Today we feature our first longform article by Oscar Moralde. Oscar is a doctoral candidate in the Cinema and Media Studies program at UCLA. He investigates the phenomenology and ideology of video games and other digital media, along with responses to technoculture and neoliberalism in world cinema. He is also a lecturer at the California Institute of the Arts, and his writing can be found in Well Played Journal, Latin American Perspectives, Media Fields Journal, and the Criterion Collection.
This is an example I like to use to display the importance of theming: Four cards are placed in front of you. You know that these cards always have a letter printed on one side and a number printed on the other. You are also given a rule: “If a card has a vowel on one side, it must have an odd number on the other.” Now, the question is: Which of these four cards must you flip over to determine if the rule is being followed?
- A card with an X
- A card with a 7
- A card with a 4
- A card with an E
Take a moment to think about the answer before moving on.
Now, here’s another example: you are working at a restaurant, and there are four patrons, all drinking a beverage of some kind. You know either their age or what they are drinking. The drinking law here is “If you are under 21, you are prohibited from drinking alcohol.” The question is: Which of these four patrons must you investigate to determine if the law is being broken?
- A person drinking a soda
- A thirteen-year-old boy
- A sixty-year-old woman
- A person drinking red wine.
The answer is below, so try to solve this one before continuing, too.
So in the restaurant problem, it should be pretty clear who needs investigating. You need to check what the boy is drinking, and you need to make sure the person drinking wine is 21 or older. You don’t need to check the person drinking a soda because that is non-alcoholic, and you don’t need to investigate the sixty-year-old because she meets the age requirement of the law. Simple, right?
However, the point here is how long it took you to solve that problem, especially compared to the first problem with the cards — where, by the way, you needed to flip over the E and the 4. Both puzzles have roughly the same structure and conditional rule to assess. But typically, people solve the first problem much more slowly or are even unable to determine the correct answer. This puzzle is known as the Wason selection task, and though it has ended up as a flashpoint in debates about whether we are evolutionarily wired to police social norms, we can sidestep that here to focus on the power of theming. We can more easily grasp a situation and the arbitrary variables that define it, if it takes place in a world that we can grasp with familiar reference points.
In my game studies work, I investigate the linkages between mechanics and theming. For a designer, one often precedes the other: they think of a novel mechanical play interaction, then come up with a setting and characters and rationale to bring those mechanics to life; or, they have an idea they wish to communicate and then figure out mechanics to express those ideas. But the player doesn’t cleanly divide those categories during play. When players touch the controls to discern who (or what) they are and what they’re doing, rules and mechanics and theming and narrative approach them as a stream of experience. If we want to examine what a game is doing or what a game is about, we must parse the processes underlying that experience, which link mechanics and theming in ways that you can’t really disentangle. It’s never either/or; it’s always both-and.
In games, 2016 was a superlative year for the first-person shooter genre. We had the bubbly cartoon frenetics of Overwatch; the pristine abstract time-bending of SUPERHOT, the pulp sci-fi setpieces of Titanfall 2; and the speed-metal revivification of the bloody-demonic classicism of DOOM. Thankfully the specter of “violent video games” as moral panic has lost some of its sensationalist luster over the years, yet there remains the slightly-off feeling of discussing shooters in polite company.
The uncanny frisson of the genre stems from how its theming draws from a base act that many of us would consider beyond the pale; the shooter depicts it, repeatedly, for fun. As a podcaster for gaming site Giant Bomb put it recently when talking about video games with his kids, “Having to explain to a four-year-old why killing is fun is a weird conversation to have.” Tom Bissell, in a meditation on the genre, frames it as this: “Shooters are obviously some kind of power fantasy, centered, as they are, upon enacting, over and over again, one of the gravest moral steps a human can take… They’re obviously tapping into a deep and possibly even evolutionarily vital part of the human mind, in which power asserted becomes advantage gained.”
Shooters are power fantasies. Games are power fantasies. When we play them we assert a kind of power. But the power doesn’t come from seeing the act of killing, which in the world of flesh and blood and consequence resonates because it makes a statement about who has power and who does not. Seeing it on the screen of a game, in a world of algorithmic repetition and respawning, does not state the same thing. Seeing isn’t really the thing we do with games, anyway. We don’t see with our hands.
