We take a look at how the world's most immersive medium can be turned on its head to make players question their identities.
There’s one word you always hear being thrown around when people talk about gaming: immersion. As much as it’s linked to PR puff, the word is an important way of outlining how games differentiate themselves from other media; they have a sense of urgency, agency, and presence in and out of the space they put players in, more than any other medium.
Unlike other media, players aren’t, for the most part, passive participants. While the controls may be wrestled from us when we’re locked in place to watch scripted sequences or pre-rendered cutscenes, it’s what happens in between that makes us join the game.
I remember, in the far-off time known best as ‘my childhood’, watching my older brother play some game or another. When our mother asked why he was so ornery even though he was playing, he replied: I died. Even in a game so casual, the response was there; he was more than a puppeteer pulling the strings; the character was an extension of his spirit.
With this in mind, many game developers have taken to outright deconstructing games, usually riffing on two major themes: how videogames work to train players (even if only how to play a game), and how the entertainment value of most games is based on some form of violent escapism.
Deconstruction, when applied to fiction, usually means looking at how a work of fiction would run if it existed in the real world. It is the disassembly of a concept and the examination of its parts, then an opposing reassembly which examines the work’s successes and failings by seeing how its tools function in an opposing premise; e.g. the way Die Hard riffs on the ‘everyday action hero’ by having John McClane be beaten, bloodied, and barely standing by the end (something the superfluous sequels forgot).
Cue games like the wonderfully heavy-handed Metal Gear saga, Bioshock, and Spec Ops the Line, and the notion of playing a game is shown, sometimes painfully, as being pathetically laughable; just when you thought you had all that power, it turned out that not only were you doing what a game was asking of you, all you were allowed to do was that which was allowed by the game’s resources. You are not in control of a character, you are being played, falling into a role.
It's also interesting to see games which deconstruct the idea of a one-man army; what kind of man can kill so many people? Is it skill and guts, are they a supersoldier, or are they facing off against withered forces? How do they live outside of war?
Most supersoldiers, if handled realisticaly, would probably be career soldiers gone glory-mad, or genetically engineered, emotionless soldiers, or sociopaths who enjoy the incarnine fantasies we partake in as much as we do.Cutting phrases like "this is all your fault", or "you enjoy all the killing", ring especially true given the usual line-up of ultraviolent games. Sure, they're mindless fun, but what does it say about gamers when our mindless fun is all about killing?
That said, pulling apart a story and looking at its components to point them out isn’t automatically clever; many half-baked deconstructions would be better off as games played straight. More importantly, a deconstruction, particularly one which is a more realistic take, need not be grittier and darker than its source material; much as Mass Effect deconstructs the many tropes that make up space opera and grant adventures while, at the same time, exploring them in such a way that newer avenues are often found for their exploration. Max Payne 3 upsets the idea of a mighty-whitey character – a usually Caucasian foreigner who enters a foreign land and solves their problems – while both indulging (to an extent) this fantasy, and showing a way out. Even a game like The Darkness manages to take the concept of the ‘Ultra-gritty-bloodthirsty-as-frack’ superhero that was popular during the nineties and reshape it into a nuanced character with a cool costume and showing that yes, you can be grim without being totally poe-faced and adolescent.
These deconstructions work because games play us as much as we play them, because the skills we assume are based off sensory experiences that are often reccurant in games; enemy and weapon types, objectives, allies, even plotlines.In any other medium, would Bioshock's simple twist remain so powerful? It works as a videogame because the chord it struck is endemic to the medium.