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Damien B. Schlarb: Narrative Glitches: Action Adventure Games and Metaleptic Convergence

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 When Neo, the protagonist of the 1999 film The Matrix, sees a black cat passing by a doorway twice within a matter of seconds, he chalks off the experience as an episode of déjà vu. His companions explain that, in the virtual world of the matrix, experiencing déjà vu usually means that the matrix, the elaborate procedurally generated computer virtual-reality simulation of the late 1990s (of all things), is adjusting its code to apprehend them. The matrix entraps humans in order to syphon off their body heat and with it power a race of sentient machines that have overtaken the earth. What Neo first dismisses as cognitive dissonance is actually a computational error. This “cat glitch” has a semiotic double valence: it illustrates the perpetual calculations, which are normally imperceptible to those enthralled by it, that are necessary to generate the world of the matrix, and it also signifies an anomaly in the code. In this latter sense, the glitch draws attention to the matrix’s basic machine character. Its hardware, which exists in the form of ominous, seemingly endless fields of black server towers out in the wasteland of the real world, ultimately limits its virtual world and thus its capacity for dominating the humans it enslaves. The image of the cat represents the banality of this Achilles’ heel by invoking the whimsy of superstition (black cats signify bad luck for those whose paths they cross), while the glitch—an error in the code or a sign that a processor’s data buffers are overstrained—signifies the material limit against which the matrix struggles. Like any late-1990s personal computer, then, the matrix can glitch out, lag, crawl, freeze, or even crash, and as audience members we may therefore hope that Neo and his comrades can overcome it and save humanity.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 From a narratological standpoint, the scene foreshadows the machines’ downfall by illustrating the status of the matrix as a medium. Machine actions become visible, momentarily puncturing the protagonist’s cognitive frame of reference. As Neo’s immersion in the simulated world of the matrix gets interrupted, he is reminded of the fact that all his experiences in the world are mediated. This particular kind of metalepsis, or frame-breaking, reveals to the characters the machinic actions that are necessary to maintain the illusion of a coherent reality. The cat glitch, then, represents a suture in this otherwise seamlessly mediated, immersive world, a moment in which they may confront the matrix’ as a medium.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Media studies theorists Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin define moments in which media alert users to their presence, for example through obtrusive computer operating software interfaces, as instances of hypermediacy (33). What is characteristic of this phenomenon is that it disabuses the operator of the illusion of immediacy and seamlessness that all media strive to create. Such moments can even be epiphanic because they allow us to perceive both the content and the medium simultaneously. Like Neo, we may pause, look back through the looking glass, and marvel at the fabric of the strange wonderland we have stepped into. What makes this scene worth contemplating is that it puts meta-reflection about media convergence in the service of narrative. Hypermediacy becomes part of the story.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Narrative-driven action adventure video games have long employed similar metaleptic techniques to draw player attention whilst striving to increase immersion. Yet the characteristic configuration of video games as what Andrew Galloway terms diegetic and non-diegetic player and machine actions add several semiotic, narrative, and political layers to the phenomenon (11, 16-28). For example, in the action adventure, science fiction game Metal Gear Solid (1998), the terrorist Psycho Mantis, a character with telekinetic and telepathic abilities, threatens first the avatar, Snake, and then the player directly with reading their mind. Depending on the player’s dialog choices, Psycho Mantis turns players’ TV screens black, activates the controller’s vibration features, and reads the contents of whichever memory card is inserted into the gaming console. The game continues along similar narrative tracks, and yet the character has momentarily transcended the narrative and ludic confines of the game, thereby creating a moment of heightened sense of the narrative, the medium, and the external material situatedness (console, game pad, TV set, etc.), or what Galloways calls a “moment of unplay” (35), of the game.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 In this article, I attend to moments of metalepsis in which simulated machinic failure becomes part of narrative. Video game scholars have theorized purposeful disruptions in terms of players’ expectational horizons and even as aesthetic objects in their own right, yet little attention has been paid to the manner in which they become diegetically and semiotically productive.[1] Using the examples X-Men (1993), Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009), and Pony Island (2016), I consider instances in which games reflect their own mediatedness, both in the sense of being media that facilitate digital gameplay and in the extended sense that they mediate between the materiality of machinic, diegetic, and player actions. This mediation has itself several vectors of meaning, which I trace out below. I argue that these moments, in which different strains of mediation, materiality, and storytelling come together, mark instances of what I will call metaleptic convergence, which characterizes video games as a medium. When games point to their own extradiegetic situatedness, they underscore their status as media and their material dimensions: a game is the sum of algorithmic calculations required to keep it running, and it may, for example, be embedded on a blu-ray disc spinning in a drive that gathers information via laser read-outs. Materiality and computation become represented momentarily as intersecting in the game’s diegesis to advance the stories they tell. In this article, I consider how these interstices between the material and the cultural become significant in narrative.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Galloway’s cybernetics-based model of gamic action serves as a referential framework for addressing video games as objects of analysis here; however, I will still strategically refer to them as aesthetic objects at certain points of my analysis. Galloway distinguishes between diegetic machine acts, i.e., the machine calculations which create the game world (cf. 11-12); nondiegetic operator acts, configuration, pausing, enacting the algorithm; diegetic operator acts, commands entered via the interface that drive gameplay and in our case narrative; and nondiegetic machine acts, signs of the machine enacting the game rules, such as granting players power-ups for collecting certain items or killing an avatar for walking off a cliff. These actions are performed “over the contestation of the operator” (28) and carry in themselves signs of material culture, for instance in the response time of the system to certain gamic actions (cf. 33). My theoretic approach here is constructivist in the sense that I identify the layers of meaning that become mobilized in the instances I focus on here. Player activity both mobilizes and is impacted by the diegetic and extradiegetic events in question, and Galloway’s model allows me to ponder the formal and political implications of this dialectic.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Theory: Remediation, Convergence, Singularity

