20 June, 2020 • • 43.6GamesVoice

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This Is Your Captain Speaking

Oscar Harrington-Shaw

Still from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

In a famous essay, the film critic Roger Ebert claimed that ‘video games can never be art’. Outright scepticism like this is not best met by insisting on a new definition of ‘art’; if the new definition permits that video games are art, the sceptic might simply think so much the worse for that definition. In the second feature for the Oxonian Review‘s Voice series, Oscar Harrington-Shaw instead aims to show the significance of video games for the undeniably literary question of authorial voice. Any artistic work involves the interplay of the voices of the author, the narrator, and the audience – in video games perhaps most clearly of all.


In the second chapter of Red Dead Redemption 2, Arthur Morgan, the hardened gunslinger whom the player controls throughout the game, is camped in Horseshoe Overlook, together with the other outlaws of the Van der Linde gang. During this segment, the player is invited to engage with these criminals in order to undertake missions, one of which is ‘Exit, Pursued by a Bruised Ego’. Hosea, the Odyssean member of the gang, informs Arthur that he is preparing to hunt a thousand-pound bear which he sighted up near the Dakota river, and suggests that Arthur join him. After an overnight journey on horseback, fuelled by rabbits on an open fire, the two reach the water’s edge and track a trail of large paw prints leading back into the trees. Just as the hope of a catch begins to fade, and the hunters check over their bait, the grizzly lumbers over, bringing its scarred face inches from Arthur’s, and the player is forced to frighten it off with their revolver, while Hosea cowers behind a rock. Finally, handing over his hunting rifle, the companion mounts his horse and asks:

I think I’m going back to camp to lick my wounds. You coming, or… you gonna track that monster?

Approaches to literary characters cycle through trends. Few today worship at the altar of A.C. Bradley, once the guiding light of Shakespearean scholarship, with his concern for personal details unknowable via the text itself notoriously mocked in L.C. Knights’ 1933 classic, ‘How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?’. Nor do many current Classical scholars take seriously the position of Tycho von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff who, reacting to Bradleyan readings of Greek drama towards the end of the 19th century, firmly asserted the primacy of the overall effect of a Sophoclean scene, compared with which character-drawing is insignificant. Between the poles of Bradley and Tycho, perhaps there is a somewhat safe middle ground: a way of accepting the unreality of fictive beings, while exploring the innate propensity in audiences to humanise such individuals, as well as how certain elements of a text or performance affect our construction of these humanly intelligible ‘minds’. Many scholars of literary and media studies today take something of a ‘cognitive’ approach, turning to developments in social sciences and philosophy, and exploring how research into our capacity, say, to read gestures, to visualise and to memorise can illuminate our understanding of an audience’s response. In the case of character, we can consider how audience members respond to a character’s patterns of behaviour, how they read their body language, and how they understand them through their interactivity. We can also consider the interaction between the layers of minds at play in various genres. In Sappho’s lyric poetry, for instance, whenever a character speaks, it gives a voice to its fictive thoughts, even as it speaks the words of the poet herself, words which are in turn performed by a third mind, that of the singer. Sensing when these three minds clash and gel is part of the appeal of the genre.

When considering such layers of voice and mind in video games, it has by now become a cliché to say that video games provide the clearest case of Barthes’ mort de l’auteur. To many, game studios such as Bethesda, Ubisoft or Rockstar seem faceless in comparison to a John Donne or a Saul Bellow, and thus their authorial voice is difficult if not impossible to ascertain. More importantly, the defining characteristic of video games, interactivity, can, at least to some extent, dampen the authority of the creator. In Skyrim, Bethesda may want to say something of heroism, and to tap into traditions of Norse mythology, presenting a protagonist who uncovers the history of the Old Kingdom, resolves the political schism between the Empire and the Stormcloaks, and ultimately defeats the ancient dragon, Alduin. But they have no control over the thousands of teenage hours spent teaching the hero how to emulate Dude Perfect with a cabbage and a bucket. Such an observation has even been employed as criticism by mainstream journalists, who seem somehow to have slept through almost a century of debate on reader-response. For instance, The Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones writes that:

[T]he worlds created by electronic games are more like playgrounds where experience is created by the interaction between a player and a programme. The player cannot claim to impose a personal vision of life on the game, while the creator of the game has ceded that responsibility. No one “owns” the game, so there is no artist, and therefore no work of art.

