Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Monster in Videogames

In one of the courses I'm doing this term--The Gothic--we're assigned a group project, which can be on a subject of our choosing. Since I'm not likely going to be able to convince any sizable group of people to write on The Gothic and Videogames, I'm basically retooling the thoughts I had towards the argument and presenting them here. I'm actually completely serious, this is going to be one of those boring critical blog posts.

Anyway, guns up, let's do this. Leeeeeeeeerooooooooooooooooooooooy....

The first thing that must be considered, naturally, when examining the interaction of video game media with any particular genre or group is the precise nature of the video game itself: it is, essentially, a medium which offers direct interface with "the text", putting the player directly into the narrative present. The depth, complexity, and quality of said narrative is not, precisely, important: at this juncture I am not evaluating whether or not video games are good or even qualify as valid forms of literature, simply that they are a form of media with which a great number of people interact, and that their narrative structures do possess certain relevant tendencies which merit attention. The answer to why they merit such attention is, I think, clear, and based in that direct interface that videogames offer: if videogames do possess certain recurrent themes, particularly certain gothic elements, why is that the case, and to what does it speak?

I'm fairly certain I've lost . . . well, just about everyone by this point, but screw it, I'm having fun.

The first issue I'd like to address, and likely the only one within this blog post since I'm already getting pretty ranty, is the presence of the monster in videogames, the themes of transhumanism, and their relation with the player (hereafter referred to as "the subject", quite plainly because sooner or later I will fall prey to jokes about playas and playa haters).

Anyone with even a passing relationship with videogames can easily observe that there is a preoccupation with not only monsters, but with the destruction of monsters, in several senses. Firstly, they are an obstacle to be overcome and defeated, but secondly, they themselves are almost universally portrayed in a state of maddening decay that while simultaneously stripping themselves of their humanity provides them with a brutal ability to inflict harm upon not only the player, but the supposed other aspects of the game universe. These monsters often begin as ordinary human beings, who through application of technology or magic--the two being interchangeable and exclusive only by way of genre, rather than function--suffer a prolonged transformation and subversion of their human natures, often towards some new racial impetus at an utter disconnect from the human. There are typically two types of monsters which emerge from this process, who I will loosely term as the boss-type and the minion-type.

If I ever try and do this in some serious academic environment, I'll just use German words that essentially mean the same thing.

As the more common iteration, I'll focus on the minion-type first, its connotations, implications, et cetera. The examples of such creatures are easily available for reference: zombies in Left 4 Dead and the broad swath of zombie videogames in general, the Chimera in the Resistance series, Super Mutants and those zombie-cousins, Ghouls, in the Fallout Series, and to pick a less modern and likely more surprising source: the Goomba in Super Mario (Goomba are, technically, denizens of the Mushroom Kingdom transformed into monsters as consequence of their service to Bowser).

These creatures share in common the traits I have already discussed: they are modified by way of magic or technology--which are, again, essentially the same thing and carry out the same function--are originally human, and in most cases, retain some gross perversion of the human shape, while utterly lacking any method of communication, articulation, or expression. These enemies are often thrown at the human player in waves, and there is never any suggestion that the murdering of these creatures is unjust--even in the children's game Super Mario. They represent, essentially, perversions of the human form, brought about by an ill-advised intimacy with either technological or magical forces that seek to advance beyond social norms in some sense. At first glance this theory mightn't hold up when presented with the straightforward zombies of Left 4 Dead and its like, but consider precisely who the survivors are: often, humans who had the good sense and wherewithal to find a safe place to avoid the majority of the infections, who avoided temptation such as going to key points like hospitals or police stations, where other humans succumbed rapidly to infection.

This, I think, shines an interesting life on the position of the player/subject. Their character is, most often, a survivor of the great tragedy who is removed from social norms, and set against the waves of monstrous transhumans. Nathan Hale, of Resistance fame, is a soldier often set apart from his squad, and certainly the vast majority of the normal human military, the Vault Dweller (and his/her later counterparts in sequel games) in Fallout is a member of a society which has rejected him/her to face dangers and stand alone in an unforgiving world, and so on. The subject, then, takes the role of the recluse, but the recluse who finds justification in destroying elements of society which have mutated into something undesirable, like cancers which need to be removed. The justification for this destruction is simple, and furthermore the process of destruction justifies the subject's own deficient characteristics: certainly, videogame heroes are far more often than not individuals who would not function properly if they were not given violent, wartime circumstances in which to thrive.

I would suggest, then, that this points to the key fantasy of videogames, that socially inadequate individuals can win favor and affection by dint of their heroic actions against devastating dangers, which are often presented as mutilations of humanity. By shaving away undesirable elements of humanity, the subject is justified in their own bizarre traits. But by this point, I'm getting off-topic.

The minion-type is a massed enemy, a set of creatures which appear in large groups and have no individual distinction, thereby stripping them of any remaining humanity even further: this offers a simple morality wherein their destruction presents no conflicting choice to the subject, and killing them is undoubtedly the correct action. Therefore they function as an "easy out" to justify the character's actions, which in any other circumstance involving excessive violence, would necessitate a great deal of self-examination (that is to say, one does not gun down hundreds of actual people without serious doubt and consequence; or at least, they shouldn't).

This is getting far longer than I originally intended, so I think I'll stop there and continue next Thursday, when I have another two-hour break in which I can freely ramble about utterly irrelevant nonsense.

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