The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Category: Video Games

Hooray for Six Years of Noby Noby Boy!

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Exactly one week and six years ago, Namco Bandai published Keita Takahashi’s Noby Noby Boy on the PlayStation 3. I bought the game a couple of years later when it went on sale, as I recall. Back when it came out I still read gaming media juggernaut IGN, which panned the game for looking like it could have come out on the PS1. Though that claim is obviously false considering its absolute dependence on dynamic physics, I took it at face value and hesitated before buying it.

Now, I play it more than any of the other PS3 games I ever bought. Whenever I need to unwind and experience some nonlinear (or very linear, depending on what we’re talking about) wackiness, I turn it on and play for an hour or two. Sometime I just lie on the couch and leave the controller on the table, letting the strange wormlike Boy wander gently through the procedurally generated landscapes.

Flat and pastel-bright, the planets of Noby Noby Boy are all named after the planets of our solar system. To play the game, you choose a planet, Earth’s moon, or the sun, and launch out of the chimney of a house that looks like a face. There are no goals other than PlayStation Trophies, and the point of the game is precisely that it has no point. You manipulate the lengthy, rubbery body of Boy, stretching, bouncing, and flying through the air while interacting with structures and AI controlled characters.

These curious denizens don’t have much to say––nothing, to be exact––and are usually content to bumble around, riding various vehicles or assorted alien animal beings. Some of them carry signs, while others just stand there or wander aimlessly. While they are aware of you, and will scatter when you try to painlessly devour (and expel) them, they don’t seek you out. That said, they will take a ride on your back if you let them. And their grip is, frankly, stupendous, as they can hang on effortlessly while you corkscrew through the sky.

Enjoying the game means riding a wave of spontaneous weirdness and glee. It’s an entirely experimental game that requires little of the player except curiosity and the ability to take joy in purely tactile and intrinsic rewards for putting effort into the game. You don’t earn points or get in-game recognition for doing much of anything (exceptions will be detailed below), but I still take immense satisfaction in curling around a giant apple, shoving my body through a tunnel, diving through doughnut clouds, and dancing with strobing lights.

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Takahashi, who also created Katamari Damacy, has once again created a world that is relatively simplistic but also benevolent. Everything moves the way one would expect, and that gives the surreal fantasy landscapes a sense of weight and, ultimately, fun. You, as Boy, are neither the centre of attention in this world nor a nonentity; you’re mostly just glad to exist and knot yourself into a pretzel.
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Like Katamari, Noby Noby Boy has two layers to it, one bound to the Earth and the other much more cosmic. While the game has no progression for each individual player, the length that each Boy (player) stretches is added to the gigantic Girl, a space-travelling bearer of good tidings. As the game kept being played, Girl would stretch to reach more and more heavenly bodies, unlocking new levels. By providing a common goal rather than an individual one, Takahashi gives players both a stress-free experience free from the risk of failure and an end to strive for. Now that Girl has reached all the way back to Earth, though, the game is in a state of limbo. Its space-stretching journey at an end, Noby Noby Boy persists at its most basic level: a wonderful dream to inhabit for short intervals, soaking in its warm and strange energy to make one’s real life a bit more bearable.

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The Bloody Ambiguity of Fran Bow

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Ambiguity binds the bloody heart of Fran Bow. Written, drawn, and programmed by two people and funded through an Indiegogo campaign, Fran Bow is a psychological horror/fantasy game that bridges Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum, and gory mystery stories. What makes it notable beyond its beautiful visual and aural construction is its unabashed morbidity and, I must add, its titular protagonist.

Its gameplay engine works like most point-and-click adventures, presenting the player with a series of puzzles to be solved with inventory items and interacting with virtual manipulatives. Those, like me, who are more interested in advancing the plot and inhabiting the lavish world of Natalia Figueroa’s art, will be gratified to learn that none of them can lead you into unwindable situations and, though they might look intimidating at first, don’t take much time to solve once the logic of the puzzle becomes clear.

Helpfully, each chapter is also accessible from the main menu once it’s been completed, meaning that replaying the game to scour for clues or to relive crucial story moments is trivial. The game also saves the player’s progress automatically, meaning that any software instability or power outage will not set you back. It also removes the ability to maintain multiple save files, but making each chapter selectable makes returning to past areas fairly easy. All that is truly lost is the charm of making up witty names for save files and chuckling about them later

That technical detour complete, I want to spend a few hundred words tantalizing my readers by selectively revealing some of Fran Bow’s intelligent story decisions. My hope is to both encourage more interest in the game as well as to sort out some of my initial thoughts on the aforementioned ambiguity of the game.

Taking place during World War II somewhere in the United States, Fran Bow begins in an asylum, as does its titular character. Imprisoned for a mental illness that has either been aggravated or incited by the gruesome murder of her parents, Fran is given a new, blood-red medication that induces psychotic states. Similar to the various treats and trinkets in the Alice books, these pills reshape the world, peeling the curtain back and revealing a gore-drenched world that often offers Fran more opportunities for escape. Which is not to say that the mundane is any less disturbing; the asylum appears to be using its young patients for surgical experiments.

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One of the milder visions Fran experiences.

Eventually, the story takes a number of diversions that complicate the idea that the game is just about mental illness or the link between the body and the mind. More overtly fantastical and whimsical happenings abound in the middle part of the game, coming right after a sudden and unexpected fall. Still, as others have pointed out, the spectre of mental illness never stops haunting Fran’s steps even in the sanctuaries into which she is welcomed. One of the central problems that Fran Bow refuses to solve, therefore, is the question of whether the fantasies are real or whether they are hallucinatory artifacts.

What’s most important, however, is that the story, despite its forays into inter-dimensional weirdness and speculative intrigues, remains anchored in Fran’s emotional and internal journey. Every locale is revealed to be eminently changeable. Bodies are easily destroyed. Fran’s own emotional state varies considerably between her usual ferocity, doggedness, and curiosity to a state of overwhelming depression and sadness. Haunted by an incarnation of falsity and depression called Remor, she attempts to make sense of her own trauma in a world that is unrelentingly hostile and untrustworthy.

