“So, why aren’t you in a more entertaining scenario?”: A critical review of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

December 28, 2018 (updated January 3, 2019)

This is the thirteenth in a series of posts dedicated to works of videogame literature and theater—not videogames that are literary or theatrical, but rather novels, plays, television series, graphic novels, museum installations, poems, immersive theater, and movies that represent in some fashion or another videogames, videogame players, and videogame culture. For a general description of my critical framework and purposes, see the first post in the series, “What is videogame literature?

Warning: Spoilers! Spoilers! Spoilers!

Fans of speculative fiction—whether novels, movies, or videogames—anticipate with delight the sharp, alienating discovery that starts every story. How will this world differ from our own? How are its rules different than our own? Will it be a world where every moment of our lives are recorded and rewatched at will? Will it be a world where parents monitor and control their children’s every experience? Or one in which criminals can be sentenced to relive the terror they inflicted on their victims—and do so for the entertainment of others? Or maybe this is a story in which characters discover that they are not the agents of their own destinies, but are mere toys, played with by unreachable powers?

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, the movie-length release from director David Slade and writer Charlie Brooker, doesn’t just give viewers one of these estranging delights, but all of them (and more). In this respect, Bandersnatch continues the self-reflexive turn in Black Mirror that we saw in the concluding episode of its fourth season, “Black Museum”, which follows its main character on a tour of some of the gnarlier plot devices of earlier episodes.

But the best and most disarming shock of Bandersnatch happens before the story even starts. Not only is this a movie-length story, but it’s a fully interactive movie, a true cinematic choose-your-own-adventure book. The film occasionally pauses and asks the viewer (though I guess that makes us a player now) to make a choice for the protagonist. While riding the bus, does Stefan listen to The Thompson Twins or a Now That’s What I Call Music! mix tape? When Stefan (Fionn Whitehead) grows frustrated with the progress of his videogame project, does he throw his tea at the computer or shout at his father? It’s a surprisingly complex operation and fascinating to watch . . . I mean play. Did they really film two scenes so that I could choose Sugar Puffs or Frosted Flakes for breakfast? And did they do it again so that our choice appears on a television commercial at the end of the movie? Yes, my friends, they did. During my first playthrough . . . er, viewing . . . I counted about 40 choices, exclusive of a couple of recursive loops. There are several different endings and a kind of rudimentary scoring system, too (concerning how highly your game is rated by the twit on a weekly news segment). If you’re interested in seeing how it all plays out, you can check out this compendium of fan-created guides and plot diagrams.

This makes Black Mirror: Bandersnatch a double-good example of “videogame literature.” On one hand, it is a movie about videogames. Stefan is an up-and-coming videogame designer who has landed his first big chance at publishing his work. We watch him as he struggles to complete his game, as he crunches to get it done by deadline. We see characters play videogames and those games provide a sense of historical specificity to the episode, placing us squarely in the era of PC classics like Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord and Jumpman. We watch Stefan watch a television show about videogames (the one with aforementioned twit). On the other hand, Bandersnatch explores the meaning of videogames, both for those who play them and for the broader culture. Videogames function as metaphors in the episode—of Colin’s death, of Stefan’s trauma, and of our collective desire to be entertained by the suffering of others. (For a detailed explanation of what “videogame literature” is, see my post.)

But back to the experience of the pleasurable shocks of speculative fiction. The second one we get with Bandersnatch is a bit more mundane, simply a matter of establishing the setting for the story. For this episode of Black Mirror, we’re not in the future, but in the past, 1984. For aficionados of paranoid fiction, the reference to George Orwell is obvious. But this is not an Orwellian story. There is no authoritarian state looming over the struggles of young Stefan, no boot on the neck, no 2 + 2 = 5. And while we can take Stefan into a mind-bendingly paranoid storyline involving a secret research project, the authorities here are first and foremost the old-fashioned archetypes of mommy and daddy, mommy in this case played by Stefan’s therapist Dr. Haynes (Alice Lowe), daddy by Stefan’s daddy (Craig Parkinson). Cementing the Oedipal framework, Stefan harbors a deep emotional trauma involving the death of his mother, a death caused by his intemperate love of a toy rabbit taken by his father out of fear the boy would be insufficiently masculine.

(I am sorely tempted to analyze the penile pun of the software company that has purchased Colin’s game—Tuckersoft—but I will defer.)

If Orwell proves something of a phantom, other writers have a more durable presence in the episode. Lovers of Lewis Carroll will recognize the beastly creature in the title. The “frumious Bandersnatch” appears three times in Carroll’s writings, twice in Through the Looking Glass and once in his poem “The Hunting of the Snark.” And there is a decidedly “frumious” monster in Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and a magical mirror, too! The Carroll reference can be read in a couple of ways. Through the Looking Glass was a commentary on children’s literature. Similarly, Bandersnatch is a commentary on movies—specifically, on the medium of streaming cinema. Stefan eventually discovers that we are making decisions for him and, in response to his panicked query, we can, if we wish, tell him we’re watching him on Netflix. Paranoid humor ensues. The Carroll reference is ironic in a second way. In addition to being frumious, the Bandersnatch is notoriously difficult to catch, but, if caught, is vicious. We recall the Banker in Carroll’s poem who accidentally fell upon one and, despite his offers of a “large discount . . . a cheque (Drawn ‘to bearer’) for seven-pounds-ten,” found himself quickly turned to bloody ribbons. I’ll return to whether Stefan (or we) catch the beast and what damage, if caught, it causes.

