All About tom_cat_01
Before I start this article, I'd like to say thank you to Gamespot for featuring my last post The Zone of Influence: How Paratext Can Change Our Experience With Games on the front page of the website: that was awesome! I'd also like to thank all of the people who took the time to read and to comment on that post; there was a really great discussion taking place underneath, with many commenters eloquently suggesting examples of creatively-executed gaming paratext that I'd either forgotten, overlooked, or didn't know about at all. Many thanks for such interesting feedback.
Warning: the following article contains spoilers for:
Infinite Jest (novel),
Final Fantasy VII,
Shadow of the Colossus,
Final Fantasy XIII
Okay, so I was planning to write about the ending of BioShock Infinite for my second post, but it's fair to say that the internet is already saturated with analyses of that particular mindf*ck, many of which are vastly more articulate, detailed and intelligent than I could ever hope to be. So instead of dedicating an entire article to it, I'd just like to say that while I loved the ending of BioShock Infinite, I did find the image of a never-ending sea of towering lighthouses to be unsettlingly phallocentric in its subtext, especially when coupled with that phrase "there is always a man". If I get the time, I might write a more extended post about the lighthouse as phallic symbol, the positioning of the masculine as a universal "constant" (to use the language of the gameworld), and the implications this has for the game's gender politics.
But thinking about the ending of BioShock Infinite led me to think about game endings more generally, and what kinds of game endings I enjoy the most. I'd never really catalogued my favourite endings before, but this structuralist approach has made me realise that there is a definite "type" that resonates with me more than any other: the open or unresolved ending. I usually hate the term closure (having grown up in the age of postmodernism, I believe that every work of art is an open amalgam of various political, social, aesthetic and gendered ideologies, so the concept of closure and the attendant idea that any text can be a hermetically closed loop just kinda bugs me), but - for the purposes of this article - closure is a somewhat functional term, so here goes: My favourite game endings are those that lack closure.
I think this is because the vast majority of games are geared towards a kind of narrative finality that presupposes a very definite resolution. There's a structure of objective-completion-reward that necessitates closure: you have a task, you complete the task, and you get the reward: it's a closed process. Games with open endings, however, almost seem to destabilise or challenge this predominant structure. The form of the narrative (unresolved) contrasts the form of the gameplay (objective-based). I'd like to argue, then, that theres a dissonance inherent in videogames with open endings: a tension between the lack of closure on the one hand, and the traditional form or the objective-completion-reward structure of videogames on the other.
It's this dissonance that makes the open ending the most interesting type. Unresolved endings are often sadder, more challenging and definitely more memorable than endings that tick all of the boxes and tie-up all of the loose ends. They linger in the mind, they demand questions and analysis. they invite creative extrapolation; and, perhaps most importantly, they knock on the door of deeper philosophical investigations into the role and responsibilities of the player. I've had many more long discussions with friends over unresolved games/books/films than I have over neat, definite, happy ones. When it comes to narrative, I've always found sadness and questions to be more powerful than happiness and answers.
[Note: At this point I should probably make it clear that I wont be considering cliff-hanger or 'To be Continued...' endings. These endings, though often very successful (Im thining about Assassins Creed in particular), are not so much un-resolved as they are deferred, and so dont really fit the remit of this article.]
So, let's look at some of the different types of open or unresolved endings:
Sometimes in the study of literature we will use the phrase "projected ending". A projected ending is one that takes place hypothetically after the end of the book. A famous example would be David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest: just as the Wheelchair Assassins are about to attack, just as it seems that Hal is going to learn about 'The Entertainment', just as we get close to discovering what the hell is going on with Orin: the novel ends. Even the future-set prologue doesnt really give us any answers. The denouement (that is, the resolution of the plot) takes place after the work has ended. (Indeedy, Infinite Jest is a novel that in many ways challenges the very notion of linearity in reading, but that's an analysis for another type of article...)
One of my favourite examples of a projected ending in gaming comes from Squaresoft's Final Fantasy VII. Sephiroth (the game's villain) has summoned a Meteor to scar the planet (for various convoluted reasons I wont go into...). The heroes (notably Aeris (or 'Aerith', if you must)) have cast a spell called Holy to counteract Meteor. The player defeats Sephiroth at the game's climax, leaving Holy free to do its stuff. But there's a catch... as well as destroying Meteor, Holy will judge humankind and, if it finds them to be a threat to the planet, will cleanse the Earth of the human race; a twist in-keeping with the game's eco-focused ideologies.