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Upon first finishing the game––a few minutes before starting this post––the theme I grasped most strongly was that of skepticism and the value of one’s own internal intelligence and strength. Fran’s ultimate virtue is her self-reliance and her refusal to trust too easily. At the same time, she is not catatonic or paranoid no matter her (unresolved) relationship with the mundane reality of the game. Her openness to change and to the bizarre, seeing the initially frightening as potentially helpful and offering her aid to those in need regardless of their strangeness: these are what the game values the most. Even the most sinister figures from the start of the game might (not to reveal too much) have the potential for a small redemption. Her primary enemies are fear, lies, and deception, the abuse of science and the dark manipulation of the imagination. Those with power over her who seek to use her for their own ends, trying to drive her to self-destruction and despair. As someone who struggles with creeping depression and anxiety, the game’s unflinching aspects evoked just the right mix of attraction and repulsion.

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Fran (right) standing next to her school friend Alice (left) in the most explicit of the game’s references to its girl-centred fantasy ancestors.

More and more, I’m fascinated by the study of emotions and the ways in which we internalize the world we inhabit. Fran Bow takes that dialectic, that process of metamorphosis and emotional processing, and gives it an aesthetic shell and narrative logic entirely appropriate for such a slippery topic. My thoughts on the game are still unsettled, but that’s partly the nature of the game. It’s one of the strongest games in the current adventure game revival, and I can give it my highest recommendation.

Public History Journal Entry 4: Funny Bits

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Doing history at the local level is often tedious. Just today, I worked my way through an archive of old neighborhood association newsletters. Such publications are the definition of empty repetition unless you have a personal stake in the endless notices about the importance of not parking your car on your front lawn.

After all, the neighborhood association got that zoning ordinance passed, so they’ll be damned if they let their own members violate it. And on and on ad infinitum. Every year an annual Easter Egg hunt, every year another commemoration for the dead rich white guy the area was named after. But every once in awhile you get something that gets you to laugh for sheer antique absurdity.

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Above is a yellow-paper flyer distributed with the neighborhood association periodical. It’s informing citizens to go to a zoning policy meeting to enact ordinances against installing arcade cabinets in certain businesses. Grievances include children “hanging out” and blocking sidewalks, rowdiness, and overall grunginess. Every thirty-to-fortysomething’s arcade nostalgia flipped through a dark mirror or paranoia.

Here the historical appeal is that arcade cabinets were at a liminal stage in American history. they were ubiquitous enough to spark the interest of the neighborhood association, and also just mysterious and new enough to make that interest entirely negative. Never underestimate the capacity of worried homeowners to overreact to “kids these days.”

Its humor stems both from the already-mentioned absurdity, particularly the over-hyphenated, hyperventilating spelling of video games as VIDEO-GAMES. It’s not exactly like reading Chaucer, but the humble line separating video from games ignites enough of a shock of recognition to get a laugh out of most people I show this to.

On a more serious note, or at least as serious as this bee-coloured bit of property value panic can get, we can see the typical role played by the post-1967 neighborhood association in social struggles. Because their funding and membership stems from homeowners and its political goals are all oriented around social harmony and, of course, property values, their relationships with youth, the police, and “disreputable” institutions all take certain predictable avenues. That its opposition to unsupervised youthful free time extended this far at one point is certainly telling––and, in hindsight, hilarious.

Gaming’s Siege Mentality: Even Nice Guys Wear Helmets

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Polygon has a reputation for being from the nice guy side of the gaming press. This mainly stems from it being the target of vilification from GamerGate misogynists and its perspicuity in pointing out the sexism inherent in a character like Bayonetta. That makes it several rungs more respectable than the average online game rag, which exist, in mass, to sell expensive kit to onion-skinned collectors and win cool swag for their highly journalistic staff. Sarcasm aside, they at least attempt to inject a semblance of thought into their output. Such is the case for earnest nice guy features writer Charlie Hall, whose latest article, “Hatred, UNICEF and how gaming’s perception makes it a target for censorship,” tries to defend his hobby from enemies both foreign and domestic.

Though the specifics of the article differ somewhat from the norm––having something to do with UNICEF pitching a fake game to raise awareness for war victims in Southern Sudan––the article has a theme that rings of the primeval. Hum a few bars and the words come rushing back: gaming has a PR problem, and the best way to solve that problem is for gamers to take a genuine interest in the playing habits of people who dabble in games but don’t consider themselves “insiders.” Like a Paul Haggis film, the article arrives at its conclusion by tying together several thematically related plot threads, all of which have to do with gaming’s aforementioned image problems. Hall begins with UNICEF but also includes the recent case of Apple censoring a popular independent game’s nudity while not doing the same for films and television shows it also sells in the same store. He even manages to work in some fatherly disappointment about his career choices.

While the entire article is a noxious stew of individualist liberal nostrums, it manages to provide some unintentional insight into a genuine problem with capitalist subcultures, especially ones like gaming that are essentially pagan monuments to commodity fetishism. Despite being nominally opposed to Let’s string together a few choice quotations and see if we can see the symptoms, appearing like a scarlet rash.

A game like Hatred can disgust me, but while it’s Valve’s right to set the standard for what gets sold through Steam that doesn’t mean I want to see it censored. It’s up to me to put my energy behind games that are the direct opposite of that experience in the same creative space, and to indulge in them instead…

Some people read books that are painful and sad and tragic and make them weep at the end. Other people play games for the same reasons. And no one outside of this hobby knows that.

Gaming has a public relations problem, one so deep that parents fear the hobby will ensnare even their adult children. Games and gamers are regularly judged in ways that are totally unacceptable for any other modern artistic medium…

The only way out of this hole we’re sunk in is for fans of video games to extoll the virtues of this art form, and for critics and commenters to bring their opinions to bear on every work.

Forgive that lengthy interlude, but it’s important to find every link in a chain before you can decide which one is the weakest. What Hall is saying reveals that he has far more ideologically in common with the court jesters in GamerGate. To him, I’m sure that would sound ridiculous since he uses different words and, as we’ve seen from above, different messages are everything. For both GamerGate demagogues and Mr. Hall, gaming culture has no intrinsic problems. Games and games are marginalized and taken for foolish trifles, which maintains the illusion that this colossally profitable and mainstream pursuit is a besieged minority.