(See it there on the left?)

The other writer with significant presence in the episode is Philip K. Dick. A reference to my favorite Dick novel, Ubik, appears in the scene in which Colin (Will Poulter) offers Stefan the choice of taking a dose of high-quality acid (or drops one, unrequested, into Stefan’s tea). Beyond the hippy-trippy, psychedelic-paranoia stuff, the spirit of Dick is most evident in the movie’s representation of Stefan’s struggle with mental illness and in its exploration of the evergreen conundrum of free will versus determinism.

Stefan struggles with mental illness and the therapy and medicines that are prescribed him. His therapist Dr. Haynes urges him to explore his trauma, to re-tell the story of the toy rabbit, the insensitive father, and his mother’s death. Stefan complains, “What good does it do, going over things again and again?” But Haynes perseveres: “Think carefully. You really might learn something new.”

Stefan’s struggle with his mental health is complemented by the multiple metaphors of limited agency in the episode, several of them tied to videogames, videogame play, and the culture of videogames. One of the first decisions we make for Stefan is whether he will work on his game by himself or with members of the Tuckersoft team. If we choose the latter, the result is a bad game and a restart. “Sorry, mate,” Colin japes, “Wrong path.”

There is, of course, the genre of game Stefan is developing, a branching narrative. The figure of the branching narrative is the most important in the episode. Stefan has many choices to make, but most of them are binary. Does he say, “Yes” or “Fuck yeah!”? But the simplicity of the specific choices are counterbalanced by the struggle to make sense of the decision system as a whole. As anyone who’s designed a branching narrative knows, things can get out of control quickly. And that’s the case here. Stefan struggles not only to make his game work, but to get it done. There are too many branches to explore.

Another figure of limited agency is the maze. Stefan’s branching narrative looks like a maze when we see it diagramed. And it is nested within a 3-D maze game reminiscent of Wizardry. The legendary maze-runner Pac-Man makes a cameo. During their acid trip, Colin explains that the “PAC” in Pac-Man stands for “Program and Control.” “He thinks he’s got free will,” Colin rants, “but really he’s trapped in a maze, in a system. All he can do is consume. He’s pursued by demons that are probably just in his head.”

Towards the end of the game . . . er, movie . . . Stefan has increasing difficulty understanding what is real and what is fake. At one point, he finds himself on a movie set, the set of, you guessed, it, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. The decision we instructed him to take—to leap out the window—isn’t in the script. “You’re not scripted to jump out, see, Mike?” the director tells him. Philip Dick would find all of this perfectly amusing.

Regardless, all this drug-dosed epistemological tomfoolery is ultimately beside the point. Black Mirror has always been concerned not so much with how media shapes our relationship to power. Thirteen of the 19 episodes of Black Mirror are about entertainment media—videogames, television, social media, virtual companions, virtual reality, and so on. That’s the case with Bandersnatch. For all of its trippy pondering of epistemological uncertainty and the possibility that our lives are simply an extended experiment in trauma induction, Bandersnatch is, in the final analysis, a commentary on entertainment. When Stefan tries to explain to Dr. Haynes that he’s being controlled by a 21st-century entertainment technology called Netflix (presuming we chose that particular branch of the narrative), she asks, “So, why aren’t you in a more entertaining scenario?”

Maybe not for him, but definitely for us.

We’re entertained by Stefan’s struggle to manage his mental health. We’re entertained by the silly little choices we make for him. We’re entertained by the possibility that we can make Stefan do something stupid, or violent, or self-destructive. We’re entertained by the hand-to-hand combat between Stefan and his double-baton-wielding therapist, by the arch jokes about Netflix, by the unfolding narrative of paranoid control.

Let’s not forget a couple of key details. The book on which Stefan’s game is based was written by a man who, after repeatedly dosing himself with high-octane hallucinogens, brutally murdered his wife, using her blood to repeatedly paint an inverted, rectilinear Y on the walls of his home, an iconic representation of branching narrative and the false choices they present. Colin’s suicidal leap off his high-rise balcony juices sales for his new game Nozhdyve. Similarly, as he sits in prison, serving time for the murder of his father, Stefan watches a reviewer judge his game as “a morbid curiosity at best.” All three creators attempt to transform their trauma into art. All fail. But we get the fun of it.

But is it truly fun? Is this an entertaining scenario? One of the lures of literature built around branching narratives is the desire to fully explore all the possibilities. After completing my first playing (er, viewing) of Bandersnatch, my first thought was to rewatch (er, replay) it and make different choices, to explore all possible branches, to see whether I might get a different ending. But as I considered the possibility, the old adage about madness came to mind. Wouldn’t I just be doing the same thing over and over again and expecting something different to happen? And I started to think about my media-consumption habits more generally. Binging episodes. Grinding games.

Which led me, oddly enough, to a question: Why is Black Mirror: Bandersnatch set in 1984?

Again, it’s not about Orwell. And it’s not about the whole paranoid, Dad’s-a-secret-scientist-and-I’m-in-an-experiment-that’s-also-a-Netflix-movie that can be found in one of the narrative branches. That’s just smoke and mirrors.