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Conceptually capturing the phenomena I outlined above requires a theoretical model of media analysis that can apprehend such moments in video games as symbolic (re-)alignments that have narrative valence. What I call metaleptic convergence is made up of building blocks from the fields of media studies, literary studies, and narratology. Drawing on these three discourses, I think about these events as instances of semiotic and media convergence.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Henry Jenkins’s model of media convergence usefully allows us to consider within the same referential and analytical framework both material and cultural objects (cf. 282). Convergence, in the instances I outline below, occurs because something shifts simultaneously in the perceptions of players and characters alike. In these moments, the machine dimension of the game, which exists latently all along during gameplay, moves into view and becomes part of the game’s narrative. And while the game continues to run normally, its previously opaque machine dimension erupts on the scene and interrupts play and immersion. The game’s characteristic procedural generation is momentarily inhibited. Like Neo staring down the black cat, players stand confronted with both the gaming system’s machine actions—now unveiled as non-diegetic machine actions—that enable player actions in the first place, and their own diegetic actions that drive the game and its narrative. And yet all of this remains part of the simulation of the game. In the next moment, however, this interruption furthers immersion as it becomes framed as metalepsis.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 From a media studies point of view, the instances I discuss here are noteworthy because they mark, as Bolter and Grusin acknowledge may happen, moments in which hypermediacy assumes “a playful or subversive attitude, both acknowledging and undercutting the desire for immediacy” (34). Bolter and Grusin proceed to remind us that both hypermedia and transparent media strive to achieve what they call “the real” in the viewer’s experience, i.e., “that which would evoke an immediate (and therefore authentic) emotional response” (53). When games employ glitches as ludo-narrative devices, they give players pause, because they simultaneously feel stumped while also being in on the joke. Players may stop, smile, and continue on playing, even more enthused than before. Bolter and Grusin’s notion of playfulness on the side of the medium marks moments as instances in which players’ media literacy, latent technophilia, situational awareness, and preconceptions about the gamic situation becomes the subject of both mockery and pleasure.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 The appeal, or rather the authenticity of these experiences emerges from the overall conceptual ambiguity of such moments, in which players become involved more closely with the game. At the same time, these instances see players cease their play for a moment, only to start up again on a higher level. Galloway notes how nondiegetic machine acts may “create a generative agitation or ambiguity” (34), elevating gameplay to a higher order activity, which he conceptualizes as “écriture, the supplement, the new” (38).[2] Philosopher Daniel Martin Feige, in a recent attempt at defining video games from the vantage point of aesthetics, even implies that such ambiguous playfulness marks the defining characteristic of video games. As objects of “determined indeterminacy” [“bestimmte Unbestimmtheit”] (107), Feige argues, games open up spaces of (cognitive, phenomenological, intellectual) possibility that are not accessible via other media.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 While I will not speculate here on the creative potential—let alone the conceivable psychological implications—these moments hold for players, I do want to use the phenomenon of narrative glitches to expound on the term écriture as Galloways uses it. I use the term here as designating a generative dynamic that exceeds mere passive consumption of or immersion in a medium. Specifically, I am thinking about narrative glitches as convergence events, brief time periods in which something important and different happens that is characteristic for the form of the videogame as a remediating medium. Literary scholar Derek Attridge has argued in a similar vein for what he calls the singularity of literature, and his concept may help specify what the aforementioned theorists have called, playfulness, ambiguity, or écriture. Attridge proposes that singularity constitutes “the demand that this specific collocation of words, allusions, and cultural references makes on me [the reader] in the event of my reading, here and now, as a member of the culture to whom these codes are familiar” (95). While he describes text here, Attridge’s proposition lends itself to being adapted to video games. My own sense here is that narrative glitches push players towards such higher-order play. Video games, I show, exert the same kind of demand, and the structure of this technique becomes visible in moments of ludo-narrative and machinic convergence. By simulating the breakdown of the machine, gameplay is being defamiliarized and players confront, even if it is only for an instance, their own diegetic action as gamic action, in the kinetic sense of putting commands into a machine. In other words, the activity of gaming as an interaction of machinic and player actions is being signified to them as material interaction, all while remaining immersed in the game. The experience therefore remains mediated while moving to a higher order of signification.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 In what follows, I analyze three objects from different eras of console home-gaming. In each instance, I begin by providing a brief overview over the game’s aesthetic sensibilities and gameplay loops. I explicate and analyze moments of metaleptic convergence, in which gameplay gets disrupted in order to further the narrative and players are forced to confront the materiality, cybernetics, and machinic actions that generate the digital artefacts they interface with. In doing so, they enter momentarily into a higher level of play, in which gameplay and narrative absorb and reflect all these dimensions of external situatedness. I distinguish these moments by the material actions and consequences the game suggests to players. The activities of resetting the game, the fear of losing one’s data and progress, and even deliberately deleting the game are all moved within the compass of a game’s narrative through metalepsis. Attridge notes regarding literature that singularity constitutes the synchronic experience of movement through the medium, a movement which in turn generates “depth and density” (97-98). I propose that the same double movement of deepening and condensation occurs in metaleptic moments in gaming.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Resetting the Game