Only those in the know have an appreciation for the wonders that games offer, he reasons. Gamers are good people, and GamerGate is an anomaly. Hall never once questions the institutional structures or the capitalist underpinnings of the entire enterprise, the fact that his “hobby” is a lucrative machine oiled by mass marketing, partly facilitated by publications like his. “Gamer” is an identity fundamentally tied to ownership, and this is a value Hall never questions. Not only this, but his conception of censorship and intellectual freedom are clearly not ethical questions at a fundamental level. Rather, they are market functions that deliver the best product to the right consumers.

Gaming does not have a problem of appearance or image. It’s not something that a bunch of freelance game-playing consultants can solve around holiday meal tables. Nor can they be solved with consumer “activism” or “voting with your wallets,” as if mass culture were something that came from the people rather than being something foisted on them. Appeals to the value of criticism and disagreement are cute, but they would be more substantial if the author had any idea what was actually wrong with his deeply disordered community, one he doesn’t even seem to take too seriously given that he uses words like “hobby” and “technophiles” to describe it. At least he’s perceptive enough to notice that the game industry is basically a branch of the gadget business––though he shows no sign of thinking that’s a bad thing. Games can be wonderful, but are fundamentally constrained not by an image problem but by the demands of a capitalist system that marginalizes anyone who can’t fit the mass-market mold. Real artistic progress requires more than a few stories: it takes a cultural revolution, which no one in the gaming press, to say the least, is capable of even broaching at this point.

Sam and Max: Freelance Kitschmongers

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Human beings seem to have this idea that, if animals could talk, they would be terribly cynical about everything. One of the archetypal examples of this is Hobbes from the Bill Watterson comic strip. Even though Hobbes is a bouncy, joyous character, his view of humanity is pitch black. I bring up Calvin and Hobbes because those title characters make an informative comparison to Sam and Max.

Both are duos of comic characters created in the 1980s who have a great deal of cultural prestige despite not being as popular as, say, Snoopy. Where the two diverge is in tone. Calvin and Hobbes certainly had a satirical streak, overtly parodying Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, and Superman‘s overheated prose styles and flashy artwork. Wattersons’ characters also often took opportunities to mock disposable American consumer culture, conveying their creator’s well-known aversion to commercialism. The comic strip could also have a genuinely curious spirit to it, mocking hypocrisy but openly celebrating creativity and the wonder of nature. Sam and Max, however, descends from the Looney Tunes lineage. In all of its incarnations, the characters are manic, frequently self-aware, and almost totally amoral, committed to causing chaos and raising Cain. It’s not hard to see the deranged, sharp-toothed lagomorph Max as a 1980s update of Bugs Bunny with an appetite for destruction and a craving for stomach-churning junk food.

But now I want to focus less on the characters of Sam and Max themselves and more on their relationship to that junk food. And cheap toupees, celebrity-shaped gourds, circus freaks, and the world’s largest ball of twine. Yes, this is another salvo in my ongoing discussion of kitsch, the commoditized lifeblood of the American art market, the river of tripe that New York galleries blissfully glide over like unicorns in a summer meadow. One of Sam and Max’s defining characteristics is their prostration before almighty plastic doodads and greasy processed foods. They are head-over-heels ironically in love with everything chintzy and pandering. In many ways, they are the ideal post-Fordist consumers: ironically detached and able to mock the hell out of knick-knacks and fried foods but only too willing to purchase tons of it. In the comics, games, and the television show Sam and Max: Freelance Police (the first game being our main topic for the evening), the characters have an ambivalent relationship to filth and junk. They are “skeptical hedonists,” savants of the known-to-be-bad. Observe the following typical exchange:

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Text: Sam says, “It’s one of those impossible-to-win carny games that have been ripping off the American consumer for decades!”

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Text: Max says, “I love capitalism.”

 This conversation happens early in the game and serves to establish the tone of the piece. Sam, the more moral one of the pair, sports both a faux-Bogart voice and a withered sense of duty. Max, on the other hand, is more like the aforementioned Bugs Bunny mixed with the Tasmanian Devil. His heart is in it for the anarchy, with any attachment to the cause of justice being tenuous at best. Jokes like this function in a specific way: they call attention to social problems, trite tropes, or other unpleasant business, but lacking any kind of critical edge. There is no imperative to the punchline because the jokes are subsumed in a text that dissolves everything into a cartoon triviality. The pace of such lines works differently in an adventure game than in a television show, of course. In a TV show, episodes develop themes and incidents over time in a linear fashion, which means that jokes can play off of one another and relate to each other in time in a very specific way. In a game, on the other hand, every joke is its own self-contained bit.

The little gag shown above happens when the player inspects a carnival game, which may not ever even happen. Of course, for the joke to work it still has to be in-character and have good internal timing, but the flow of language in the game is not predetermined or holistic but highly contextual: click on something and be rewarded for a joke. It’s a different kind of humor, and because of that these “political” jokes have even less impact than they would in the show. Lines like this pertain to a single situation, producing a witty retort or maybe some back-and-forth leading to a punchline, after which the player clicks on something different. There is a flow, and themes and plot lines do develop, but there’s nothing incisive or biting about it; it’s parody but, ironically given Max’s grin, toothless.

Chuck Kleinhaus notes that parody is “persistent under conditions of advanced capitalism. Parody stands as a means of accommodation to things that people think they cannot change.”¹ Sam and Max are almost utterly unprincipled, which is a winning trait for cartoon characters because they can embody a pleasant fantasy of consequence-free mayhem. It would be wrong of us, though, to mistake wry jokes as being in any way subversive. Let’s look at another gag to see another example of what I mean. The setup is that Max is appalled by the fact that the Siamese twins who own the local carnival are technically naked since their skin just grows as green vinyl––it makes little more sense in context––whereupon Sam reminds Max that he is also naked. Max responds:

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Text: Max says, “Yeah, but I’m cute and marketable.”

I have to concede that, of the two technically naked characters in this scene, Max is easier on the eyes. More to the point, what we have here is a self-aware commodity. Not only that, but the mascot characters in this capitalist entertainment product are fully aware of their being shills for a game company. What’s notable is that not only are Sam and Max utterly at peace with their kitschy American world, they are knowingly kitsch themselves.