When the movie (or is it a game?) ended, my first thought was that it was asking some difficult questions about whether we can know the system in which we exist, the social, economic, medical, and emotional systems that make us who we are, that shape the decisions we make, and give us the tools to understand ourselves and our world. It was about the stakes of knowing the system, of recognizing its evil. It was about the risks we run when trying to get outside the system.

But as I thought about it more, I realized that Stefan’s effort to know the system, to work out all the branches of the narrative he’s creating and the narrative he’s in, is fruitless. Stefan can’t work out all the bugs. In several of the episode’s endings, Stefan’s game is released in incomplete form, and he’s left rotting in jail, raving. I don’t have the time or the will to watch Bandersnatch a dozen times. That’s not a grind I want to grind. But regardless of whether he or we are able to figure out how the system works, all that bingeing and grinding is generating profit for Netflix and funneling more and more data into the privileged figure of agency and control of our moment: the algorithm.

Understanding the rules of the game isn’t the point. The big question is whether we play the game at all, because this game is part of a bigger game, the game of data collection and marketing.

Which leads to a final question relating to the most paranoid of the game’s branches. What happens to Stefan’s mother and his memories of her when it is revealed to him that his life was nothing more than an experiment? What happens to the guilt he feels about his mother’s death, the anger he feels towards his father’s refusal to abide by her desire to raise a sensitive child? What happens to Dr. Haynes, Stefan’s surrogate mother? Why does she suddenly change from a sensitive, empathetic, insightful therapist to a trained assassin and then an actor on a set? Bandersnatch’s treatment of women is troubling, in a good way. As the epistemological uncertainty increases, so does the unreliability of the women in Stefan’s life. Both his mother and Dr. Haynes change from emotionally potent figures to actors playing roles. The issues that Stefan needs to address–the gnarled knot of emotional trauma and neurochemical issues that his father and therapist have been urging him to take seriously, that Stefan has been taking seriously–are revealed as tricks to keep him locked into a sci-fi experiment.

The last time I saw Stefan, he was stuck in his cell, watching a televised review of his “morbid curiosity” of a game, while he repeatedly scratches the icon of the branching narrative onto the wall. He’s there not because of the decisions he or we have made (or didn’t make). Stefan is there because he failed to deal with the facts of his situation. He cannot escape his guilt for his mother’s death. Are there other endings for Stefan? Yes, but what does it matter? He cannot escape his mental illness. He cannot stop hating himself. He cannot stop hating his father. His desire for escape—for a solution to the puzzle, for the right sequences of moves to get out of the maze—is the source of his suffering. Stefan will never catch the Bandersnatch, but it’ll end up eating him anyway.

The simple fact of the matter is that this isn’t a very entertaining scenario, at all.

Videogames and Literature: An Annotated Syllabus (Part 5)

December 19, 2018

This is the twelfth in a series of posts dedicated to works of videogame literature and theater—not videogames that are literary or theatrical, but rather novels, plays, television series, graphic novels, museum installations, poems, immersive theater, and movies that represent in some fashion or another videogames, videogame players, and videogame culture. For a general description of my critical framework and purposes, see the first post in the series, “What is videogame literature?



What we read:

Bryan Lee O’Malley, Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together

Marie-Laure Ryan, “Tuning the Instruments of a Media-Conscious Narratology 

What we watched:

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (director Edgar Wright)

Drew Morton, “From the Panel to the Frame: Style and Scott Pilgrim

 What we did:

This session marked the third and final part of our exploration of space, videogames, and fiction. We were becoming . . . thoroughly . . . spaced . . . out.

Moving on.

A quick review: in the first part of the unit, we approached space with the idea that it was fundamental to videogame fictions. When videogames tell stories, they tell them in and with space. Space is to videogames what words are to poetry. For our second evening LINK, we explored the spaces around videogames: family rooms, arcades, live streams, and arenas. We played games and read fiction and theory that explored the ways that videogames, interpersonal relationships, and our bodies are intertwined.

Thus, having thought about (1) games as spatial fictions and (2) play as an activity that always occurs in space, it was time to turn to the question of media; specifically, media as a space of play.

What do I mean by media as a space of play? Visit your local videogame store and what do you see? In addition to videogames, consoles, controllers, headsets, and the like, you’ll probably find t-shirts and mugs, mini-figures, replica weapons, special editions of Monopoly and Risk, posters, stickers. This isn’t just clever cross-marketing. These objects imaginatively extend the space of a game’s fiction from in-game to in-world. Here, we see all kinds of ways for us to play with different media.

In other words, we see in such stores the ways that play is distributed across media.

This kind of distributed play is increasingly typical of videogames. Consider Overwatch. While I rocket around in my hot-pink mech suit, I can participate in the live in-game chat, trading tactical information, talking trash, or just gossiping with my teammates. When I’m not shooting other avatars in the face (or, better yet, booping them into Deadlock Gorge), I can dance, gesture, affix graffiti-like stamps to apply to walls and floors, and shout catch phrases, allowing me to play with others in non-violent, often humorous ways. There are whole subcultures surrounding these affordances. There are legends of a small, but passionate BDSM community that has repurposed Overwatch avatars and emotes so they can “get their dom off” while playing a “healslut.” In sum, I can choose how I play the game, distributing my performance across the various in-game media and affordances.