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 X-Men appeared late in the Sega Genesis’s console life cycle. A third-person, hack-and-slash side scroller, it belonged to the era of so-called licensed action games, i.e., games based on preexisting entertainment franchises such as movies or, in the case, a popular Marvel Comics series. Players assume one of four X-Men characters, mutants with extraordinary physical abilities, and traverse several linear levels as they avoid obstacles and combat disposable minions as well as super villains from the franchise as boss characters at the end of each level. In terms of graphics, story, and gameplay, the game is typical for its genre and its time, although it was considered by commercial reviewers as extremely difficult, due in part to poor level design and difficulty spikes. However, the game does experiment with interface- and sequence conventions, for instance by foregoing a title screen with menu options and dropping players directly into a first prelude level after they turn on the console.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 In level five of the game, players confront Mojo, an obese, humanoid alien who resembles Star Wars’ Jabba the Hutt. Mojo has no spine but prosthetic robot spider legs, cable appendages for hair, and a maniacal personality. He controls Mojo World, a planet hardwired with cameras and outfitted as an elaborated gladiator pit from where he broadcasts crash-TV-style combat-sports spectacles and deathmatches between those he abducts and enslaves. With a setting straight out of Paul Michael Glaser’s 1982 movie The Running Man, the character Mojo is a fun-house mirror image of a 1980s entertainment executive, a parody of corporate greed, the declining quality of US-American entertainment, and dehumanizing business practices. The character in its original form thus already contains a certain metaleptic and political dimension.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Once players reach Mojo’s lair and defeat him, they are prompted by various monitors to “reset the computer” in order to stop a virus that threatens to destroy Mojo’s stronghold in an explosion. Players can search the room high and low for any means to reset the network of wires and monitors displayed in the game’s level while a timer on the side of the screen ticks down mercilessly, but to no avail. The solution to the puzzle is to gently press the reset button on the gaming console. Doing so will cause the screen to fade to black and eventually fill up with green binary code. Players are then automatically transported to the next level. The game’s regular interface gets momentarily extended to the hardware of the console; the input sequence is never used before or after this point, and there is no other indication of what players must do beyond the text on the screen. Worse yet, the operation is not without risk: holding down the reset button too long may cause the console to rest in earnest, which results in players losing their progress.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Media convergence here has a cognitive basis: players must revise their understanding of the boundaries between the interface of the gamepad and the console in order to solve the puzzle and progress to the next stage. This moment of hypermediation reverberates out both in the direction of narrative—players cannot proceed unless they stop Mojo’s virus bomb—and to the game’s material basis in the cartridge inserted in the console. Players must recognize the game’s extra-diegetic situatedness and adjust their actions accordingly. Having battled their way through a literally nightmarish media landscape, players are prompted to confront the game as medium and reimport that knowledge into the game. Put differently, progress in the game depends on making that cognitive adjustment.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 The prompt to reboot the system opens up a tenuous probabilistic space: players too immersed in the game may fail to recognize the extended valance of the word “reset” displayed on their screens and consequently may not progress further. They may even turn off the game in frustration as they fail to solve the puzzle, thus actually—one may say tragically—performing the proximate action to the one required, since apart from the reset button, the Genesis console only has a power button on its face plate. What is more, the interval between pressing and releasing the console’s reset button determines which “system” gets rebooted—the virtual system of Mojo’s computer or the console’s operating system that runs the game’s software. As the two systems converge semiotically, progress and failure are brought in precarious proximity.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Metaleptic convergence, in this instance, does not open a creative space of jouissance as Galloway suggests in his example, but rather constitutes a harsh, unexpected elimination criterium. Players either confront the game in all its narrative, semiotic, and material valences—and do so within a time limit—or they cannot proceed further. One may chalk this off to bad game design, but the fact that the story of the level revolves around a maniacal media mogul who rules over a planet whose primary function is to provide a mediascape suggest that this is indeed a moment of metagaming that frames the kind of singular alignment I have theorized above. Of course, not all games utilize ludo-narrative machinic convergence in quite so harsh a manner. Rather, the phenomenon occurs on a spectrum of narrative integration that runs from jarring to rather seamless.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 The Fear of Breaking the Game and the System

