative light, a reaction that occurs when a fiction finds its audience, one by one, keeping it alive like the beat of a heart.