Thursday, November 07, 2013

Who Needs a Story Anyway?

I began to write this a couple of months ago but I never bothered to finish it: I wasn't sure whether I was actually talking about the game in question or just using it as an arbitrary starting point for some philosophical musings which are dear to me. But since I wrote it, and since it doesn’t seem completely without interest, why not put it online? We’ll see how it’ll do. And if nothing, it’ll at least offer some kind of counterpoint to my last posts on cinematic video games, a critical perspective on a game with minimal storytelling. Anyway, here it is: why the Wii U may be the most moving (as in emotional, expressive, beautiful) video game console yet.

I bought a Wii U last spring mainly because of Ian Bogost’s non-review on Gamasutra: a console expressing self-doubt? Color me intrigued. My wallet didn’t approve of my inquiries about the alleged conscience of a video game console, but even though I barely touched it since, the philosophical leanings of my mind were rewarded despite the protestations of my bank account.

Playing solo, the two-screens is barely more than a gimmick, feeling a lot like a DS with your television acting as a bigger version of the upper screen (or at least it felt that way in the few games that I played). And just like the DS, hardly any game uses the two-screens in a meaningful or innovative way. Having a map of your surroundings always open on your smaller screen may be practical, but it’s nothing more than that; it doesn’t affect the gameplay in any way, or doesn’t lead to a new kind of experience. In a game like Mass Effect 3 (which I haven’t played, so, I suppose…), I’m still shooting dudes in the face (as the official saying goes) most of the time, only now I can know exactly where I am when doing so. Sure, this game wasn’t designed for the Wii U in the first place, so it may be normal that the second screen remains unused, but it was one of the most publicized features of this port, and it is the only way most games use this new screen. I still need to be convinced that this screen in my hand enhance my experience somehow, or, better, can lead me to new ones.

But my philosophical investigation was scarcely aimed at the single player experience anyway: I was way more interested in the possibilities offered by the asymmetrical gameplay promised by the multiplayer games. And on this matter, it is, indeed, a whole different affair: the Wii U becomes a perfect, ludic representation of our relation with space and time in our modern digital world.

How so? Because one player looks at the television, the other at the screen of the controller, so both players are in the same physical space, participating in the same activity. But they’re not really in the same space and time since their attention is directed at their own screen. It is a bit like watching a movie at home with you dearest one while one of you is playing with another screen (cell phone, tablet, laptop, etc.) You may be both at the same place at the same time, but you’re not really in the same space and time. You are there (on the couch) while not there (wherever your personal screen brings you); you are together (in the same room) while not together (looking at windows into two different worlds). The obvious difference, with the Wii U, is that the two screens are related somehow; they’re not windows showing different worlds, but windows offering different perspectives on the same world.

And this is where it becomes genius: Nintendo uses a quite new everyday situation that normally divides people, or at least isolates them, and they try to bridge that gap between individuals through gameplay, or to make the players aware of the paradoxical togetherness/isolation of their condition. The best example of this is in Luigi’s Mansion, one of the mini-games in the Nintendo Land collection. Player one, using the regular wii remote, controls Luigi in a haunted house, where the ghost, invisible, is manipulated by the other player through the Wii U screen he holds. So both players are in the same space (the haunted house, the couch they’re sitting on) while not exactly together (they’re looking at two different screens showing a different image of the virtual space, the haunted house, they both inhabit), and they must try to find one another: Luigi, with a flashlight, tries to find the ghost by directing the light at him, while the ghost tries to frighten Luigi by approaching from behind.

This is, as far as I know, the most beautiful representation in a video game of the experience of otherness – and although I first talked above about our ubiquitous screens, what I’ll be describing from now on is more essential than whatever these technologies brought with them: Luigi’s Mansion is not about how these new technologies change our experience of otherness, but more fundamentally about otherness itself (inasmuch as the game is about something; a better term would be that it’s a representation of).

