On Sophie’s Choice and World Design

I finished reading Sophie’s Choice for a class last week, and I immediately had some thoughts about the way that William Styron thinks about and creates the anonymous doctor who forces Sophie to make her choice. Now, if you have started this and you don’t know what I am talking about, never fear. There is a wikipedia page that you can read if you don’t mind spoilers about a forty-year-old novel about crazed drug use, sex, and the Holocaust.

The novel is about, for those who didn’t read the wiki, see the film, or read the book, a woman named Sophie who has to decide which of her children will go to a death camp. The act is horrific and emotional, and it really just killed me inside while I was reading it, but that isn’t what I want to talk about. I want to focus on the man who forces her to make the choice.

Sophie never knows the name of the doctor who splits her from her children. In a strange interventionist moment, Styron declares that the doctor is named “Fritz Jemand von Niemand,” which is “as good a name as any for any SS doctor.” The following pages and paragraphs are filled with Sophie explaining, in excruciating detail, the moments leading up to her decision to give up her daughter.

However, in all of the historical and emotional detail, there is also a lot of characterization of Neimand. Styron interrogates his reasons, and comes down to the conclusion that he must have wanted Sophie to commit an unpardonable, unforgettable sin, something that could never be forgiven. He creates a choice where there are no good outcomes, and watches the impossible choice. Styron writes:

“The doctor must have waited a long time to come face to face with Sophie and her children, hoping to perpetrate his ingenious deed. And what, in the private misery of his heart, I think he must have lusted to do was to inflict upon Sophie, or someone like her–some tender and perishable Christian–a totally unpardonable sin. It is precisely because he had yearned with such passion to commit this terrible sin that I believe that the doctor was exceptional, perhaps unique, among his fellow SS automata: if he was not a good man or a bad man, he still retained a potential capacity for goodness, as well as evil, and his strivings were essentially religious.”

I am never going to compare the act of playing games to the Holocaust, and I don’t want anyone to think that I meant that in the following.

The way that Styron writes the doctor, and tries to think through his logic, is similar to the way that I often think about game worlds. They are hostile places that do things to the player and the character, but more importantly, they are often totally opaque to the player. The reasons for the player’s existence in the game world are rarely interrogated, but that doesn’t stop us from trying to think through the “whys” of the game. I cannot be the only person who has ever died over and over again and thought “Why are you doing this to me?”  This feeling is always directed at the game world. When I get juggled in a fighter, I think “Why is this happening?” and then I move from there.

But there is often something insidious in me that thinks I am being targeted by the game world. Sometimes I think a game is designed in such a way as to make me feel like I am both bad at the game and just a shitty person in general. This is solipsistic at best, and it reflects the kind of thinking that Styron projects onto the SS doctor; that one man was waiting for Sophie to do something bad to her. In real life, this is rarely true, but in a novel and in a video game, it is the absolute truth. Novels exist to carry their subjects, and so Neimand is there just to inflict pain on Sophie. Video games take is a step further–an entire world is created in order to punish the player for making mistakes and reward her when she does things well.

So what I am saying is that Styron has a problematic way of thinking through his Nazi doctor–he gives him purpose and will; he makes the pain of the choice worse by making us believe that the doctor had his own choice to make. That isn’t true, in the same way that a game world cannot decide to break the rules, or the plot, for a player. They are designed, and because of that, choices are impossible.

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2 Responses to On Sophie’s Choice and World Design

  1. John Brindle says:

    Isn’t the closest analogue to the doctor figure actually the game designer, or the game as it functions as a cultural artifact? I mention this latter option because what a human being chose to choose might be irrelevant: the point is that the game creates limited choices which could have been otherwise, involves specific uses of symbol or language which could have been otherwise, and articulates ideology which could have been otherwise.

    Another way of putting this is that a game world presents an ideological fait accompli. Conventionally, games model a world which is what it is, no arguments (there are exceptions to this – e.g. games which challenge their own representations). Maybe I’m misunderstanding.

    • kunzelman says:

      I think your analysis is spot-on. My argument for why it is the game world and not the designer proper is that I’m not sure we can always say that a behavior that a game as a living, acting agent in conversation with a player is a product purely of a designer. I’m just arguing that the mind and the game are similar black boxes–we have experiences with either, but motivations (even “intended design”) is probably not so great.

      But, at the same time, pragmatically you are totally on point.

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