I can distribute my play of Overwatch in ways that don’t involve a controller or headset. I can browse Blizzard’s official website, keeping up with changes in the game’s mechanics and avatars, reading digital comics and watching videos about my favorite characters (D.Va and Lucio, of course), getting news about upcoming in-game and in-real-life events, and communicating with other Overwatch fans. I might visit fan-run sites to discuss strategy and tactics or check out fan-produced fiction and art, machinima, or cosplay. I might tune into the latest match between the Guangzhou Charge and the Paris Eternal, two of the professional teams vying for this year’s world championship and the $1 million prize that comes with it. I can log onto my favorite Reddit forum to participate in the vibrant LGBTQ+ Overwatch community. For sure, this isn’t “playing a videogame” in the strict sense, but it is definitely playful, and for someone who’s interested in the relationship of videogames and literature, this kind of mediated activity is profoundly interesting.

In fact, I’d argue that the emergence of distributed play is far more significant to the history of videogames than the growth of computational power.

Henry Jenkins has a name for this kind of distributed, playful storytelling: convergence culture. As he describes it, convergence culture is a phenomenon in which content circulates “across different media systems, competing media economies, and national borders” (3). What makes it specifically playful is that the circulation of content “depends heavily on consumers’ active participation” (3). Jenkins argues that convergence culture isn’t just a shift in the technology of media circulation and consumption, but a full-fledged “cultural shift” in which “consumers are encouraged to seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content” (3).

A perfect illustration of convergence culture and the kinds of stories that can be told in it is the Scott Pilgrim franchise. We took a close look at the fourth volume of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s multi-volume graphic novel. I chose that volume because it shows Scott finally coming to terms with his actions and it fleshes out the character of Roxie and her relationship with Ramona. We watched Edgar Wright’s film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (which flattens Roxie and her relationship with Ramona). And we took a look at a couple of YouTube videos of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game (we couldn’t figure out how to access the game itself).

Our first guide through the twists and turns of this tale of transmedia storytelling was Drew Morton, who’s video “From the Panel to the Frame: Style and Scott Pilgrim” is wicked smart and you should watch it as soon as you have a moment. (And you should check out his book, too!)

There are two takeaways from Morton’s video. First, transmedia storytelling is an historical phenomenon, the consequence of tectonic shifts in the structure of the media market; specifically, the rise of super-massive media conglomerates like Viacom-Paramount (1994), Disney-ABC (1995), and NBC-Universal (2004). At the time he produced his video (2012), TimeWarner (now WarnerMedia), owned HBO, Turner Broadcasting, CNN, Warner Bros., WB Interactive, DC Comics, and Time Magazine. This helps explain why The Matrix franchise was marketed across so many media: feature films, animated shorts, DVDs, websites, videogames, web, comics, and books. TimeWarner saw an opportunity to make a lot of money by making a lot of different Matrix franchise products.

But transmedia storytelling is more than just a marketing strategy.

Which leads to the second takeaway from Morton’s video. Transmedia storytelling reflects the desire of creators like the Wachowskis (creators of The Matrix) to tell stories in new ways, with new tools. Morton argues that the last three decades have seen the emergence of a distinctive “transmedia style.” The most obvious characteristic of this style is “remediation.” Remediation is defined by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin as “the representation of formal or stylistic characteristic(s) commonly attributed to one medium in another.”

The Scott Pilgrim franchise is a perfect example of this transmedia style. The stories told by O’Malley, Wright, and Paul Robertson (lead on the Scott Pilgrim videogame) all feature the same characters, settings, and themes, but also share a repertoire of visual and audio elements, which they borrow from each other and from other texts.

O’Malley’s comic remediates videogames, music, and manga.

Wright’s movie remediates music, videogames, and other movies (I love the Bollywood battle).


And, of course, it also remediates O’Malley’s comic. This makes Wright’s movie “a remediation of a remediation.”

Isn’t this just fan service and product placement? For sure. But that’s not the only driver of transmedia style. As Morton explains, “There’s a different interpretive lens applied with each remediation, as the artist adapts the previous medium into another.” While transmedia style is no doubt a marketing strategy of mega-corporations like Alphabet, Disney, Comcast, and Bertelsmann, it is just as evident in the work of slash fiction writers, cosplayers, and indie game developers like the good folks at Cardboard Computer, the makers of the several texts that we studied during the second night of our unit (and that will be the subject of the next post in this series). In other words, transmedia storytelling is a way to tell different kinds of stories and tell them in new kinds of ways.

Which brings us to a question. Whether a transmedia story is told by a high-power film director or an indie artistic collective, it is still a story. And it is the responsibility of literary critics to engage such stories with empathy, intelligence, and critical acumen. But how can we do that work when the text we’re examining is not one text, but many; not one medium, but several?

Morton helps us think about (1) the historical forces innovating storytelling and (2) the kinds of tools creators and consumers have at their disposal to do that storytelling. But his analysis of transmedia storytelling doesn’t help us when it comes to the close analysis of individual stories. If Wright’s movie applies a different interpretive lens to Scott Pilgrim’s story than O’Malley’s comic or Robertson’s videogame, then how exactly does that change how we experience the characters, themes, conflicts, settings, point of view, and tone?

Let’s take a closer look at the differences between the movie and the comic. Both represent the post-adolescent, self-absorbed, pathologically carefree, decidedly male worldview of Scott Pilgrim. Both of them make clear that Scott’s choice to live life as if it were a videogame is a symptom of his immaturity and irresponsibility. But where O’Malley’s comic lays out the causes and effects of that worldview and shows Scott and his friends coming to terms with it, Wright leans into it and makes Scott’s pilgrimage a classic boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-wins-girl thing.