What do I mean here? Well, we live in the same world as the Other, in the same physical space (the haunted house), but then again, since we can only know the world through our own eyes, our own mind, this Other is nothing more than a ghost for us (and here I’m thinking that maybe Gone Home can be read in a similar manner). We (you and me) do not live in the same world because my world is unique, it exists only through my eyes, just like your world is unique, existing only through your eyes, and etc. for everyone else. We all live in the same world, but we all see it from a particular perspective, so we do not live exactly in the same world (in fact, it is not at all the same world, and “through my eyes” is a simplistic metaphor meant to express something more complex than the mere physical perception of the world, but let’s not wander too far…)

In Luigi’s Mansion, the haunted house has the same layout for every player, but all players see it from a different perspective… – so, yeah, sure, are you saying now, dear shrewd readers, but isn’t it the same for most online multiplayer games? In most of these games, all the players inhabit the same virtual space and see it through their own point of view, their own computer or television screen. No doubt, but the main difference here is in the proximity of the two screens: both players are in the same room, probably sitting on the same couch, so the game uses this real situation and underline how the players are actually together and not together, in the same room, when they’re playing Luigi’s Mansion. The virtual world of the game becomes a representation of the relationship between the two players in the physical world. And here, again, I’m not thinking of how new technologies affect our relationship to the Others: one, two or no screen at all, it doesn’t matter, you are together/not-together on your couch anyway. What I’ll say, though, is that these private screens can certainly accentuate this isolation, or emphasize the fact that we can only know the world through our subjectivity, or at the very least make it more obvious, and this in turn can blind us further from the already ghost-like presence of the Others. These technologies do not make our life “worse” in any way, but they can complicate our experience of otherness.

But I’m drifting away from the game now…

Despite what the ludologists might say, or the formalists or whatever you want to call these strange beasts, not to be neglected here is the representational layer, especially the figure of the ghost, without which I would not have thought of this interpretation. In the vast majority of multiplayer games, the goal is to find the Others, but in most games, when found, these Others must be eliminated, shoot at (in the face, because where else?) In Luigi’s Mansion, the Other must be revealed; instead of killing the other player, as Luigi you must make it appear. And in a sense, if I may pursue my take on ethics, the Other is invisible since we only know him/her from the outside, from his/her outward appearances, and so his/her self remains hidden behind his/her body (the body, which hides as much as it expresses our self). We may never truly know one another, we may never truly know what the world is for the Other, but still we must strive to go beyond this difficulty (or rather this impossibility): we must use our flashlight and try to illuminate the Other, to bring the ghost into the light and out of the darkness. In other words, we must try to reveal the Other, see him/her for what he/she is.

But, and this is probably the most important part, I can only do this from the boundaries of my own experience. That is, I have to direct my flashlight (my conscience) towards the Other because even if this Other make itself available to me, as open and transparent as possible, he/she will remain invisible until I make an effort to know and understand him/her. But this knowledge of the Other is fleeting, evanescent, fragile… a ghost impression that can disappear, morph, reemerge later in a similar but slightly different form and that must be recognized for what it is: subjective, momentary. Not really a knowledge then, but an impression indeed. Which is not to say that these impressions are “false”: they only become false, or rather alienating, dictatorial, when I try to fix them in a definite, objective form. This is what happens when I say the Other is this and nothing but this. The ghost in Luigi’s Mansion doesn’t change (I didn’t play much, but as far as I know its appearance remains the same), but since it’s invisible it can always surprise Luigi by appearing from an unsuspected direction. The ghost is unpredictable, and it’s not easy to catch him (well, with a good player behind him that is). And Luigi feels the presence of the ghost, just like we feel the Other’s presence even when we're not completely turned towards him/her: when the ghost is nearby, the controller rumbles, and then Luigi must find it with his light before it vanishes again…

In short: life is a long game of hide-and-seek where nobody ever finds anybody. I’m no solipsist though, even less a nihilist. I do not believe in any kind of “objective” truth, but I do believe that it’s important to try and reach the Others anyway. It’s an act of faith (I don’t see it as religious, but it can well be). The difficult part is to recognize my subjectivity for what it is, to learn how to look at myself looking at the Others, so that I can tell apart what belongs to me (my emotion, my prejudices, my state of mind at this moment, etc.) and what belongs to him/her (the actions made, the words used, etc.) Only then can I really see the Other, through my subjectivity, instead of seeing only what I feel about the Other (that would be true solipsism).