The final moments of FFVII consist of a brilliant white flash, a brief image of Aeris as she exists in the lifestream, and then... nothing. The ultimate judgement of Holy is left for the player to ponder. It's projected outside of the game's narrative: it happens after the ending. Did Holy destroy the human race? The epilogue, set 500 years later, shows us the prominent city of Midgar now overgrown and ruined. But even this fails to answer the significant question: what happened to the humans? Did they merely abandon the city, or is Midgar in ruins simply because there are no people left to inhabit the place? The quiet, post-credits laughter of children is a similar source of heated fan debate.
The most significant aspect of FFVII's ending is the way it upsets the traditional narrative expectancy for a grand heroic action that saves the world and wins the day. It changes the identity of the player from somebody who completes an objective and saves his heroes, to somebody who may be complicit in the downfall of the human race (by-proxy of the characters he controls). The world is, most definitely, saved; but at what cost? If you want to be twee about it, you could probably argue that this ending invites the player to speculate on the ecological significance of humanity. Either way, the unknowableness of the ending definitely contributes to its impact.
Its unfortunate, then, that Square Enix decided to answer the question of FFVII's ending by developing various sequels in the awkwardly-named 'Compilation of Final Fantasy VII'. Simply by making sequels to FFVII, SE retroactively devalued the ending, making something that was once unresolved and (in the world of gaming at least) highly original, into something run-of-the-mill: the Holy spell worked, and it saved the day.
My solution to this messy situation is to simply consider Final Fantasy VII in isolation from its sequels (or, perhaps, to view the sequels as non-canonical), thus preserving the awe implicit in the original ending, and saving me the pain of having to sit through the atrocious, physics-denying kung-fu bore-fest that is Advent Children.
Team Ico's masterpiece Shadow of the Colossus offers a different kind of unresolved ending. I think it's fair to say that the defining characteristic of SotC, (in terms of visuals, sound design and narrative), is its minimalism. The game refuses to satisfy the player with any detailed information, character biography or helpful moralising: who is the protagonist Wander? How did Mono die? What the hell is Dormin? The most striking thing we can say about the game's setting is that its an empty and forbidden landscape, one so old that it has forgotten even its own history, leaving the player free to apply whatever interpretation he or she deems best.
Indeed, as the game progresses it becomes apparent that the Colossi arent violent "bad guys" in the usual sense of the term, but are, in fact, sad, ancient, moss-covered guardians standing watch over nothing but ruins. This forces the player to morally re-conceptualise her notions of the standard objective-reward videogame structure. As the player slays more and more Colossi, the pervasive tone of the game changes from one of noble questing and honour (kill the Colossi to resurrect the maiden) to one of sadness and selfishness (lay waste to these giants to satisfy your own desires). It wouldn't be especially controversial to suggest that Wander actually fulfils the narrative archetype of villain (albeit under the guise of the bereaved adventurer). I like to figure Wander not as a naive but well-meaning warrior, but as a foreign invader, come to plunder the land's magic and to slay its inhabitants. You, then, as the player, are complicit in this evil-doing. Lord Emon, who pursues Wander but arrives too late to stop him slaying the Colossi, is the game's real hero.
The striking ending isnt unresolved as much as it's unexplained: the uncharacteristically frantic sequence of dramatic events and sudden plot twists dont explain themselves in any coherent, rational way: instead they invite the player to extrapolate an explanation that best fits his or her interpretation of the game's events. Accordingly, the internet is rife with myriad different interpretations of what is going on.
But as much as we can glean from the ending, there are many questions that remain unanswered. Is the horned boy revealed in the final moments Wander-reborn, Wander punished? Is it even Ico, in a twist that would establish SotC as a prequel to the developer's earlier game? And why is the world of the game "forbidden" - is it because the Colossi are dangerous, or because they are sacred? or (my favourite interpretation), because the landscape of SotC is actually a prison for Dormin, and the Colossi his jailors? My interpretation: Wander's death is very definite, a penance for his murder of the Colossi, a dénouement that establishes the game as a traditional Revenge Tragedy, with both Wander and Emon acting as revenger.