This isn’t just a matter of authorial choice. The differences are driven in part by the media. The manic editing, countless Easter Eggs (well, actually, someone did count them), relentlessly witty visual and audio effects, and verbal derring-do of Wright’s movie makes it a lot of fun. But there’s a contradiction to Wright’s telling of the tale that discomfits me. I can’t decide if Wright is satirizing the gamerboy attitude or serving it. Honestly, it feels like he’s doing both, trying to have his cake and lie about it, too (Portal reference there).

Contradictions aren’t necessarily a bad thing. The contradiction between a text’s form and content can be a source of humor, irony, and insight. But I don’t see that in Wright’s movie. I don’t see critical irony in the two-dimensional female characters or the way those characters serve as little more than a vehicle for Scott’s journey. This is not the case with O’Malley’s comic, which is as visually and verbally inventive as Wright’s movie. However, there’s something about the comic book medium—its two-dimensionality, its lack of sound, its inherently fragmentary structure, the tension between word and image, the particular reading practice it requires from us—that sharpens the satirical edge.

So, while understanding the historical causes and formal characteristics of transmedia style is vital to thinking about transmedia storytelling, it isn’t as useful when we want to dig into plot, character, conflict, setting, point of view, tone, and so on.

To further sharpen our thinking about transmedia storytelling as literature, the students and I relied on Marie-Laure Ryan, a maven in the field of media-centered narrative studies. In “Story/Worlds/Media: Tuning the Instruments of a Media-Conscious Narratology,” Ryan asks, How are stories shaped by the medium through which they are told? We know that “the choice of a medium makes a difference as to what stories can be told, how they are told, and why they are told” (25). What is that difference?

Ryan suggests we think in terms of three registers of analysis: semiotic substance, technical dimension, and cultural dimension.

The semiotic substance of a medium is, simply put, its sensorial aspects: image, sound, language, and movement, for example (29). The Scott Pilgrim comics use words and images to tell the tale. The movie uses words, images, and sound. The videogame uses images, movement, sound, and haptics.

The technical dimension of media helps us to tell one medium apart from another in terms of “media-defining technologies . . . but also any kind of mode of production and material support” (29). Drew Morton describes a moment in the Scott Pilgrim production history that illustrates this idea well. When film production began in 2009, O’Malley hadn’t written the ending yet—an ending that would resolve the big question of whether Scott would end up with Ramona or Knives. Wright went ahead and filmed an ending, but test screenings didn’t go well. So, he and O’Malley consulted and went with the ending that we now see in both the comic and the movie. In other words, the demographic and economic forces surrounding film production pressured O’Malley to choose his ending. In Marie-Laure Ryan’s terms, one technical dimension shaped the other.

Finally, the cultural dimension allows us to differentiate media in terms of the “institutions, behaviors, and practices that support them” (30). Videogames are a distinct media form in terms of their semiotic and technical dimensions, of course, but also in terms of the multiple subcultures that surround them. We might think here of the differences between hardcore and casual gamers or RPG players and FPS stans. Or we might think again about the ending of the Scott Pilgrim narrative, an ending that was unacceptable to the audience sought by Universal, but might have been perfectly acceptable to readers of the kinds of comic books that O’Malley writes.

Having identified the three dimensions of media, Ryan describes three methods to analyze them. First, we can take a semiotic approach, which would focus on things like “language, image, sound, movement,” etc. both individually and in combination (30).

Let’s say we wanted to analyze the way diversity is represented in Overwatch. For sure, we’d want to talk about the backstories of the various characters—the fact that they come from different parts of the world and have different ethnicities, genders, sexualities, and species. But we’d also want to talk about how these differences are constructed semiotically: how the African characters are made to sound different from Americans, and how Americans sound different from Australians, and how Australians sound different from Latin Americans. We might talk about how the women are constructed to move differently than the men, how the white characters look different from the non-white characters, and so on.

Second, we could take a technical approach, which focuses on how a given technology “configure[s] the relationship between sender and receiver” or on the specific cognitive demands of a given “material support” (30).

Playing Overwatch on a console is different from from playing on a PC. Playing with a controller tends to be less precise than with a keyboard and mouse, so Blizzard provides console players “aim assist,” which automatically slows down crosshair movement when it scans over an opponent. Turning works differently, too, the console version being significantly slower. Thus, it’s easier to flank your opponents when playing on Xbox or PS4. How does this affect storytelling? On PC, snipers are more dangerous, so characters like Widowmaker are more threatening and, arguably, glamorous. On console, flankers are more dangerous, so characters like Tracer and Reaper enjoy greater status.

Third, we can employ a cultural studies approach and investigate the behaviors of individuals and groups or the formal and informal institutions in which narratives are produced, circulated, and consumed.

There are immediately recognizable differences between the culture of Overwatch on console versus PC. PC players have easier access to audio chat and can also communicate to each other via text, typing on their keyboards. The ease of communication likely contributes to the more toxic atmosphere of PC Overwatch. PC players also have access to game updates in advance of their release on console, allowing them to provide feedback to the game’s developers. As a result, the PC Overwatch community feels more like a traditional “hardcore” community. (Thanks to Psyche at MMOGames.com for breaking these differences down!)