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Pictured: the kitschy world of Sam and Max: Hit the Road.

To delve once more into the scholarly realm, let’s quote Kleinhaus one more time:

The characteristic parody of self-aware kitsch promotes what John Fiske has called “skeptical hedonism” in audience response to much mass-culture documentary, that is, we all know this is a fantasy, but we want in on the fun of such phenomena, for example, as television wrestling or supermarket tabloid headlines. In this duality of response, self-aware kitsch is related to, or overlaps with, Camp.²

What we have here is an explicit example of what modern advertising thrives on: its ability to convince its audience that it is in on the joke. At this point, satires of advertising are often actually advertising themselves, showing to me that satire is ultimately toothless as a tool for social change. As long as capitalism needs to stoke consumer demand to absorb its immense surplus and avoid crises, advertising will evolve in response to culture’s attempts to render it impotent. People become aware of advertising ploys and, like in Sam and Max, call attention to them and make a show of being unaffected. Coincidentally, Bill Watterson provides us with an apt demonstration of this process:

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Text: Calvin says: “Another thing to remember about popular culture is that today’s TV-reared audience is hip and sophisticated. This stuff doesn’t affect us. We can separate fact from fiction. We understand satire and irony. We’re detached and jaded viewers who aren’t influenced by what we watch. ” Hobbes says: “I think I hear advertisers laughing.” Calvin says: “Hold on. I need to inflate my basketball shoes.”

Ultimately, Sam and Max make for weak satirists because they rarely draw connections between the obvious shortcomings of their daily lives and deeper social determinants. That doesn’t make them unfunny or bad cartoon characters, but as parodies or satires go, they seem distinctly lacking in substance. There’s no edge to them, which makes them, as Max astutely points out, marketable. But that tends to mean the opposite of critical, and Sam and Max tend to want to have their cake and eat it too a little too often. Though, with sweet teeth like theirs, I’m sure that sounds delightful to them.

Notes:

1. Chuck Kleinhaus, “Taking Out the Trash: Camp and the Politics of Parody,” in The Politics and Poetics of Camp, ed. Moe Meyer (New York: Routledge, 1994), 171.

2. Ibid, 160.

Bioshock Infinite’s Bleeding-Heart Liberalism

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Every form of production, artistic or otherwise, is a struggle with the material, dealing with its internal contradictions and applying force to resolve them in a satisfactory way. It’s often more delicate than that blunt description might suggest, but perhaps that’s only an appearance, the result of a successful war against human and material limitations. Bioshock Infinite, however, leaves contradictions to fester and eat away at its integrity. This is even more curious because the fatal problem––namely, the dissonance between narrative and interactive mechanics––is extremely common in games. What’s more, the problem is not that the game and the story are about different things. Both tackle issues of violence, greed, human misery, capitalist exploitation, etc. Unfortunately, the two sides go about exploring those things in irreconcilable ways. To properly explore this game, we’ll need to briefly look at the game’s press reception, a couple of more critical looks at the game, and finally try to come to the root of why the conversation has worked itself out in the way it has.

First, I’m taking a representative review from the mainstream gaming press. Edge Online awarded the game a 9 out of 10 and lavishes praise on the game throughout. The review opens with this positive appraisal:

“BioShock Infinite is a lavish, spectacular game…where themes such as the nature of choice, metaphysics and the effects of political isolationism jostle for your attention alongside electrifying giant robots with your genetically altered left hand and then shooting them in the face. That Infinite can handle the collision between its philosophical concerns and its dead-end thrills without seeming hopelessly crass or overly portentous testifies to its often touching script, excellent pacing and the kind of unparalleled world building that shows you all of this coexisting cohesively in a golden city in the sky.”

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What’s curious about this passage is that, in its headlong rush to praise, it ends up stumbling right into the game’s core problem. Edge notices the “collision”––if it didn’t, its author’s powers of observation would be much in doubt––but argues that the game is able to synthesize its disparate elements. After enticing the reader with such a promising overture, the author is obliged to provide details. One catches the eye:

“…Columbia is alive, its civilian populace a constant presence throughout the game as the city teeters on the brink of war. As well as providing chances for the shooting to cease, these moments let you interact with Columbia’s people…”

We’ll be seeing another author make the exact opposite claim later. For now, let’s briefly discuss the accuracy of this detail. Most of your non-violent interactions with the Columbian populace come either at a carnival at the beginning of the game or in brief moments later on. Unlike in Dishonored, a game I’ve covered extensively here, you can’t speak to townspeople. All of your chats with the populace here are scripted, sometimes with a binary choice presented, none of which end up mattering much. For the vast majority of the game, Columbia is a shooting gallery. In rather egalitarian fashion, nearly all of them exist to become corpses and replenish your money and ammunition. Moving on.

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When we click through to the second page of the review, we see this curious paragraph, which is worth reading in its entirety:

That said, there are times when all these incidental character details can bump up against Irrational’s more overt attempts to make a useful AI companion. At unpredictable moments, she’ll toss coins she’s scavenged at DeWitt, her canned call for your attention puncturing the quietness of a scene. Her role as the pair’s lockbreaker, meanwhile, can sometimes pick at the illusion of her autonomy, since she instantaneously and cheerfully responds to DeWitt’s beck and call. This responsiveness makes far more sense on the battlefield, where she can pull aid (cover, mechanised allies or guns) through tears at the press of a button, and where the urgency of her unpredictably tossing potions, health and ammo your way never strikes a discordant tone.

Only two paragraphs after the started to justify the big black “9” at the end of the text, they start to wander. Elizabeth’s agency as a character is eroded. Her scripted moments and quiet moments alone clash with her strange omnipotence over locks. In other words, she acts one way in the (scripted) narrative and another in the story the game tells moment to moment through player action. In the former she’s an active presence, a moral compass, and something of a terrifying power in her own right. In the latter she is a tool, sweeping corridors for loose change and ammunition to feed the protagonists’ prodigious appetites. The review has one more unreservedly positive paragraph before focusing once more on problems, noting that enemies are too “damage absorbent,” that the story “unravels” near the end, abandoning its setting for its own flights of sci-fi fancy. After a canned “but the game is ambitious and beautiful and so all is forgiven” conclusion, the review ends on that puzzling little number. Another contradiction for a game that seems to generate them.