Alternate interpretations, however, remain valid: maybe Wander killed Mono himself, and his quest to resurrect her isn't one of selfishness, or even love, but one of guilt? My over-laboured point being that Shadow of the Colossus' ending is exceptional not in spite its vagueness, but because of it. This enables the player to conceive of an ending that best suits their own moral and aesthetic proclivities. I like to conceptualise SotC as an anti-hero narrative, one which questions the usual role of the player as a doer of good. But the alternative reading, that Wander is a mistaken, misunderstood but ultimately noble man, is valid, too.
Playdead's 2010 puzzle-platformer LIMBO is even more narratively minimalist than Shadow of the Colossus. The brief synopsis "there is a boy looking for his sister" comprises the full extent of the game's narrative certainty; everything else one might say about the plot is pure speculation.
The game begins with The Boy waking in a forest on the edge of Limbo/Hell/Purgatory (whatever), which must surely be a nod to the opening of Dante's Divine Comedy:
"Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a dark forest, for the straightforward path had been lost"
The player then guides The Boy through various forested/industrial/abstract landscapes until, a coupla hours later, the game abruptly ends. The final sequence consists of The Boy being flung through what I assume is a pane of glass, before re-entering the forest in which the game began. There he encounters his sister, who, though facing away from him, looks up as if she senses his presence. The credits then roll and the game is over.
I'm aware that LIMBO's refusal to explain itself is the source of much frustration among certain types of gamers, who like to label the ending as "anti-climactic", as if by completing a host of not-even-that-difficult puzzles, the player has somehow earned or is due a set of clear answers. LIMBO's ending wilfully disregards this sense of player entitlement and the expectancy of reward. This is just one of the many ways that LIMBO expresses a disinterest in the usual narrative structure of videogames: there's no dialogue, no tutorials, no "characters" as such, no villain and only one potentially endless and cyclic level. The ending is, in itself, the game's final puzzle, just as minimalist, brief and beautiful as any of the other obstacles the player encounters.
Thus any satisfaction the player derives from LIMBO's ending is entirely dependent on his or her willingness to creatively engage with the limited material available. My particular reading is that The Boy is himself dead, but since arriving in limbo he has forgotten his own death. The ending, with The Boy breaching a pane of glass, serves to violently remind him of his death (possibly in a car accident?). Now, having accepted his fate and his place in Limbo, he's able to see his sister (who's alive) tending his grave. The way in which she gently lifts her head implies that she can feel his presence in some way. Maybe hes a ghost? This ending suggests a kind of loneliness that's reflected in the game's overall aesthetic: the minimal use of music, the black-and-white palette, the absence of dialogue etc.
I should note, of course, that there are many other highly successful types of game ending. Not every great ending has to be unresolved, or even unpredictable. Everybody knew how Halo: Reach was going to end: it is, after all, a prequel to the first Halo game. What intrigued players about Halo: Reach wasnt what was going to happen, but how it was going to be executed. The developers, Bungie, faced the unique problem of making something that everybody was expecting into something nonetheless shocking and spectacular. Six's post-credits last stand and eventual death was interesting not because it was unexpected, but because it was ingeniously well designed: moving despite its obviousness.
There's more I have to say about endings (such as how the modern phenomenon of the "post-game" can disrupt the consistency of a game's narrative (for e.g. in Final Fantasy XIII, where the player only gets access to the most powerful magics after finishing the game, which doesnt make a lot of sense in narrative terms, as the ending puts a very definite stop to the mechanisations of the game)), but maybe I'll save that for another article.
Many thanks for reading. Id love to know what kinds of game endings you enjoy the most, and what kinds disappoint you. Feel free to comment.
The future will doubtless see even more creative handling of endings, as developers are increasingly faced with a major dilemma: 1) the narrative component of games is becoming ever more significant; games' plots and characters are being examined with more and more scrutiny. But 2) developers wants us to keep playing and keep playing and keep playing their games: so where does this leave us in terms of closure, resolution and narrative coherency?
Hi, I'm Tomcat.
I blog about books over at Tomcat in the Red Room, but these days I probably spend as much time playing games as I do reading novels; and so, with that in mind, I thought I'd start a second blog here at Gamespot.
So, welcome one and all to: Gaming in the Red Room, my new blog. Please be gentle; this is my first time etc.
My aim with this blog is to apply strategies of critical thinking common in the study of literature (namely; aesthetics, narrative theory, formalism and (post/)structuralism) to games. Partly because it's fun to do so, but partly because the sorts of critical theories usually reserved for the analysis of literature can, I believe, produce some very fruitful readings of games.