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Batman: Arkham Asylum by Rocksteady Studios (2009) was widely credited by commercial reviewers with reinvigorating the single-player action adventure genre at the time. The game’s central conflict revolves around the DC Comics character Batman and unfolds on the grounds of Arkham Asylum, the mental institution for the criminally insane that houses the pointy-eared superhero’s rogues gallery. The asylum has been taken over by the Joker, and Batman must restore order by combating henchmen and traversing the narrow halls and corridors of the facility whilst collecting clues and riddles to solve the mystery surrounding the purpose of the Joker’s siege.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Arkham Asylum uses the New England Gothic architecture of the claustrophobic mental institution to construct its narrative setting. Its visual and acoustic cultural subtext includes steampunk, Gothic fiction (e.g. H.P. Lovecraft), and 1980s’ horror and action movies. The game reimagines familiar characters from the D.C. Comics/Warner Bros. intellectual property in terms of this specific admixture of cultural references.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 The gameplay combines hand-to-hand and stealth-based, “predatory” combat, exploration, and puzzle solving. The game’s appeal arguably lies in its asymmetrical combat: Batman’s wide array of gadgets and tactics enable players to take on hordes of armed enemies. Wielding an arsenal of “wonderful toys”—as Jack Nicholson calls them in the 1983 Batman film, which the game also references at times—Batman’s “superpower,” as it were, is being prepared, and the gameplay grants players this particular version of a power-fantasy. Combat requires players to assess various parameters such as the terrain, crowd size, as well as enemy attack- and defense capabilities and patterns. Recognizing these patterns and matching them to Batman’s arsenal and physical combat skills, combined with the dexterity required to execute offensive and defensive maneuvers, constitutes the challenge here. Stealth combat revolves around Batman sneaking unseen through secluded areas (e.g., hallways, boiler rooms, rooftops) whilst eliminating individual enemies one by one.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 In a key sequence, Batman faces off with one of his arch nemeses, the Scarecrow, who infects him with a fear-inducing aerosol toxin that causes hallucinations based on deep-seated, personal fears. After the first dose of gas, Batman will cough while leaving a room, a slight gesture that one may miss while playing. Minutes later, the hallway will gradually morph into the alley in which young Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered in front of him, setting him on a path to vigilantism. The game thus uses visual storytelling to explore the personal trauma of Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne while blurring the distinction between him and the asylum inmates. This scenario unfolds episodically across three separate encounters with the Scarecrow. Visual and aural clues indicate to the player when a sequence is hallucinatory (the hissing sound of the gas being ventilated into the room, Batman’s coughing, the orange hue of his eyes, the cockroaches that begin crowding the hallways). One example is the illusion of the death of Commissioner Gordon, Batman’s surrogate father figure.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 However, the final encounter breaks with player expectations: following the aforementioned whizzing sound of gas in the background and Batman’s slight coughing, an off-base announcement over the asylum’s PDA system (“did anyone catch the game last night?”) signals that something is amiss. Suddenly, the game freezes and the screen begins to fill with graphical artefacts and code fragments. Next, the game seems to restart with its title sequence, only to reveal this to be another Scarecrow-induced fear hallucination.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 The ludo-narrative gambit here consists in the game momentarily dissolving the magic circle and letting the story of Batman’s struggle with the toxin bleed into the system of the player. The game temporarily aligns players’ contextual with Batman’s diegetic perspective. The threat of losing hardware functionality becomes the objective correlative of the effects of Scarecrow’s fear gas. As Batman loses his grip on reality, players experience the sensation of losing control over their avatar as well as a latent fear, as it were, that their hardware has been corrupted. Similar to X-Men, the game aligns players’ outside-world stakes with its diegetic stakes, creating a moment of what Galloway calls higher-order play. However, this instance of the phenomenon, I would argue, is more elaborate and better integrated into the game’s visual language and overall story. While the game console continues functions normally, this instance of non-play, within the diegetic logic of the game, dramatizes a central trope in Batman’s mythos: his fear that he may be the same as the villains he fights.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 The disruption, finally, has phenomenological implications for players. The simulated audio-visual glitches draw attention to the algorithmic actions necessary for running the game; specifically, to enable diegetic and non-diegetic operator actions. During regular play, both sets of actions exist as discrete spheres for players. However, during this moment of convergence, machine and operator actions become symbolized on a diegetic level through the audio-visual misaligned code artefacts. The code artefacts on display here signify an instance of hypermediation.