This is not to absolve games that are cavalier with their representations, and many shooters are guilty of deploying their sound and fury to glorify imperialist militarism and militarized police action, and of taking real marginalized people and effacing them even beyond the normal sins of otherization by making them into targets. But it is precisely because the relationship between mechanics and theming is semi-arbitrary that makes such choices even more irresponsible. The act of shooting in games doesn’t have to mean that thing because shooting in games doesn’t inherently mean anything. And in any case, the main power relationship that exists in games is not between fictional representations. It is between the player and the game as a technological artefact and art-object. We beat the game, we finish it, we master it. The power comes from knowing, in an intuitive and embodied way, the shape of things.
I enjoy watching tennis. Not to the point of a near-religious experience, as David Foster Wallace wrote, but damn near a near-religious experience. I spend far too many hours of the week thinking about embodied aesthetics, and tennis is a sport that possesses an aesthetic clarity that, as Wallace also wrote, comes from the kinetic beauty of “human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.”
As a spectator, in the beginning it’s easy to focus attention on the ball and where it’s going. But as the match stretches out for hours, one has plenty of opportunities to watch the players themselves, to see the footwork that puts them with split-second timing into the perfect position, and to see how subconscious calculations shape the body and transmute into slices and lobs and drop shots. Pull focus a little, and you might see that the ball is not a ball. It’s a marker for the otherwise-invisible fields of force that the players are hurling at each other. The players feel and know in their bodies when that force makes its mark, which is why you can read their agony and ecstasy in those slow-motion replays long before the ball hits the ground.
If sports are about pushing the body to its limits, the length of the court provides that push. The players exert that force of will, but always at a distance. And that separation is key because tennis recalls a duel the same way that boxing does, one point on a spectrum where what lies on the other end are those days when not-so-gentle gentlemen tried to make each other bleed. But in tennis, distance attenuates brutality. Mechanics limit the range of possible themes: it’s all dueling and fields of force, but it very much makes a difference when those fields of force are slamming directly into a boxer’s head. I respect those who knowingly put their bodies on the line with the sweet science, but boxing is not a space I care to inhabit for any real length of time.
What does this mean for the shooter? As a game genre, its theming tends toward representations of people killing other people, or things, or things that resemble people, or people that resemble things. But those images connect to geometry: bodies and their trajectories through space. The player exerts force on these bodies, which seems quite literal when so many of these games depict that force with something as symbolically weighty as the gun. But pull focus a little, and you might see that the bullet is not a bullet. It is the marker of an invisible line, because that is what happens when a player presses a physical button to pull a virtual trigger. The game draws those invisible lines and calculates how, where, and when they intersect. Computers are very good at drawing lines and making these calculations, which is why it is perhaps unsurprising that one of the earliest prototypical video games was designed for a government research computer normally used to calculate ballistic missile trajectories. The game, of course, was tennis.
Even the demonic theming goes beyond a certain adolescent appeal and feeds back into the feel of the game. In the grotesquerie of its malebolgian caricatures, it allows for a wide range of enemy movement and attack patterns beyond what the human form could plausibly enact. Game documentarian Danny O’Dwyer’s deep dive into the glossy 2016 sequel shows the interlock between the player’s geometric toolset and the menagerie of enemies in the game world as a kind of “combat chess,” where the theming helps clearly communicate possibilities within the frenetic pace of the game’s action.
If shooters like DOOM play with the control of space, others emphasize the role of time. SUPERHOT (there’s something about all-caps titles) draws upon the action movie technique of slow motion, which allows viewers to parse the dynamics underlying the cacophony of an action scene that might otherwise flit by in two seconds. Such time dilation arguably culminated in the “bullet time” of the 1999 film The Matrix, a technique which found its way into games and was exhausted as a mechanical fad just a few years later. In fact, in SUPERHOT you may be able to sense the echoes of scenes from The Matrix and other action films, abstracted into shooting blank-featured “red guys” that shatter into pieces inside its antiseptic crystalline world.