Ok, now I’m pushing a bit too far, in order to explain my own ideas on the subject. The game has nothing to say about “looking at ourselves looking at the Others”, but it does ask us to reveal the Other, just there, in the same room. There’s a caveat here: this reading works only from the perspective of Luigi, obviously, the one chasing/being afraid of the ghost. The ghost doesn’t try to reveal Luigi: he knows exactly where he is. My point, I guess, is that Luigi can never know where the ghost is, although really he is always right next to him – not only in the game, but also on the couch. And Luigi’s Mansion is asking you to reveal who is sitting beside you, it reminds you that there is actually someone there, next to you, and that you may never truly know this person.

So, what we have here is a console expressing self-doubt about its existence (as Bogost said, and as I well agree), while trying to instill in the players a similar existential doubt (with Luigi’s Mansion at least). For a so-called “kiddies” console aimed at (or just good for) casual players, I’m pretty sure it will have much to teach to its upcoming “hardcore” brothers.

(And, to conclude about my own self-doubts about this article, which were not meant to be a post-modern-ironic-meta-joke-commentary in any way, whether or not this interpretation sticks with the game, Luigi’s Mansion did bring me towards these thoughts; that must mean something, no?)

p.s.: For the possible French readers, Jozef Siroka at La Presse just published an interview with me, about cinema.


  1. Your blog is awesome. It's the only site where I can read some true deep texts about the convergence of cinema and games, and this is a very precious subject to me.

    Sorry about the general comment on this text, which is beautiful too.

    Greetings from Brazil.

    1. Don't be sorry: comments are always welcome, especially when they're so kind!

      My thanks from Montreal.

  2. Many game designers are getting rid of destructive elements in their games. To beat it, you don't have to shoot, slash or jump on ennemies anymore. I feel like it's a step in an interesting direction, which will maybe lead video games to its own "Nouvelle Vague". I hope so, anyway. Vas-tu également discuter du jeu vidéo en français? Il y a Sébastien Genvo sur youtube, mais à pars lui, je ne connais aucun francophone qui analyse et étudie le jeu vidéo comme on le fait plus communément avec le cinéma, sur le web.

    Billet super intéressant, encore une fois.


    1. @anonymous Maxime

      Yeah, I hope too, but somehow I doubt it will reach the mainstream soon (apart from kids' games). The New Wave wasn't exactly mainstream, but its effects were soon felt on Hollywood. I'm not sure that AAA games are even noticing that there's a big indie scene right now, even less the not-on-Steam one...

      As for writing about games in French... I don't know, but it's possible because I'm really struggling while writing in English. I'm more into cinema right now (I found video games depressing, in part because of this constant violence), anyway, so I concentrate on my French articles.

      If you don't know them already, Panorama-Cinéma do write about games from time to time (rarely though). And there's this blog I know of, quite good, a mix of cinema, video games and philosophy:


    2. Thank you, I did not know them. If you are looking for interesting and non-violent games, try Passage, Dys4ia and/or Judith. They are all free. You also have to play Papers, please, which is a marvellous game about bureaucracy, social determinism, corruption, poverty and more.


    3. I think I wrote about Passage at Séquences, 2-3 years ago. I played Papers, please recently and I may write about it at some point; I did like it, to an extent, but I'm not completely sold on the game. I'm not sure exactly why, but mainly I found the "spot the difference, find the error" game so funny in the context, and fun, that the ethical "dilemmas" were completely lost on me. I did not care at all about my family or whoever I let through or not. I just wanted to do my job, which I found quite fun! But I was so bad at it that I managed to get all my family dead quite quickly and I lost my job... I will give it another try soon, but somehow I think I can't connect with human beings when they're nothing more than a number in an equation... Maybe that's the point?

      I did not know of Judith, I will check it out, thanks!