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 Media studies scholar Philipp Bojahr, who draws on Niklas Luhmann’s systems model, sees such disruptions and juxtapositions as elucidating the intersections of the discrete systems of player and game. What Bojahr calls “amicable disruptions,” of which he deems the episode in Arkham Asylum an example (164-65), occurs when the game purposefully behaves “in ways contrary to the player’s gameplay-related horizon of expectations” (163, my translation). Game-design scholar Doug Church argues similarly that the appeal of videogames for players lies with their ability to create “perceivable consequences” (qtd. in Fernández-Vara 12).

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 The consistent correlation of system rules and player expectations creates what narratologists and media studies scholars like Janet Murray (cf. 98-99) and Marie-Laure Ryan (cf. 12) have termed immersive flow, i.e., players being swept up in the intersecting actions of interface manipulation, narrative, play, and what Fernandez-Vara (cf. 58) calls context (hardware is running etc.). Britta Neitzel distinguishes this from player involvement, i.e., the “playful equilibrium of proximity and distance” ([“das spielerische Gleichgewicht von Nähe und Distanz”] that is generated via the concerted operations of multiple techniques and on multiple layers technical and symbolic levels (83, my translation). However, contrary to Galloway, these approaches usually do not consider non-player acts as part of their respective systems. What all these concepts share is the idea that players need to be somehow entrapped by or tangled up in the game’s semiotic structures.