Leigh Alexander gave the game a thorough critique over at Kotaku, making essentially the same point I am with a different method. Additionally, she comes to a strikingly different conclusion than I have. She writes:

“This is a game that lives in its own alternate universe, is in love with its own cleverness, instead of being genuinely clever. There are tears everywhere. And in the game.”

Though I would argue that Alexander’s piece is also far too clever for its own good, it identifies the contradiction that tears Bioshock Infinite to pieces. Though she errs in her explanation by largely refusing to make one––only passingly noting that it might have resulted from a stressful and protracted production period––she can see clear as day that the game’s drudgery and lightweight treatment of violence pillages whatever gravitas its script might have had. While it doesn’t merit a lengthy treatment here, the Foldable Human has also discussed Infinite as an example of games that treat violence as part of their narratives rather than just vomiting it in front of the player uncritically. It almost solely deals with the scripted narrative, and in particular with the narrow story of the protagonist himself, so it is, strictly speaking, accurate. On the other hand, the defining feature of infinite as we have seen and as others have noted, is its inability to digest all the blood it’s spewing up, its failure to actually understand and incorporate violence into a coherent story. As we’ve said, there is a script and a game and rarely do the twain ever meet.

What is needed is a new, thoroughly materialist, critique of the game. This will be necessarily short, more of a collection of notes toward a broader investigation into games as a medium and how they reproduce capitalist, in particular liberal, ideology. With that in mind, let’s take what we’ve gathered so far and carry it a few steps further.

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Magic pants and cakes in safety deposit boxes are only two of the surreal absurdities in the game.

Bioshock Infinite’s dissonant approach to violence not only compromises its scripted statements on “violence” in the abstract but also hopelessly confuses its stance on concrete oppressions and capitalist exploitation. Its horrific failure to deal with the issue of race largely stems from its narrow-minded vision and its insistence on some fanciful idea of “balance” that minimizes the destructive effects of oppression and vilifies the just violence of the oppressed. In the game, the revolutionary Vox Populi, led by charismatic black leader Daisy Fitzroy, begin to overthrow the racist, capitalist nightmare of Columbia but are immediately vilified for using violent means to do so. Liberalism fundamentally mistakes reactionary and revolutionary violence as equal in weight. After all, in a nation of free individuals, to kill is to violate the rights of another in the cruelest way. Yet the liberal notion of “freedom” is only so much mist. It vaporizes the moment you expose it to the sunlight. I suspect that people only noticed the egregious condemnation of revolutionary violence in this game because it is hamfisted and handled so quickly that it quickly ceases to matter. Labour strikes, revolutions, pogroms, public humiliations, back room police torture––it all solves to the same thing in Bioshock Infinite. 

By the time the game ends, the game no longer cares about Columbia or its people. It cares about Booker, the protagonist. It cares about Elizabeth in all of her many alternate forms. It cares about maybe one or two other characters. But, as the wise reviewer at Edge noted, it no longer cares about its own setting. Even the script, so lauded for its high aspirations even among skeptical critics, loses all of its weight the moment you start slaughtering black and Irish revolutionaries like so much cannon fodder. Supernatural events begin piling on top of each other; ghosts appear with little warning; the ending folds in on itself so many times we forget that its plot is actively erasing the lives of all those slum-dwellers and wage slaves the game spent so much time lovingly showing us. Loosed from its social bearings, the game reduces its setting to window dressing. And by removing its protagonists from meaningful history and shoving them into a sci-fi house of mirrors, it turns them into ideas or things. Everything is the same as everything else. Nothing matters. It’s solipsistic and weirdly mindless and deeply, deeply liberal. Humanism of this kind, that fetishizes the individual “journey” and makes the player’s avatar, an objectively horrific human being, a sainted martyr by the end fo the game, spits in the eyes of anyone working for progress in the world. Its contradictions finally drown the game, its political and moral incoherence far too dense for the game to keep afloat.

This character barely shows up in the story before she is completely vilified. The propaganda was right, I suppose!

This character barely shows up in the story before she is completely vilified. The propaganda was right, I suppose!

Considering the commercial compromises that probably introduced many of these toxic tensions into the production process––after all, the game needed to justify its enormous budget––it’s only too appropriate to cite Samir Amin’s Eurocentrism. The game offers the player only the redemption “defined and limited by what capitalism requires and allows” (Amin 14). It is a document struggling to be radical but finding itself incapable of doing so because its message––even that “higher” script––serves the ruling class alone. What’s painful is that Bioshock Infinite is actually quotidian, even minor. It is what capitalism looks like, depicted in all its cynical glory. A formerly critical modernity curdled into mysticism, liberation for the bourgeoisie crushing the vast majority of humanity. What sets it apart is its conspicuous messiness, the openness with which it shows its wounds. But this is a game. With all its blood and guts shed without much comment, it cannot hope to compare to imperialist capitalism in the flesh. That’s no comforting note to end on, but by identifying such contradictions in media, we can hopefully find them in our real world and struggle to overcome them. I will let Frantz Fanon have the last word:

We must leave our dreams and abandon our old beliefs and friendships of the time before life began. Let us waste no time in sterile litanies and nauseating mimicry. Leave this Europe where they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them, at the corner of every one of their own streets, in all the corners of the globe. For centuries they have stifled almost the whole of humanity in the name of a so-called spiritual experience. Look at them today swaying between atomic and spiritual disintegration.

The Wretched of the Earth: Conclusion

Concerning Little Inferno

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I’ve got these old toys
I’ve got this box of memories
We’ll shove them in the fire
And breathe in the flaming potpourri
It’s little inferno just for me

“But I thought playing with fire was dangerous.”
“Well you’re right
But up out of your chimney
Way up in the sky
It’s been snowing for years
And we just don’t know why
Our world is getting colder
But there’s no need for alarm
Just sit by your fire
Burn all of your toys
And stay warm.”