Here goes with post numero uno:
In the study of Literature we will frequently talk about paratext. The "paratext" comprises all those aspects of a book which dont form part of the literary text itself, but are nonetheless there to be read. Examples might be: the cover, the copyright notices, chapter headings, page numbers, author biographies, website information, appendices, publisher information, ISBN numbers - all of these are examples of so-called paratext. Whether they are designed by the writer or editor or publisher doesn't matter; if they form part of the physical book - but not the actual work itself - then they are "paratextual".
Every book has a paratext, even if it's something as simple as page numbers: it's all the stuff that surrounds the literature, without actually being a part of it. Of course, this doesn't mean that the paratext can't inform and direct a reader's experience of a book in significant ways.... but that's a discussion for a different kind of blog.
Unsurprisingly, then, its strikingly easy to transpose this notion of the paratext from novels and onto videogames. Like books, all videogames also have a paratext: the information that forms part of the product, but not actually part of the gameworld. It's the stuff that surrounds the game. Examples of gaming paratext might be: publishers' logos flashing on-screen when you insert a disc, options menus, H.U.Ds, credits, level titles etc. These things dont physically exist in the world of the game, but they form part of the object "the game" nonetheless.
Paratext in gaming is most commonly employed by publishers and developers to self-advertise: plastering their logos all over their products, often in highly creative ways. An early example of a game company taking creative advantage of the paratextual space can be found in the original Sonic the Hedgehog, which opens with what is arguably the most famous publisher ident of all time. I expect you're all familiar with the white screen over which a distorted SEGA logo gradually increases in clarity, a group of digitally re-created voices simultanesouly chanting the company name. I don't have the exact figures to hand, but apparently this used up a staggering percentage of the cartridge's available memory.
SEGA went one step further with Sonic 2 by adding the anthropomorphic tyke himself into the paratext: the SEGA logo is swiftly revealed in the distortions that trail behind Sonic's zooming. This obviously required a great deal of effort and energy to animate - somebody at SEGA was taking the paratext seriously. Yes, in many cases the gaming paratext may seem insignificant, but from a marketing and aesthetic perspective, putting time and exertion into a game's paratext definitely pays off: almost every gamer in the world recognises the famous SEGA chant that precedes the original Sonic games.
It's my contention, however, that it's the current generation of games that have enjoyed the most fruitful experimentation of the paratextual. It took developers a while, but we gamers are finally starting to see some amazingly creative handling of paratexts.
One of my favourite examples comes from Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed: Revelations. Many gamers are familiar with the Ubisoft company logo that frequently pops on-screen at the start of their games; it's a kind of smooth, white, swirling movement accompanied by a pleasant electronic whooshing and pinging sound.
When it comes to Assassins Creed: Revelations, however, some clever dude or dudette had the fantastic idea of manipulating the Ubisoft logo in such a manner as to make it sympathetic with the events of the game. Usually publisher/develop indents are entirely separate from the gameworld: neither visually or phonically consistent with the art style of the game in question. Assassin's Creed Revelations, however, is different.
In this game, the protagonist Desmond is comatose, trapped in the Animus; something has gone very definitely wrong. A dead man is speaking to him, his ancestors' memories are all jumbled and out of whack, and Desmond himself has access to the deeper code structures of the programme. In a really cool reflection of this, the game opens not with the familiar Ubisoft logo, but with a deliberately glitched and distorted one:
Not only is this a fantastic paratextual representation of the game's aesthetic themes, it's also a great aid to player immersion. The animus is glitched and wrong and spreading into Desmond's mind - accordingly, these problems are also spreading into the paratextual aspects of the game, even the designers' logo. It's breaching the usual boundaries of the gameworld. Spilling the visual ideas of the game into its own paratext really gives the opening a kick. It functions as a frankly beautiful microcosm for Revelation's story: just as the memories of Ezio AND Altair AND Desmond are converging, slipping over one another and glitching together, so too is the game's aesthetic spilling over into its own paratext. Great stuff.
Another example of paratext in gaming is the seemingly ubiquitous HUD. Heads-up-displays arent part of the world of most games, per se. They're on-screen information presented for the benefit of the player, and most definitely not accessible to the characters. Kratos never looks at the corner of the screen and comments on how many red orbs he's collected; Ratchet never pauses to think about how many more aliens he needs to kill before his upgrade bar fills; Nathan Drake cant really see a white line predicting the curve through the air of the grenade he's about to throw. This stuff is on top of the game; it surrounds it, but it's not part of the environment: it's paratextual.
