Today I am at The Midwestern Interdisciplinary Graduate Conference giving a talk. I’m posting it and the slides that accompany it up here on the blog for all to see! When I have time, I am going to make this version dynamic by including links to the games, concepts, and creators I am talking about. Until then, happy reading!
The Unbearable Videogame
Last February I was here at this conference and I spoke about the lives of videogames. It was the culmination of a few years of research into assemblage theory, intersubjective ethical relationships, and the biological and philosophical concepts of life. It culminated in a MA thesis, and I encourage you to read it so I can feel like I didn’t waste my time, but when I look back on that project I get a sense of the substrate of concepts that I was attempting to wrestle with. I think I was trying to account for the proliferation of experience when we come in contact with media and what happens to media when it comes in contact with us–I wanted to figure out what was getting produced, what remainders were being generated, and how we could possibly deal with all that baggage that gets piled up when beings encounter one another.
Coming out of that project, I’ve become much more interested in another part of this process: when do these things stop? What’s the limit of a conspiratorial encounter between media and a human interlocutor? In a world where videogames are impressed into our memories and developed to psychologically prey on us, attaching themselves parasitically to daily scheduled life, when do they end?
I apologize for the overly long stage setting, but I say all of that to say that I’ve made a weird lateral move from a fascination with proliferation to a grim desire for demarcation. Now I’m going to talk about the unbearable videogame.
I, like many of you, read Edelman and Berlant’s excellent Sex, or the Unbearable before coming to this conference, and as I read through it I kept straying from the treatment of the issues and examples at hand and into videogames. I kept finding these strange parallels between the arguments and the very structures of games, and I landed on what I think is a nice provisionary statement about games in relation to the unbearable itself: videogames are often used as machines to process the anxiety the unbearable. Let me take a moment to do some definitional work.
I’m interpreting “the unbearable” here synthetically between the positions that Edelman and Berlant elaborate in their book. To gloss those positions, for Edelman the unbearable seems to be an edge where the subject encounters the reality of existence before retreating back into subjectivity itself; for Berlant the unbearable is the intense production of affects and knowledges during an encounter with people or objects. What I see shared by those positions is something like signal to noise or bandwidth–the system of the subject or the being is bludgeoned by a barrage of information and that in and of itself is unbearable precisely because we are not equipped for that kind of overload. This is why the “aesthetic exempla”  of Sex, or the Unbearable are able to do the work that they do: they provide a kind of processing buffer between the viewer and the unbearable itself; the aesthetic object is always some kind of Patient Zero of the unbearable; it does not produce it, but contains it for study.
None of this is news, and I’m laying all of that out merely to point out that videogames function exceptionally well at providing a buffer space between the overload of the unbearable and the relatively stable subject position of any person playing a game. In his Uncertainty In Games, Greg Costikyan makes an argument that the delivery of uncertain outcomes within the bounds of a controlled experience is a core feature in the way that games operate. Under this model, we can imagine games as Fordist factories where the raw, unbearable fragmentations of being are fed through several processes and presented to players in tasty forms that please the conditioned eyes and ears of a consumer public.
This machinic function of the videogame is made readily apparent when we think about some of the popular design models and modes of analysis. In the realm of the former we can talk about the Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics (or MDA) model of game design which focuses on creating a scaffolding of interactive mechanics onto which we can paint some kind of content. For the latter we can look to procedural rhetoric, a method of viewing “the methods, techniques, and logics that drive the operations of systems” and analyzing how those procedures are deployed persuasively to generate games that make arguments. I don’t bring up either of these examples to point out how they are somehow wrong, but merely to illustrate that videogames are often conceived of as engines that make sense of disparate and strange data. In the end, these games are productive, and what they produce is an uncertain experience with a plethora of possible interactions and knowledges within the safety of a particular model or structure. Put another way, they are barely-bearable games.
Systems produce their own responses, of course, and so I want to spend the remaining time I have here tracing what I want to call “the unbearable videogame.” These are games that process the ungrounded feeling of being but do not refine it; instead, they dwell in it, they swish it around in their mouth, and players are left unsettled in the face of it. They do not allow of retreating backward into the safety of a particular kind of subjectivity, and they tend to merely let the rampant production of affects occur without ever culling them or performing triage. I will speak briefly about three games: Queers In Love At The End of the World by Anna Anthropy; Broken Folx by Arielle Grimes; and Dishonored by Arkane Studios. I’ll quickly move through them in order to point out their unbearability and then I’ll fumble at trying to put a bow on this whole affair in a predictable move of perfomative unbearability.
Queers In Love At The End of the World opens with a single word: “begin.” You click and a timer appears on the left side of the screen. It displays ten, nine, eight with a graphic that slowly becomes subtracted as the timer counts down. While the timer counts down, you can click on certain bits of text in order to perform certain actions: you can “kiss her, hold her, take her hand, tell her” with all of those verbs leading to small sets of actions that you can perform with your partner before the world ends. The timer on the left reminds you that it is always inevitable, and when it hits zero, the game cuts to a screen with a different bit of text: “Everything is wiped away.”