Little Inferno’s cleverness is to a great extent summarized in the eerie advertising jingle you see above. I should probably give the game a more thorough introduction before getting too far ahead of myself. Playing the game is simple enough. A fireplace rests in front of you. You browse a catalog of items, buy the items, and burn them in the fire. Every item takes a certain amount of time to ship, and burning an object will give you more money than it originally cost to order. You take these profits and invest them in more stuff to burn. The upshot is that you stay nice and warm while getting cheap, digital, pyromaniacal thrills. Inside the fireplace cynicism rules without question. Everything from family photos, personal letters (your only contact with the outside world, at least at first), and ragged toys to modern lamps and cheap thriller novels are fodder for the fire. And if your house burns down? Well, let no one say that you weren’t warned. Besides, everything just floats up the chimney into the cold world outside. What makes you any different?

At a certain point, even a hardened predator like myself felt almost sickened by the sheer amount of wreckage I created in the fire. All of it seemed empty and pointless, and indeed the game tips its hand in this regard. The fire is pointless. Before its ravenous mouth all things are equal. It is only once you complete most of the game’s objectives that the world outside the fireplace begins to open up, and that world is an utterly different place. Out there, the world is slowing down and freezing over, the victim of some environmental catastrophe. The rich can escape for real, while the poor have to subsist on the Little Inferno, keeping their children unaware and warm in their houses. That is, until the houses burn down one by one. At that point, what is a child to do? The game’s answer to this question is not entirely satisfactory. Resonances with Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax abound, but Little Inferno lacks most of that work’s didactic punch. Most of its narrative power derives from the absolute contradiction between the world inside the fireplace and the world outside of it. Inside, nothing matters. Outside, everything matters a great deal. Though most of what you do in this game turns out to be utterly frivolous, it serves as a mere prelude to game with far more on its mind than throwing plastic consumer crap on the fire.

Part of the game’s genius is how closely it connects the apparently opposite poles of sentimentality and cynicism. Don’t mistake me: I am not saying that the outside world is a sentimental one. Rather, the sentimental world of kitsch and manufactured pleasures–the catalogues, the bouncy mall music, the shiny–generate and sustain cynicism. Everything is interchangeable for everything else, just different means of earning more money to burn more stuff. It’s through constant repetition that the game insinuates its larger points for the player. The first dozen products are entertaining enough when burned, but after awhile pursuit of gold and little stamps that make shipping go faster become all-consuming drives. Nothing feels real, and it’s not until the world outside appears that you might begin to grasp the consequences of all the smoke you’re pushing into the air. It’s primarily a pretty nifty toy for burning things, but it manages to overturn its own frivolity by calling attention to it. Not bad for a glorified fireplace.

Stealth Class Warfare: A Marxist Critique of Dishonored

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Introduction: this is a paper I wrote for a class, which will explain its relative lack of tigerly finesse, that certain indecipherable dash of special I add to all the work I publish here. All the same, I think it’s worth sharing since there are a few paragraphs in there describing Marxist criticism in general, and those might be useful for anyone looking for an introduction to that topic. The other reason I decided to post this on the blog is that its genesis lies in a short little piece I wrote awhile ago, which can be found here. Consider the article through that link portal a TLl;DR version of what you see below. Enjoy, if that’s how you roll.


 

Dishonored, a stealth action video game developed by Arkane Studios and published in 2012, demonstrates perhaps better than any mainstream commercial video game the Marxist conceptions of ideology and class conflict. Set in a fantasy city of Dunwall, heavily based on nineteenth-century Great Britain, the game plunges players into the human suffering unleashed by an industrial revolution. The player spends the majority of the game navigating power politics and trudging through Dunwall’s slums in the wake of a rat-borne epidemic. Casting the player as the empress’ bodyguard turned assassin-for-hire, the game exposes the economic and social basis of power in Dunwall, showing how shifting cadres of aristocrats and military men seize power while leaving the class structure of exploitation intact. While its plot apparently indicts violence and greed in politics, it ultimately reproduces capitalist ideology through its valorization of the heroic individual at the expense of any real changes in the society it depicts. This is evident in the structure of its narrative, the ways in which the game restricts player freedom, and a formal reliance on (capitalist) power fantasy common to most video games.

In order to understand how Marxist criticism illuminates various contradictions within Dishonored, the theory deserves a brief introduction. At the basis of all Marxist theory is the philosophy of materialism. That is, “everything belonging to the world of ideas or concepts…grows from material conditions and practices” (Brummett 151). Though Marxist critical methods analyze the same texts as other forms of analysis, it distinguishes itself because it centers what Anatoly Lunacharsky calls “the decisive role…played by the most natural and material economic relationships,” and especially “forms of labour” (Lunacharsky 1928). In other words, Marxist criticism understands literature not as the freestanding creation of transcendent individuals but as the product of social forces. Terry Eagleton summarizes the task of Marxist criticism as understanding “the complex, indirect relations between those works and the ideological worlds they inhabit,” the ways in which objects of daily life, including video games, films, literature, and even web pages interact produce and are produced by the society in which they are born (Eagleton 6). When analyzing Dishonored, therefore, the critic must not only consider the internal logic of the work––its plot, characters, symbolism, etc.––but also the way that logic emerges from capitalist societies and helps to either reinforce or undermine capitalist hegemony.

Another vital aspect of Marxist critical theory and its application to Dishonored is how the game (re)produces capitalist ideology in the people who are meant to read, or, in this case, play them. Video games are not only passive products of capitalist social forces but also active participants in society. Though Marx distinguished between an economic “base” and an ideological “superstructure” for society, the former does not mechanically determine the latter in a straightforward fashion. Rather, the superstructure has what Althusser calls “the reciprocal action of the superstructure on the base,” or the ability of ideological products, like video games and books, to reinforce or change the base (Althusser 1970). Though the material base remains the final determinant of the structure erected on top of it, products like Dishonored are not merely symptoms but actively help to shape the world. They accomplish this by imparting ideological messages to the people consuming them. As Eagleton notes, “Books [and video games] are not just structures of meaning, they are also commodities produced by publishers and sold on the market at a profit” (Eagleton 59). Therefore, video games and other cultural artifacts reproduce class structures at both an ideological level, influencing those who consume, and at an economic level by padding capitalist profits. Both of these factors place necessary limits on the ability of a corporate product like Dishonored to subvert or overthrow the powers that produced it.