But recent years have seen several developers willing to toy about with the idea of HUDs, usually with the goal of increasing player immersion. One of the better examples is to be found in Dead Space and its sequels.
In Dead Space, there isnt a H.U.D., as such; instead, all of the information the player needs is incorporated into Isaac Clarke's suit: his remaining ammo is displayed on his weapon, his health bar is a line of lights traced up his spine, his options menu is a hologram projected from his suit. In essence, the designers of Dead Space have disregarded the H.U.D. as a purely paratextual object, and have incorporated it as a literal part of the game world:
Ostensibly the developers did this to create a greater sense of empathy with the character. Unlike most games, in which players have access to information that the characters dont have access to (health bars, options menus, level stats etc), the protagonist of Dead Space has access to everything the player has access to. It means that the player is reduced to the same level as the protagonist (or, if you prefer, the protagonist is elevated to the same level as the player) in terms of the information available. This gimmick is particularly successful in Dead Space, because DS is a horror game and, let's face it, no other genre is more dependent on the player feeling at one with the character than horror. If horror is to fulfill its mandate to shock, disturb and terrify, then the reader/viewer/player (whoever) needs to feel as close to the character as possible. If the HUD gets in the way of this, then what better solution is there than to incorporate the HUD into the physical world of the game?
Elsewhere, the various inventories and menus associated with them can usually be considered as part of a game's paratextual arrangement.
When Nathan Hale wants to swap weapons, the character isnt supposed to see a digitized wheel of firearms at his disposal: that's merely a cipher, a means by which the player can swiftly interact with the world of the game. In the gameworld, Nathan Hale supposedly just pulls whichever gun he needs out of whichever hidey-hole its kept in.
One of the best, most creative ways a developer has experimented with this aspect of paratext is in the Fallout series. Like Dead Space, the menu used by the player to navigate her character's items, stats etc. isnt something abstracted from the gameworld, its something that's part of it. The pipboy attached to the protagonist's wrist is a literal artefact in the game; consistent with its environment. When the player accesses menus, the character is, him/herself, simultaneously accessing the same menus. Its a small but infinitely satisfying addition, and especially important for RPGs because it contributes to a sense of oneness and shared experience with the character:
A similar idea was used by Bethesda in the earlier game Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, in which the character keeps all of his information recorded in a book or parchment-like thing, which is then accessible to the player:
Unfortunately, Bethesda decided not to carry this over into Skyrim, and instead opted for a different style of menu and inventory. Im not saying that the menu system in Skyrim is flawed in a practical way: its very sharp and easily navigable etc. But how does the character experience this black and white sequence of lists? There's an experiential gap or a divide between the player and the character, and it's created by the abstract menu.
The menu system in Skyrim was disappointing because whereas previous Bethesda games had manipulated this aspect of paratext to create a feeling of shared experience between player and character, they decided to abandon the concept for ESV. Big shame, I think.
Anyways, I've rambled on about paratext for some time now. But I hope I've managed to make some interesting points: that paratext - the stuff that surrounds a gameworld, but isnt part of it - can be manipulated in very successful ways. Whether it enhances a game's marketability (as weve seen with Sonic the Hedgehog), or whether it echoes the design of the game itself (as weve seen with Assassin's Creed: Revelations) or whether it contributes to a sense of empathy with a character's experience: paratext is something that shouldnt be ignored.
I'd love to see more developers playing with it.
And I'd love to hear your own examples of times when the paratext of a game (that's menus, publisher logos, H.U.D's, credits etc. ) have surprised you.
Thanks for reading,
My Recent Reviews
Some people just don't have opinions. Like tom_cat_01.
May 14, 2013 11:34 pm GMTtom_cat_01 posted a new blog entry entitled All's Well That Ends Well.
Apr 23, 2013 1:28 am GMTtom_cat_01 gave Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception a score of 8.0
Apr 16, 2013 11:09 pm GMTtom_cat_01 posted a new blog entry entitled Video Games and Paratext
Apr 16, 2013 10:01 pm GMTtom_cat_01 posted in the topic Blog picture help on the How To GameSpot board
Mar 27, 2013 4:01 pm GMTtom_cat_01 posted in the topic Install size? on the BioShock Infinite Forum board