So far, so good. We have the tools to map these “distributed” narratives and analyze each transmedia narrative as a unique conjunction of semiotic signaling, technology, and culture. But we also need to think about the larger structure in which each narrative component of the transmedia story fits. For that, Ryan tells us, we need to think in terms of “storyworlds.”

How do the semiotic, technological, and cultural affordances of a specific medium enable the stories told in that medium to communicate a sense of coherent and consistent reality? How does what we are watching, reading, playing, or hearing create for us the feeling that the story we’re experiencing takes place in a coherent, consistent universe, even when the kind of experience we’re having is as different as a 250-page novel and a shelf full of action figures?

She suggests that storyworlds are composed of the following elements:

  • Existents: “the characters of the story and the objects that have special significance for the plot” (34)
  • Setting: “a space within which the existents are located” (35)
  • Physical laws: “principles that determine what kinds of events can and cannot happen in a given story” (35)
  • Social rules and values: “principles that determine the obligations of characters” (35)
  • Events: “the causes of the changes of state that happen in the time span framed by the narrative” (36)
  • Mental events: “the character’s reactions to perceived or actual states of affairs” (36)

Each storyworld element is constructed and communicated differently, depending on the medium in question. A novel communicates the mental events of a character differently than a movie. A theater performance communicates the social rules and values of its characters differently than a videogame. Each medium has different capacities when it comes to representing the elements. Action figures are pretty lousy at communicating setting. A videogame is really good at communicating physical laws.

A given text will emphasize one or more storyworld element differently than another text. For example, when we play The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, we focus mostly on setting and events. As Link, we explore Hyrule, discovering dungeons, villages, characters, and so on. As we explore, we also learn about events that took place before we awoke from our slumber. And as we explore, we cause events to happen that change the present. In contrast, when we play Link in Super Smash Bros, we focus mostly on the physical laws and social rules and values of the game. We use the specific movement, attack, and defense abilities of Link to attack other characters, evade their attacks, gather resources—all of this in order to win the game.

A given text will construct a different interpretive framework around each storyworld element. For example, in both the comic book and movie version of Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, the crucial storyworld elements are characters, events, and mental events. Both versions construct a storyworld in which a young man embarks on a heroic journey in which he confronts and defeats the former lovers of a woman he desires and, in so doing, grows as a human being and wins the love and respect of that woman. But, as we discussed earlier, the ways that O’Malley and Wright construct these for the reader and spectator, respectively, create a rather different interpretation of Scott’s journey.

Finally, a given text places specific obligations on and fulfills specific expectations of those who read, watch, or play it. In other words, a given text requires different kinds of cognitive, imaginative, and physical activity from those who read, watch, or play it.

In sum, Ryan teaches us how to identify the specific media characteristics and storyworld strategies of a given work. This enables us to do valuable kinds of comparison-and-contrast analysis with the transmedia text. This not only allows us to get a better sense of how the text constructs its storyworld, but also what it asks us, as readers, spectators, and players, to do (42).

Having reached the end of our evening, it was time to rev up our engines, check the map, and get on our way to Kentucky Route Zero, which is the subject of the next post in this series.

Videogames and Literature: An Annotated Syllabus (Part 4)

December 18, 2018

This is the eleventh in a series of posts dedicated to works of videogame literature and theater—not videogames that are literary or theatrical, but rather novels, plays, television series, graphic novels, museum installations, poems, immersive theater, and movies that represent in some fashion or another videogames, videogame players, and videogame culture. For a general description of my critical framework and purposes, see the first post in the series, “What is videogame literature?



What we read:

Naomi Clark and Merritt Kopas, “Queering Human-Game Relations”

Hugh Howey, “Select Character” (PS2P)

Austin Grossman, “The Fresh Prince of Gamma World” (PS2P)

Robin Wasserman, “All of the People in Your Party Have Died” (PS2P)

What we played:

Porpentine, With Those We Love Alive

Device 6

What we did:

When I teach students to critically read a literary text, I always start with the text itself. We meticulously inspect the thing, identifying its various formal features—its metaphors, themes, image patterns, narrative structure, and so on. But we never stop there. Understanding a text’s form is just a start. From there, we move into context and ideology. We don’t let that literary text exist in its own special world. I believe that literary texts are intertwined in layered, multifaceted, sometimes difficult-to-detect ways with other texts (sometimes intentionally, as is the case with “intertextual storytelling”), as well as with ideology, history, institutional discourses, the identities and literacies of readers, and so on.

Every text, to recall French critic Julia Kristeva, is an “intertext.”

Some videogame critics don’t like this idea. For these, any talk of history, ideology, politics, gender, or race is a distraction from the thing that matters: understanding how the game works as a game.

Formalism isn’t always intentional. For example, Jesper Juul’s concept of “incoherence” (which I discussed in the last part) is incredibly useful if you’re interested in relating videogames to their players and the wider world in which play occurs. But Juul himself doesn’t explain how incoherence might be approached in terms of, say, gender or class or place.

Just like I do with novels and plays and movie, I believe in a broader definition of the videogame. I believe effective videogame criticism must start with the game itself, but must take into account the contexts in which games are made and played.

This evening was dedicated to mapping the space of play in terms of the ideological, personal, technological, and political forces that shape the experience of videogames. First, we explored how games gamify the physical and social space around the player. Second, we explored how games are embedded in our emotional, ethical, and interpersonal lives. And finally, we utilized queer theory to expand and complicate what we had developed into a more comprehensive, speculative, politically engaged conception of play space.