Dishonored’s remarkably organic and developed setting sets it apart from most action video games and also reveals the sharp class distinctions of any capitalist society. At the top are Corvo’s, and by proxy the player’s, masters, who include a religious hierarch, an admiral, and an aristocrat. Their rooms are stocked with books, recording machines, fine wines, and fancy luggage. At one point, the player must assassinate or otherwise neutralize the tyrannical Lord Regent’s mistress at a party in her mansion. Before this mission, the player wanders through working class slums and brothels, witnessing the plague’s devastation. Buildings crumble, factories lie dormant, and victims scavenge for food in a daze while gangs sell black market elixirs to those who can pay. It eerily replicates Friedrich Engels’ description of urban conditions in the nineteenth century:

“In [slums], the germs hardly ever die out completely…[they] spread beyond their breeding places also into the more airy and healthy parts of the town inhabited by the capitalists. Capitalist rule cannot allow itself the pleasure of creating epidemic diseases among the working class with impunity; the consequences fall back on it and the angel of death rages in its ranks as ruthlessly as in the ranks of the workers” (Engels 1872).

Military oppression is omnipresent, with armed guards and electrified fences barricading the streets. By contrast, the mission in the mansion is a picture of luxury and indulgence. Food overflows the tables, the player, in disguise, can mingle with the industrial barons and landowners who form the real basis of power in society. Even here, however, someone needs to prepare the food and keep the alcoholic cider flowing as the upper crust attempts to forget that disease respects no social distinctions. The player encounters servants, maids, and soldiers as well as merchants and lords, who in their own way embody and support their rulers’ hegemony, albeit in different ways. The game poignantly demonstrates Marx’s notion of capital as a “coercive relation” that subordinates workers and forces them to sell their ability to work to survive (Marx 424-425). Through exploration and talking to various people, the player begins to understand the extent of economic exploitation in the society, as the wealthy extract profit from the labor of others and only feel anxiety when the plague begins to dry up their labor supply. As the player experiences the setting of Dunwall in Dishonored, therefore, s/he sees a society riven with divisions and injustice, and the narrative explicitly makes righting these injustices part of his/her mission. The game’s narrator, a strange disembodied heart that gives the player exposition, speaks a string of moral condemnations of various people in the world, especially those whom the player has to assassinate. “Such corruption! Such hypocrisy! Make it last no more,” it implores the player, thus setting up the plot as a story about justice in society and not merely a naked exercise of violence by an avatar at the player’s behest (Arkane Studios).

Though it belongs to the action game genre, Dishonored encourages players to win using nonlethal means. After each mission, the game evaluates the player’s performance, indicating whether his or her actions improved or destroyed the city. In “high chaos,” Dunwall is progressively swarmed by rats and plague victims. After making crucial decisions, the player receives a visit from “the Outsider,” a spectral figure who passes judgment on him or her. This “morality system” allows the player to embody the society itself, as his or her personal choices determine the fates of an entire civilization. Developer Harvey Smith, creative director for the game, writes that “the game is definitely built around the appeal of being very powerful in different ways…You can play the game like guns blazing [sic] and kicking in the door…then there’s even a further approach to our game where…you ca literally finish the game without killing anyone” (Nutt 2012). Arkane Studios encourages players to choose their own path through the game, and the morality mechanic only enhances the player’s sense of agency. This conflation of individual action and social forces simultaneously reinforces and subverts the power fantasy of the game, giving the player more control while also giving negative feedback (i.e. making the game more difficult) to punish “excessive” aggression.

The game’s most pointed illustration of this idea is in a confrontation with another assassin named Daud, who notes that, though Corvo imagines that he is serving the cause of justice, he is actually just killing one group of aristocrats on behalf of another group. At the end of the game, depending on whether the player has acted morally according to the game’s criteria, the city is either overcome by plague and plunged into chaos or the rightful heir is put back on the throne and all is well, with a few subtle graded possibilities in between. Though the game allows the player to kill or be merciful, this morality system is circumscribed by the class society in which the game takes place and the ideology of the society that created it. Though the player’s is meant to consider his or her motivations and actions, he or she can only salvage the existing society, not create a new one. Even in the best ending, where scientists cure the plague and order is restored under a noble monarch, the game leaves the lives of the vast majority untouched. Doubtless the toilers in the factories continue to toil, and though the “bad” aristocrats have been removed through violence or intrigue, democracy and social equality remain inaccessible.

Marxist critic Theodor Adorno describes this phenomenon this way: “[F]reedom to choose an ideology–since ideology always reflects economic coercion–everywhere proves to be freedom to choose what is always the same” (Adorno 167). Thus Dishonored, though it attempts and often succeeds in bringing a living world to life and giving the player “freedom to choose” remains firmly embedded in capitalist ideology. A just ruler, not a just society, solves the narrative’s problems. Given that the game’s publisher is part of a capitalist monopoly system, just “business…made into an ideology,” creating a narrative and interactive systems that allow the player to feel a sense of accomplishment when she or he has changed very little. Though it responds to contemporary social concerns about rising inequality and class struggle over wealth and power, it “merely reflects the despair and ennui of late bourgeois society” without “revealing positive possibilities behind it” (Eagleton 52). Within the world of the game, it is easier to bring the extinction of Dunwall than to overturn the bosses and landowners. Given that the game alerts the player to this idea, it opens the possibility for a more subversive reading of the material, but there is no room to attempt such a reading here.

Dishonored, therefore, creates one of the most complex and comprehensive pictures of capitalist society in video games. With its rich setting that includes all social classes––not only military elites or princes as in many games––it exposes some of the inherent barbarism of early industrial capitalism and urban life. Although it recognizes these problems, and gives the player the power to act morally in order to restore peace and sanity to society, it restricts the player from making fundamental changes to society. Dishonored is socially conscious, but its consciousness reflects the prevailing capitalist ideology without presenting any real alternative. Though this does not diminish its enjoyability as a power fantasy, it shows the stark limitations of how far a cultural artifact produced in a capitalist culture industry can go in criticizing the existing order.

 

Bibliography

Adorno, Theodor. Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972. 167.