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 However, in Arkham Asylum, the opposite seems true: interrupting flow arguably gets players more invested (if not immersed) in the story.[3] Once players realize that the game did not crash and the video they see is a parody of the game’s opening cut-scene, they will arguably resituate themselves in diegetic action. Meanwhile, in X-Men, recognizing this form of metaleptic convergence even was the condition for progressing in the game. And while the idea of immersion through disruption may seem paradoxical at first, it is consistent with media studies’ conceptions of the mutually reinforcing tendencies of hypermediation and immersion.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 There emerges yet another, political dimension of metaleptic convergence here when we read it as a commentary on the state of late capitalism and the investment of millennial Western professionals in personal entertainment technology. Galloway notes that “[a]cts of configuration,” like menu settings or inventory arrangements in RPGs, “express processes in culture that are large, unknown, dangerous, and painful […]. [A]cts of configuration are a rendering of [late capitalist] life” (16). In The Plague of Fantasies, Slavoj Žižek identifies a naïve tendency in users to “trust the phenomena” of the interface, a tendency that for him characterizes our traversal of cyberspace (cf. 130-32). For Žižek, interfaces generate the “illusion of continuity”: “the user becomes ‘accustomed to opaque technology’—the digital machinery behind the screen retreats into total impenetrability, even invisibility” (131).

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 Arkham Asylum arguably simulates a disruption of play in which what Žižek calls “imbecilic contingency” (129) bursts through this veil of naiveté to momentarily negate the false “sense of interiority that ideological space curvature promises” (130). Because this disruption is only simulated, however, it can be rendered harmless and even become part of the naïve flow of gameplay. Once players see the Scarecrow’s inverted bat-symbol on the moon standing high above the skyline of Gotham City, the fear of a possible system corruption and accidental resetting of the game recedes and may even turn to a heightened sense of immersion and investment in the story.

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 As with X-Men, the gambit here is to threaten players with complete data loss. The emotional stakes are even higher in the sense that players are made to briefly suffer the fear of having their systems permanently damaged, whereas X-Men merely teases players about possibly losing game data if they manipulate the console interface clumsily. Arkham Asylum integrates more effectively instances of metalepsis with its story as it introduces visual and aural cues associated with the scenario earlier on in the game, and like in any good whodunit, players may mentally retrace their steps and recognize that the signs for solving the puzzle were indeed there all along. The previous two examples use metalepsis in select instances to meditate on the medium of video games, i.e. to create metagaming. I have argued from the beginning that the semiotic efficacy of these instances lies in their temporal and spatial limitedness. That being said, it is of course possible to extend such moments and even make them the premise of an entire game, as in the following example.

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 Deleting the Game to Win the Game

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 The early 2010s marked the rise of the so-called independent or ‘indie’ games. Usually produced by a single person or a two-person team, these games often feature retro graphics and gameplay principles (for instance, 8-bit side scrollers). The commercial success of these games continues to be considerable, given that they can be produced relatively cheaply and distributed digitally and independently. Games such as Braid (2009) or Super Meat Boy (2010) rank among the most prominent examples of such success stories. One subgroup in this genre is the metagame, which reflects on the medium of the video game. While most of the instances I discuss in this article can be considered meta-sequences or -episodes in otherwise linear, narrative games, metagames like Undertale (2015) and The Stanley Parable (2016) engage directly with the trappings of interface and ludic storytelling through their respective gameplay loop and narrative styles.[4]

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 In Pony Island, players confront a haunted penny-arcade cabinet, which prompts them to “insert” their souls, rather than quarters, to play. Gameplay alternates between a simple side-scrolling jump-and-run, in which they guide an 8-bit animated unicorn across an increasingly menacing obstacle course, and puzzle sections in which players must ‘hack’ the cabinet’s core programming and eventually retrieve their soul by shifting around symbols and enter text commands. These two loops are interspersed with DOS-based text-messenger chats with Satan himself, who taunts players about the impossible odds of beating the game. The game’s screen remains framed at all times by the visual representation of an old transistor screen, which adds a layer of signification to play as the game evokes the material impression that the various game elements all ‘take place’ on one arcade screen. While remaining stationary in space, the arcade cabinet challenges players by offering games of various genres (puzzle, jump-and-run) as well as dialog options. Meanwhile, the interface follows the point-and-click principle of the home PC adventure games from the early 1990s, like The Secret of Monkey Island (1990), in which players must solve visual puzzles and choose between various dialog options.