The object in our hands

We began with a discussion of Device 6, a cool little phone game created by the Swedish developer Simogo. Device 6 is a mash-up of a visual novel and a puzzle game. We play as Anna (well, mostly as Anna, because sometimes the game makes the player part of its fiction), a woman who awakes one fine day, minus memory, on a mysterious island reminiscent of the 1960s television series The Prisoner. We explore the island, encounter various puzzles, some of them head-scratchingly devious, solve said puzzles, and proceed, attempting to solve the big puzzle: Who is Anna and why is she on this island?

To begin, what makes Device 6 a useful entry into an expanded concept of videogame space is the way it gets us to play with text. We don’t just read the text. Sometimes, the text is a path. Sometimes, it is code. Sometimes, it is an object that must be manipulated in some way. (If you want to get a sense of what this is like but can’t play it on your own device, check out this video.)

Device 6 also makes us aware of the device in our hands—the phone or pad. We swipe the screen, rotate the device this way and that, at one point holding the phone up to a mirror to read backward text. We don’t just play the game on the device, we play the device itself.

And it makes us aware of our position within networks of power and information. At the end of each chapter, Device 6 breaks the narrative frame and directly addresses the player. We are asked to take a brief survey, for example, or asked to divulge personal information. The game makes us aware of our phone’s interconnectedness with larger networks of power and information.


Ultimately, Device 6 gamifies the spaces of videogame play: the space defined by text on a screen, the space of our bodies interacting with the videogame device, the space of data and social networks.

Literature about videogames

Having established the ways a game might incorporate spaces outside the game text itself into its rules and procedures, we moved onto a discussion of three short stories from one of my favorite collections of videogame literature, Daniel H. Wilson and John Joseph Adams’s Press Start to Play.

Hugh Howey’s “Select Character,” Austin Grossman’s “The Fresh Prince of Gamma World,” and Robin Wasserman’s “All of the People in Your Party Have Died” are about videogames that exist in uneasy and uncertain relationship with the worlds of those who play them.

Stories about the blurred boundaries between videogames and reality are common in videogame literature, so common it’s cliché. We see the trope in the first videogame literature (Tron [1982], Wargames [1983], Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash [1992]) and the most recent (Westworld [2016-present], Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle [2017], Video Game High School [2012-present], Ready Player One [2011]). Why this trope is so common is a subject for another time.

All three stories for this evening explore the blurred boundaries between real life and game life, but map that blurred boundary within troubled emotional and interpersonal spaces.

“Select Character” is about a new mother who ekes out a bit of daily self-care by playing her husband’s first-person military shooter. “What I liked about this game is that you could do whatever you wanted,” she tells us. “Except play as a woman, of course” (490). On a whim, she decides not to follow the game’s macho military narrative, following instead a path of non-violence and generosity, a challenging task in a game designed to reward headshots. On this particular afternoon, her husband discovers that she’s been playing. He’s thrilled, but when she shows him what she’s been doing, he’s confused. “You know the purpose of the game is to score points, right?” he asks (493). What she plays, instead, is “the game within a game. My little solace. A walled-off courtyard with five raised planters. And inside each one, a mix of flowers and vegetables. My flowers. My vegetables” (497).

Grossman’s “The Fresh Prince of Gamma World” is an enigmatic little narrative, intertwining the story of a player character in a post-apocalyptic interactive text game with the story of a young man attempting to survive the inexorable, bruising decline of his family, friendships, and hope. I like how Grossman frames his tale: the narrator found the game Fresh Prince of Gamma World “rattling around the mainframes of Somerville Community College” (412). The game has no historical value, no connection to a larger gaming community. “Written in outdated PASCAL, the code base was just a bunch of data and a homebrew parser for input, eccentrically architected. The game itself is uncredited” (412). Indeed, the story the narrator tells is a story of playing the game in the past. He no longer has access to it and when he searched for it, he tells us, “all I could recover were code fragments posted to a defunct Usenet board devoted to retro games and a user named go4it69 who did not respond to subsequent emails” (412). I also love way Grossman uses the space of the page. The world of the game is represented in one font, the “real world” of the player in another.

As Grossman intertwines the two narrative threads, he also intertwines these font shifts, and when the story ends, we are left with this enigmatic landscape.

“The Fresh Prince of Gamma World” delves deep into the fantasies of masculinity that underwrite so many players’ passion for gaming—and the melancholy that so many players work hard to avoid and deny.

The protagonist of Wasserman’s “All of the People in Your Party Have Died” is a lonely, self-isolating woman who falls in love with a fellow female instructor at a private high school. The story is set in 1988, and the protagonist, Lizzie, is struggling with becoming an adult, with the loss of her liberal optimism, and with pain she feels about the friends she has lost to HIV-AIDS. The sci-fi twist of the story is that the game of Oregon Trail Lizzie plays in order to spend time with her lover without causing undue suspicion is causing actual illness, injury, and death to her students, family, and friends.

Wasserman’s story is an excellent example of what I call “procedural adaptation”: The duplication of a game mechanic in a text such as leveling, respawning, manipulating an avatar, first-person perspective, glitch play, etc. In this case, Lizzie’s efforts to win the game mirror her increasingly self-centered, instrumentalist attitude towards those around her. In the same way that she denies the humanity of the people in her in-game pioneer party, she denies the humanity of her students, her family, and, ultimately, lover. “This is what it feels like to survive, Lizzie told herself. It felt lonely, but it was what she’d chosen, she thought, so she must have wanted it that way.”