Arkane Studios. Dishonored. Bethesda Softworks, 2012. PlayStation 3.

Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” Marxists.org., 1970. Web. 16 Apr. 2014. <https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1970/ideology.htm>.

Brummett, Barry. Rhetoric in Popular Culture. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2006. 151.

Eagleton, Terry. Marxism and Literary Criticism. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976. 6-59. Print.

Engels, Friedrich. “Conditions of the Working Class in England.” Marxists.org. N.p., 1845. Web. 16 Apr. 2014. <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx//works/1845/condition-working-class/>.

Lunacharsky, Anatoly. “Theses on Problems in Marxist Criticism.” Marxists.org. 1928. Web. 16 Apr. 2014. <http://www.marxists.org/archive/lunachar/1928/criticism.htm>

Marx, Karl. Capital. Vol. 1. New York: Penguin, 1976. 425. 3 vols.

Nutt, Christian. Gamasutra. Gamasutra, 20 July 2012. Web. 16 Apr. 2014. <http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/174450/not_really_artists_the_creative_.php?page=2>.

Brief Notes on Oculus and Facebook

oculus-rift-inside

For background on this issue, see Ars Technica’s report.

1. Gadget freak and gamer identity tends to be a mix of amour and a rapacious acquisitive tendency. Otaku subculture in Japan is, similarly but in its own context, based around creating identity and meaning through commodity ownership. It’s the ultimate capitulation to not just the economic logic of decadent late capitalism but also its aesthetics and rhetoric. Independent entrepreneurs (read: future failures or monopolists) become objects of intense attachment, and even larger corporations with the right marketing can make their sterile branding feel like a comfortable presence in a family home rather than a blatant ideological intrusion.

2. The Kickstarter backers who are angry because they missed the gravy train are also symptomatic of American capitalist ideology. The pernicious belief that because America is a “free country” that all people are either rich or rich in larval form creates a frenzied pursuit of wealth and engenders the false belief that social class is a fantasy rather than the basis of political (and all other kinds of) power in the country.

3. As put forward by Lenin in a text I love to cite, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalismthe imperialist and last phase of capitalism is characterized by monopolistic tendencies. Corporations tend to be either voracious predators or hapless prey as whole industries are consolidated under a few vast trusts.

Free competition is the basic feature of capitalism, and of commodity production generally; monopoly is the exact opposite of free competition, but we have seen the latter being transformed into monopoly before our eyes, creating large-scale industry and forcing out small industry, replacing large-scale by still larger-scale industry, and carrying concentration of production and capital to the point where out of it has grown and is growing monopoly: cartels, syndicates and trusts, and merging with them, the capital of a dozen or so banks, which manipulate thousands of millions.

The question was not, therefore, whether Oculus would either be bought or become a vast corporation, but which one and how soon. It’s not as though its founders are or ever were altruists.

Of course, one cannot neglect the fact that all of this is founded on the imperialist exploitation of cheap Asian labour by the entire tech industry. Not to mention the protection of such exploitation by the American state and its vast reserves of military and economic power. Companies like Apple would not be making their enormous profits without the existing contradictions between the imperialist center and so-called “developing nations” from which super-profitable labour can be extracted.

The whole affair is just one especially prominent example of how the tech industry works. Indeed, it’s how it’s supposed to work. All of the heartache and concern being poured over this issue looks fairly ridiculous when seen from anything but an overheated enthusiast’s perspective. In that view, squabbles between most undifferentiated and faceless corporations over tiny market niches become life and death struggles. There are aspects of bourgeois ideology that are far more destructive, but few that are more annoying.

Class Warfare in Dishonored

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The central plot of Dishonored is as follows:

1. Monarch is murdered, and her loyal bodyguard (the player) named Corvo is framed for her assassination. The former spymaster now serves as a regent and imposes tyrannical state rule while combating a horrible plague.

2. Corvo joins a conspiracy, kills or neutralizes a bunch of noblemen, and after being betrayed by his allies, eventually restores the true monarch to the throne.

There are some variations to this plot, since the game has a few different endings that are more or less dark. Emily, the empress you put back on the throne, might end up a wise ruler or a cruel tyrant. Perhaps the plague is cured, or maybe it isn’t. None of these variations change the overall arc of the plot, however, and no matter which route you take, it’s fairly boring stuff. Sure, the presentation is more than adequate and there the plot payoffs, while standard and expected, are occasionally satisfying. But most of the best storytelling in Dishonored is accomplished on the margins, especially in its depictions of class relations in a rapidly industrializing society.

Throughout your bloody campaign to replace one opportunistic dictator with another, killing some aristocrats on behalf of others and then killing your former employers, you come across a whole swathe of society. This includes dozens of plague survivors and lower-class types, who are going to have it hard no matter which side wins. Eventually, you discover that the plague was introduced as a weapon of class warfare, a biological agent for killing off the empire’s undesirables. Of course, being a pathogen, Rat Plague, as it is named, ravages everyone, devastating the lower classes but also killing off many of the nobility and causing disasters like the flooding of the city’s financial district. Essentially, the game shows Wall Street as a flooded swamp that hosts a den of assassins.

Ultimately, if you take down enemies non-lethally and generally act in a morally upright fashion, you get a Victorian fantasy payoff in the form of a royal utopia under Empress Emily. So I’m not arguing that the game is some kind of Marxist propaganda piece, merely that its treatment of class and the rampant suffering and inequality, not to mention disease and urban squalor brought on by industrialization, are both its most valuable aspects and far more sophisticated than in most games. Dishonored reveals a potential benefit of games being more expansive–it leaves much more room for the environment and lore to make up for what are generally disappointing central plots.

Not to mention it sheds light on just how elite-centred most game plots are, including this one. After all, the actions the player takes in the game end up restoring another elite onto the throne, even after some commentary from another assassin in the game, Daud, who explicitly questions the value of such an enterprise. Maybe the game is still too much of a power fantasy to put so much trust in disreputable non-player characters or a democracy–maybe the entire medium of video games is inherently individualistic and, in that sense, elitist. On the other hand, it’s refreshing to see the effects of a game’s events play out across an entire social spectrum, even giving some voice to the marginalized people that either don’t exist or are stripped of a voice in interactive works.

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