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 The game references specialized sub-sections of online gamer culture. When trying to start a new game from the main menu, players find menu items disappear, change color, or fall to the bottom of the screen like material objects. Players must “fix” the menu by manipulating the base code of the cabinet in the form of moving symbols around to matching, pre-marked positions. Once the right sequence is established, players take on another obstacle-course section with their pony, while Satan quickly thwarts their efforts by deploying unavoidable obstacles causing instant death. Puzzle sections invoke the activity of modifying (“modding”) games and trading copies of unfinished games that has been common among online communities since the late 1980s. Modders, players with programming skills, will break into a game’s code and fix errors (“bugs”) or make aesthetic modifications, for instance, by changing character appearances. They might also port older games to newer operating systems. Yet in this case manipulating the game’s corrupted code constitutes one of the two gameplay loops rather than guerilla hacking. Compared to the previous two examples, the chain of signification reaches much further than the immediate material, non-diegetic situatedness of the game. By allowing players to become hackers without the necessary coding skills, Pony Island symbolically bridges the skill gap that differentiates the two communities. Players may simulate a more intense practice of ‘play’— modding—that encompasses even a game’s baseline code, thus defamiliarizing the kind of surface play represented by the pony obstacle course sections.

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 Evoking modding culture in this manner elevates metalepsis from an incidental occurrence to a design principle. In contrast to X-Men and Arkham Asylum, frame-breaking here functions not as a story-telling device but becomes the whole point of the game. Players are constantly confronting the fact that they are playing a video game whilst playing around in and with a video-game code. The whimsical secondary gameplay loop, the pony obstacle course, meanwhile gets emptied out of gameplay efficacy. Players may control the avatar on the screen by entering simple commands, but the stages cannot be completed because the code has been corrupted. This part of the game, the actual game in terms of Pony Island’s diegesis, becomes stripped of its ludic efficacy while being super-charged with symbolic value. The obstacle course sections exist as referential tokens, signifying on the one hand the game’s broken state and, on the other hand, the difference between various gaming practices and gamer types: casual players who enjoy games like Angry Birds which feature simple, straightforward control schemes, dedicated players who sink hours into sprawling open-world games with elaborate graphics and complex inventory-management systems, and obsessive players who go to even greater lengths and utilize the very code of a game. It also signifies the simple fact that gameplay is not possible while the game’s code remains corrupted. Once players have patched the arcade cabinet’s program, they may confront Satan with their pony and shoot laser beams at him in the final level of the game. Meanwhile, the coding puzzle sections, while simulating the higher-order skill set of programming and constituting the actual primary gameplay loop, are semiotically sparse. Players are simply called upon to match symbols, and like the platforming sections, the puzzle sections merely signify the truism that a game’s code must be operational in order for even simple gameplay to take place. This is where the two game play loops intersect: each gameplay section points to the other, thereby creating a spiral of signification.

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 Like X-Men and Arkham, Pony Island also has a noteworthy instance of metaleptic convergence: the game’s signification spiral ends once Satan is defeated and players can retrieve their souls. After the end credits, a ghost, who had helped players with clues via the game’s built-in text-chat feature, appears and asked to be freed. Like the player’s avatar was trapped in the arcade cabinet, the ghost claims to be trapped in the game’s code on the player’s computer. Only when the Pony Island file is deleted from the player’s hard drive can the ghost be set free. Through the diegetic entity of the ghost, the game prompts players to eradicate its code, i.e. to perform an action diametrically opposed to the principles of the game they just completed. If players delete the game, metalepsis turns to entropy as frame-breaking turns to object-breaking, the erasure of the game’s code. Deletion ends the game’s signifying spiral while in itself signifying the ultimate end of the object fetish that is modding. The game only ever truly ends when there is no more code and obsessive players can cease “playing” the game in all senses of the term. As with our other two examples, completing the game requires players to take actions in the material world, in this case, uninstalling the game they thought they had just completed.

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 Conclusion

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 The ghost in Pony Island delivers the same message to players as the black cat in The Matrix gives to Neo: get out of the game. Feige notes that the whole “gag” about gaming (he uses this term specifically) is that players really do not play the game so much as they play through themselves while completing a game (cf. 173), and in many respects, the action adventure games that I have considered here all point players outside their own semiotic framework. Yet they do so in order to propel their respective narratives and to enhance immersion. My interest has been in shedding light on this counterintuitive dynamic, which I have called metaleptic convergence in an effort to capture conceptually the way in which their ludo-narrative, semiotic, and material valences align. These alignments are characterized by their short duration and semiotic density, or what Attridge calls deepening and densifying. In literature, this unfurling conceptual space prompts readers to interlace the text with their knowledge of the cultural world from which it comes. In the realm of video games, écriture, in Galloway’s sense of “generative agitation,” is a twin phenomenon to Attridge’s “demand.” It designates the higher order of play that players enter once they answer the game’s demand for such deeper engagement. Narrative glitches thus are nodal points at which this ever-deepening and densifying, agitative and demanding interstice becomes visible. The games I have discussed here afford players particular responses to these demands, by which all dimensions of gamic activity converge as they become represented in play.