The game uses the conceit of “Time moves when you move” and makes the bullets’ invisible lines visible, pulsing red against its stark white backdrops, a la Lissitzsky. This foregrounds the gunfight as a geometric puzzle, something cerebral to unscramble and decode. The gunfight here becomes not noise and chaos but a murmuring tableau. It thus revives what might otherwise be a stale gameplay mechanic by refining and clarifying it, and by detaching it from real-world verisimilitude (though the extent of this becomes the question at the heart of the game’s paranoid cyberpunk storyline) and unfolding all the geometric and temporal permutations contained within.
Titanfall 2 plays with time as well. Although the game’s frame narrative of generic science-fiction future war is rather forgettable, that theming allows for the intuitive understanding of a wide array of mechanical novelties inside individual levels. Gaming culture site Waypoint dissected its signature level, “Effect and Cause” with the game’s developers: gameplay-wise, two versions of the same space exist, with the same general layout, but each has a different set of obstacles and different enemies to overcome. To progress, the player must shift between the two spaces to walk through walls and flank entrenched enemy positions. The conceit clicks because the game hands the player-character a gadget with the gloriously absurd prompt “Press L1 to time travel.” The theming anchors the relationship between the two spaces as past and present, and this transforms the connection between the two from abstract X and Y into a contiguous and continuous field of play.
The science-fiction theming makes possible all sorts of similar gameplay intuition. Automated factory levels allow for constantly shifting geography and geometry, and a cloaking device as a usable item makes the player aware of the importance of enemy lines of sight but also grants the ability to evade them like a rapid round of hide-and-seek. The game continually shifts between levels using the small-scale hypermobility of the human Pilot, who can run on walls and dash through the air, and segments where the Pilot controls a giant mechanized war machine, whose comparative slowness accentuates the shift in scale where individual enemies become homunculi and a city block looks like a playground.
Then there’s Overwatch, a multiplayer arena shooter that Blizzard salvaged from the scaffolding of an abandoned MMORPG project to create one of the most popular and critically-acclaimed games of 2016. My recent obsession with Overwatch stems from the interlock between mechanics and theming, because theming is not story, or at least not exclusively. Players choose to play as one of two dozen different characters, and each match sees six-player teams face off over control of key points on the map, and players run, shoot, and use special abilities to achieve those goals. The game does not have a single-player campaign like the others I’ve mentioned, and it does not deliver any kind of legible story in its endless battling. But because of the sparseness of direct plot, the game ultimately provides an effective character study: in the artistic sense of illuminating facets of a body in space, and in the narrative sense of foregrounding personality over plot. Game mechanics are quite good both.
Tracer, the character portrayed on the game’s cover, demonstrates that interlock quite well. The most salient mechanical characteristics when you play her are: 1) you run faster than every other character; 2) you can blink, or instantly teleport a short distance in the direction you are moving; and 3) you can rewind, meaning you disappear and reappear where you were three seconds ago, erasing any damage you may have suffered in that timeframe. This semi-arbitrary collection of mechanics becomes concrete when it coalesces into the form of a character. You see Tracer when you select her on the setup screen, and hear snippets of voice-over dialogue as you play. Theming elucidates mechanics: her lively body language and runner’s build signals speed and mobility, and she wears a glowing chronal accelerator mechanism that hints at fantastical abilities. Theming shapes the experience: when you blink multiple times in rapid succession, Tracer lets out a joyful yip, a minor sound cue but one that punctuates the thrill of warping space and time, and suggests you should do so more often. Each of the game’s two dozen characters is a similar constellation of mechanics, rendered legible as personalities that clearly communicate the distinct experiences they provide — bodies with different ways of unfolding in space and time.
Through those personalities, the game also drapes its elegant geometry with something less than brutal. It’s certainly far more light-hearted than most shooters. Lately I have taken to practicing my aim every day, running through a regimen gleaned from one of the hundreds of video guides made by Overwatch’s many aficionados. And even though the practice makes me quite self-conscious of my mouse hand, tremulous as a seismograph, there’s something affirming about it, for the same reason I run or swim laps — that notion of rewiring the biomechanics of the self and being able to more precisely discern and control those fields of force. But I don’t think I could fit into my daily life the industrialized militarism of Titanfall 2, the alien abstraction of SUPERHOT, or the blood-soaked hellscapes of DOOM. To return day after day to those worlds would seem wearying in a way that Overwatch’s welcoming spaces don’t. All these games draw invisible lines, but all lines are not drawn equally.