Our discussion of these stories marked the moment when we began to think seriously about why literature about videogames is as important as videogames themselves. Howey, Grossman, and Wasserman map the shadowy, shifting spaces in and around videogames the way only fiction can. They map spaces of memory, consolation, jealousy, and rage. They map spaces of sharing, desire, betrayal, and regret.

And they remind us that, while not all videogames tell stories, every videogame player has a story to tell.

Queering human-game relations

To review, this evening started by exploring how games gamify the spaces around us by talking about Device 6. We then delved into how games insinuate themselves into our lives—and vice versa—by discussing the short stories by Howey, Grossman, and Wasserman.

It was time to tie these ideas together, and to help us in that, we turned to Naomi Clark and Merritt Kopas’s essay “Queering Human-Game Relations.” I can’t recommend this essay strongly enough and urge you to read it or watch the live (and unabridged) recording of their keynote to the 2014 Queerness & Games Conference.

Clark and k (merritt k is now her preferred name) investigate how videogames function as representational systems, how players relate to games and other players, and how videogames replicate and complicate normative ideologies of gender and sexuality. To accomplish this, they explain how games can be “queer” and how players and play communities can engage in “queering” practices.

NOTE: If you’re not familiar with the terms “queer” or “queering” as they’re used by academic critics, the first thing to know is that neither term should be used casually, especially if you’re straight (which I am). Even in the LGBTQ+ community, the term can sometimes be controversial, even though the “Q” in “LGBTQ+” stands for “queer.” I’ve been chastised on more than a few occasions for using the word, usually in situations where I was unable to provide a full background on the term or failed to alert my audience to the hazards of using it casually. I proceed here with semantic caution.

Typically, when we call a game “queer,” we speak to the game’s content: the presence of LGBTQ+ characters, for example. While Clark and k agree that queer content in games is important, they don’t want to stop there. As Clark explains, “Queer is a word in a constant process of mutation, inherently unfixed.” Further, “it’s inextricably bound up with the idea of resisting dominant, naturalized narratives and categories . . .” Storylines and characters are important, yes, but videogames are much more than storylines and characters.

It’s relatively easy to identify a queer character or a same-sex romance, but “it’s not as easy to pin down what exactly a queer mechanic looks like.” As k explains, “Taking a mechanical or rules-based approach to queerness is harder than looking at narrative . . .”

They build on the work of Miguel Sicart, a game scholar who argues that playing a game is an inherently ethical activity, especially when it involves, in Clark and k’s words, “playing with, testing, and perhaps even rejecting” the premises and processes of the game. Designers can do that, too. Clark and k cite the work of Paolo Pedercini and Avery Alder, who design games that make us aware of the way games reinforce dominant, damaging values. They cite Edmond Chang and Robert Yang, who are concerned with “how rarely conversations around queerness and difference in games delve to the level of code.”

That’s where Porpentine’s gorgeous, creepy, and deeply moving Twine game With Those We Love Alive comes in. I don’t want to give too much away. Go and play it. It’s free and doesn’t take long. You can find it here. While I love the story that Porpentine tells, what I love most about it is the way the game pushes against my desire for progress. The first time I played the game, I felt stuck. There were periods where I just kept doing the same thing over and over. I wasn’t progressing. I was getting bored, frustrated. Then I realized that that was the point.

In a sense, the game glitches both the narrative of heroic overcoming and game mechanics that treat the gameworld like a puzzle. The world of WTWLA is not a puzzle to be solved, but an emotional situation to be endured.

I also love the way WTWLA incorporates my body into its mechanics—it literally asks players to gamify their breath and their flesh. We’re asked from time to time to draw on our skin, to inscribe sigils that memorialize significant moments in the game. You can see a gallery of player sigils here. There is something intensely embodied about drawing on our own skin. And there is a thrill to walking out in the world with these enigmatic sigils on our hands and arms and legs. We bring our experience in Porpentine’s world into our world.

WTWLA is a perfect example of a “queer” videogame. It reminds us that, if we’re going to talk about how games represent gender and sexuality, we need to talk about content (storyline, characters, themes, dialogue, settings, etc.), but we also need to talk about mechanics (choice, movement, leveling, agency, etc.) and player performance—what players do, what they imagine they’re doing, who they’re doing it with, where they’re doing it.

Clark and k want us to think about how power works in games. They want us to think about open-world games like Skyrim and Minecraft, worlds players “are almost completely free to modify at their whim, one whose only other inhabitants are violent monsters and animals whose bodies can be used for various purposes.” They want us to think about the ways games reward goal-oriented behavior, what Paolo Pedercini calls the “aesthetic form of rationalization.” They want us to question the idea that games teach us that failure is okay—that when we fail, we must try and try again. They remind us, “For kids on the receiving end of losses, especially kids made to feel incapable in other realms, the experience of failure isn’t one of freedom or escape. It’s a reinforcement, a reminder.”

Clark and k want us to be open to different kinds of games but also to different ways of playing games: “Mutating, breaking, and twisting games are valuable actions insofar as they help make visible our assumptions about play. As Pedercini puts it, this is a ‘slow and collective process of hacking accounting machines into expressive machines.’” If we can do this, then maybe games really can help us play our way out of game space into a better future.