43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 More work has to be done on the conceptual implications of the symbolic spaces that these convergences open up in video games. For instance, if gameplay really constitutes écriture in the poststructuralist sense, narrative glitches may help us think about the generative violence, or trace, at the center of such ‘writing.’ They may even enable us to identify and conceptualize a revolutionary potential in video games.[5] The overarching project here is of course to sharpen our image of video games as media object that mean in certain ways. My attempt here was informed by the poststructuralist notion that the characteristic properties of structures emerge at their fault lines, or in moments when they collapse. Action adventure games utilize this notion and operationalize it as narrative, in the process creating litters of black cats for us to pause and contemplate.


44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 Works Cited

45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 Attridge, Derek. The Singularity of Literature. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2017.

46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 Batman: Arkham Asylum. Rocksteady Studios, 2009.

47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 Bolter, J. David, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. MIT Press, 1999.

48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 Bojahr, Philipp. “ Störungen Des Computerspiels.” Gamescoop, pp. 147-78.

49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 Cixous, Hélèn. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, edited by David H. Richter, 3rd ed., Bedford, 2007, pp. 1643–55.

50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 Feige, Daniel Martin. Computerspiele: Eine Ästhetik. Suhrkamp, 2015.

51 Leave a comment on paragraph 51 0 Fernández-Vara, Clara. Introduction to Game Analysis. Routledge, 2014.

52 Leave a comment on paragraph 52 0 Galloway, Alexander R. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. U of Minnesota P, 2006.

53 Leave a comment on paragraph 53 0 Gamescoop, editor. Theorien Des Computerspiels, Junius, 2012.

54 Leave a comment on paragraph 54 0 Juul, Jesper. The Art of Failure. MIT UP, 2013.

55 Leave a comment on paragraph 55 0 Pajot, Lisanne, and James Swirsky. Indie Game: The Movie. 2012.

56 Leave a comment on paragraph 56 0 Mullins, Daniel. Pony Island. Daniel Mullins Games, 2016.

57 Leave a comment on paragraph 57 0 Murray, Janet H. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. MIT Press, 1998.

58 Leave a comment on paragraph 58 0 Neitzel, Britta. “ Involvierungsstrategien des Computerspiels.” Gamescoop, pp. 75-103.

59 Leave a comment on paragraph 59 0 Ryan, Marie-Laure, editor. Narrative Across Media: The Languages of Storytelling. Uof Nebraska P, 2004.

60 Leave a comment on paragraph 60 0 Sharp, John. Works of Game: On the Aesthetics of Games and Art. MIT UP, 2015.

61 Leave a comment on paragraph 61 0 X-Men. Sega, 1993.

62 Leave a comment on paragraph 62 0 Žižek, Slavoj. The Plague of Fantasies. Verso, 2009.


63 Leave a comment on paragraph 63 0 [1] Besides Galloway, see also Bojahr, who I discuss below. On the side of the player, narrative glitches operational for ludic story are similar to what Jasper Juul describes as the paradox of failure, i.e., the fact that we hold games that allow us to fail in higher regard than those who do not (cf. 36). On the aesthetic afterlife of glitches, see John Sharp’s discussion of visual artworks based on video game bugs (cf. 24).

64 Leave a comment on paragraph 64 0 [2] Galloway adopts the term from Jacques Derrida’s poststructuralist manifesto “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” (1970).

65 Leave a comment on paragraph 65 0 [3] Again, cf Juul, 36.

66 Leave a comment on paragraph 66 0 [4] The documentary Indie Game: The Movie (2012) traces out this process.

67 Leave a comment on paragraph 67 0 [5] I am thinking of Hélène Cixous’s use of the term “écriture féminine” (1644) as emancipatory practice in “The Laugh of the Medusa” (1975) as a potential blueprint for framing this discourse.

Source: https://opr.degruyter.com/playing-the-field-video-games-and-american-studies/damien-b-schlarb-narrative-glitches-action-adventure-games-and-metaleptic-convergence/