But what of Hosea’s question? Whose is the voice that speaks? The offer is appropriate to Hosea’s character; he recognises that he is too old to confront such an animal and so wishes to leave, but he is also familiar with the area, and capable of riding the lawless streets alone, so it matters little whether or not he is accompanied by Arthur. The question is also reasonable to ask of Arthur; he has shown bravery in this first encounter, and catching the bear was the purpose of the trip, but successfully killing would be a mammoth task, so he may feel sympathy towards Hosea and wish to join him on the ride home. However, Hosea’s question is not simply a cutscene: it presents an onscreen prompt, and it is the player who must decide whether to stay or go. The offer comes not just from the mouth of the character; the creator is also speaking, asking the player whether they want to move straight on with the story, or pause and take on the challenge. The intrusion of the creator is far from infrequent in video games. Often there is little attempt to obscure this voice, as in Ocarina of Time, wherein the protagonist is constantly accompanied by Navi, a fairy, whose sole purpose is to provide the player with hints concerning how to progress in the story; or in Skyrim, wherein a quest is indicated as being part of the main storyline with a frame of dragons’ heads. Even when the guidance is assumed by a character within the game, such as when the mushroom people tell Mario that the princess is in another castle, or when Amicia’s father in A Plague Tale: Innocence tells her that grass will keep her hidden, the creator’s voice often dominates, to the extent that the character is little more than a voiceless signpost which points the player towards victory. But here, in the case of Hosea, the voice of the creator assimilates smoothly with the voice of the character, and our sense of the character as an individual remains undisturbed.

Beyond this, the choice which Hosea presents functions to manipulate the player’s desires. As mentioned above, the differentiating feature between video games and other narrative media is interactivity; but since the earliest incarnations on arcade machines, which presented a particularly cruel level of difficulty in the hope of eating children’s coins, many players have approached video games with the expectation of a challenge, and with a drive to win. The player is presented with a clear and simple path to victory, or a challenging deviation. In The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia (1978), Bernard Suits defines playing a game as “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”. A number of recent games, such as the Dark Souls series, Getting Over It With Bennett Foddy or Jump King, strike this definition on the nose, planting a relentless series of obstacles between the player and the single prize of beating the game. In all of these examples, the pursuit of challenge directly correlates with the pursuit of the ending. This can seem distinct from the aim of narrative; we don’t watch a film in pursuit of the credits. Hosea’s question neatly resolves this issue, by offering the player the chance to move straight on towards the end of the game, or to take a challenging detour. By explicitly indicating that going back to camp is the easy option, the question encourages players to enjoy the process—not just the conclusion—of the narrative, exploiting their desire for ‘unnecessary obstacles’. The creators therefore achieve a degree of world building through gamehood, not in spite of it.

Should the harder path be chosen, the potential of failure also assists the designer’s creative voice, rather than dilute it, by augmenting the player’s sense of Arthur’s overall situation and of the broader atmosphere of the game-world. In Getting Over It and Jump King, there is a focus on the masochistic pleasure games can provide to a player who prevails after repeatedly gaining, losing, and re-gaining progress. Both games simply ask the player to climb upwards. In the former, the climber is Diogenes, a man stuck in a cauldron, who can move only by swinging a hammer; in the latter, a king with a knack for remarkably precise leaps, hoping (as is so often the case) to rescue a ‘smoking hot babe’. In both cases, the challenge arises from a combination of sensitive controls and the cruel fact that, at various points on the climb, a sudden fall can erase hours of progress.

This concept, common in games (albeit not to such an extreme degree), of having to restart and replay the same segment repeatedly, can present a challenge for creators trying to craft some larger narrative message. For instance, in another title by Rockstar, Grand Theft Auto V, Michael, one of the three unsavoury protagonists, can bump into Mary-Ann, a muscle popping denizen of Los Santos (read: Los Angeles), who challenges him to a race. The first time round, the satire aimed at LA’s roid-guzzling fitness culture is heightened by its interactivity, as the player frantically taps the button to sprint while the frenzied voice of Mary-Ann yells from behind: ‘You’re not exactly dressed for cardio’, ‘How’s that prostate holding up?’ and, ‘You broke my cadence, you fucking moron’. But the potential for failure, forcing the player to repeat the race until they manage their stamina successfully and achieve first place, adds nothing to the narrative. In the case of Hosea’s question however, the player’s constant wrestle with nature, even if they are repeatedly killed by the bear, doesn’t fall into this trap of banality. On the contrary, such a struggle aptly conveys the hazard of the wilderness, which in turn augments the pervading sense of hostility in the world towards the Van der Linde gang throughout Red Dead Redemption 2, as they struggle to transition away from their outlaw lifestyle at the turn of the twentieth century.

Nobody can prevent players from acting as they please; to restrain this would be to deny the defining premise of the medium. But nor can Umberto Eco prevent us from flicking straight to the discovery in the library’s forbidden room, nor Scorsese prevent us from watching The Irishman on an iPhone. All media rely to some extent on the cooperation of the audience, and while the creator of a video game may concede their authoritative voice to a greater extent, the player’s desire both to interact and to win need not override the creator’s goal to construct compelling characters and in turn a narrative which offers something in and of itself, more than just something to beat. The late Roger Ebert once infamously wrote that ‘one obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game’. Perhaps the challenge to win need not be so inartistic after all.