The limit of experience, the moment where everything is wiped away, is an ending that stresses finitude and neatly (and depressingly) stitches up an unbearable cut in being. However, that ten seconds of potential interaction and care from lover to lover reveals a different relationship to videogames’ potential to process the unbearable itself. Instead of merely producing a bearable moment of subjectivity, Queers In Love At The End of the World gives us a kind of stutter or ritournelle that dwells on the moment in which one human being opens up with another. The verbs that can be acted upon, and their trees of action, demonstrate the plenitude of knowledges that are opened up and deemed unbearable. We can never pursue them all in one attempt at the game, forcing us to confront the limits of our possible interactions in the time we have left with each other, our favored objects, and the experience of experience itself.
Broken Folx is a game about queer life under contemporary capitalism. It is made up of short story-based vignettes and lacks a clear throughline of a single viewpoint or issue. Each of those vignettes tells of a specific moment in time where the life of an off-screen character fail to match up with the expectations, demands, or desires of a character that we see on screen. None of the vignettes are resolved with any kind of traditional narrative closer, and none of them end particularly well–the off-screen character is fired, leaves their community home, and so on.
If Queers In Love At The End of the World demands that we dwell on the impossible demands made on us by the world, and the ultimate annihilation of any and all demands, then Broken Folx achieves a similar goal by putting on these incredibly difficult single-moment dramas onscreen. I say “similar” in that Broken Folx is also dwelling on the unbearable by forcing the player to work through these contemporary examples of moments where subjects and the demands on those subjects fail to produce anything other than loss and exclusion. Although I don’t think that Broken Folx is inherently nihilistic, and the “ending” is quite hopeful, it still produces a strange overwhelming effect in me of wondering what could be, what might have been, and grasping at the gaps in the story that might explain how we got here from some previous encounter.
Dishonored is the outlier of these three examples, and its development conditions are radically different; it was crafted by a team of hundreds over a couple years with a massive budget where the previous games were created by individuals with very little money relatively quickly. The experience of play is also categorically different, being a first-person stealth game from the blockbuster franchise world. That blockbuster quality would lead one to believe that it would be a “bearable” game that would be processing through the unbearable to deliver a media experience that lands somewhere in the realm of comfort and satisfaction.
However, in rare form for a blockbuster game, Dishonored crafts its fantastical world and narrative around the slaughter of magical whales (really) and in doing so asserts the opportunity costs of the magical technology of this world. In other words, the player’s ability to have fun, be stealthy, and slaughter other humans in the game comes at the cost of alien lives that are revealed to us as rich, intelligent, and metaphyically active in some kind of superhuman way.
While the content is fundamentally fantastical and wholly unlike the two previous games I mentioned, the focus on an unreconcilable shame means that Dishonored gives us a particular kind of lens for thinking the unbearable. It is not about the limits of the subject’s ability to act or the failed encounter, but about the very unbearable opportunity cost of being in the world under a particular regime of existence. Instead of processing through that and justifying it, Dishonored merely presents the reality of things through paintings, notebooks, and factory apparatuses, making sure that the player knows exactly how their world comes to be without being given any kind of tools for fundamentally changing that world.
We currently live in a time when videogames are pushed as methods toward consensus, stability, and reconciliation. This is true across the board from “serious games” that attempt to alter the ways students learn math or how transnational conflict resolution should work to blockbuster releases to independent games on down the line. Games are seen as processes of negotiation in which two parties (whether human to human or machine to human) can come into some sort of synthetic agreement that leaves the humans positively changed; the story comes together well for the characters in the end; the possibilities of a post-oil world are fully contemplated; everyone understands better ways to deal interpersonally with one another. I don’t want to suggest that any of those things are fundamentally bad, but it is my intention here to suggest that the three games I mentioned above have particular value because they show that games do not always have to function this way.
Queers In Love At The End of the World, Broken Folx, and Dishonored all present the possibility of games to stammer, to hiccup, and to hold the unbearable wound open so that we can dwell on it. They bring us back to the failed encounter, the impossible reconciliation, and so open up more potential ways of dealing with those encounters. Much like the positive effects I described above, these unbearable games have a permanent impact on players, but they do not reach toward a closure that would hint that we can ever get over these issues, that we can move through them, or that we can stitch everything up and pretend it never happened. Instead, they dwell. They leave the possibility continued being unbearably open. They do not present utopian endings, but instead leave us to our own devices to craft moments of closure with ourselves and one another.
- Berlant and Edelman. Sex, or the Unbearable, 111.
- Bogost. Persuasive Games, 3.