On the Genre of Gaming

by kiminogomi

But most important of all is the structure of the incidents. For Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality. Now character determines men’s qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse. Dramatic action, therefore, is not with a view to the representation of character: character comes in as subsidiary to the actions. Hence the incidents and the plot are the end of a tragedy; and the end is the chief thing of all. Again, without action there cannot be a tragedy; there may be without character.  — Aristotle, Poetics

While I like Brenda Laurel’s idea of the electronic game as dramatic medium, her “Aristotelian” framework (derived, the endnotes make clear, from “neo-Aristotelian” sources) overlooks key features of tragedy as defined in the Poetics.  Despite its frequent images of conflict and violence, the electronic game as a genre generates not a tragic but a distinctly comic universe.  Aristotle makes clear that tragedy must subordinate character to teleology: “the end is the chief thing of all.” Games have a goal, but they do not have an end, since one can always reboot or create another avatar.  This episodic and cyclical quality is typical of comic forms, from Road Runner cartoons to the superhero genre; thus the expression “comic book death.” Comic books are comic not because they are funny but because of the serial immortality of the characters.  Continuity in these genres is subordinated to the development of heroic arc and storylines, to the extent that “retrocon,” the retroactive construction of coherence between episodes and arcs, is a commonplace.

When Aristotle wrote the Poetics, comedy functioned both satirically and, in the form of slapstick that often made the gods figures of fun, as a public travesty of the sacred seriousness of tragedy.  Modern dramatic comedy, while seemingly independent of other genres, often retains this cathartic and satiric aspect, demonizing sites of social privilege: wealth, beauty, institutional power.  However, this plot structure is mostly a frame on which can be hung a series of episodes that focus on the characters as comedians and entertainers.  Thus comic film typically employs one of two plot templates, the madcap or the romantic: show biz kids/athletes save the orphanage and triumph over authority, or hero finds love/family/true meaning of life.  These patterns hardly vary over decades, genres, or even centuries.  From “White Christmas” to “Blues Brothers”  to “Mallrats,” the misfit talent dominates the plot; from “Christmas Carol” to “There’s Something About Mary” (one of the purest romantic comedies of recent years), the misguided hero is redeemed.  Frequently the plot is, to quote another great comic film, ludicrous, but that hardly matters.

This is not to suggest that character-driven, plotless dramatic objects cannot be seriously executed, even highly artistic.  Two current electronic games provide great examples of different types of episodic comedy: “Angry Birds” and “Contre Jour,” both published by Chillingo.  The first, a success both commercially and in terms of innovation, involves a familiar “plot”: evil pigs steal eggs from valiant underdogs, or rather underbirds, who fight back by bombarding their foes with their own explosive bodies.  The pigs have a distinct military-industrial-complex air — one of the larger ones has a crown and a walrus mustache like that of a cartoon banker, while another wears a helmet — and hide in elaborate structures; in the first sequel, “Angry Birds Rio,” they also own a series of warehouses.  The birds on the other hand travel light and seem radicalized; their motto might as well be “off the pigs” — a phrase with resonance for those of us of a Certain Age.   Despite its topicality in the age of the Occupy movement, the game is highly comic, due in large part to its lively cartooning and sound effects, and there is a subtle irony in the pigs’ infuriating chortling when they survive a round: the rich, it seems, we will always have with us.

While the birds clearly belong to the underdogs-versus-the-system genre, the equally innovative and more sophisticated “Contre Jour” represents the electronic medium’s potential for romance, in the original meaning of the term (fantastic adventures, happy ending).  In this game the player guides an odd little creature consisting mainly of a single huge eyeball through a gloomy yet glowing underwater maze, collecting or entering balls of blue light along the way. The most original aspect of CJ is that the creature has no defenses and cannot be moved directly; instead one must shape various features of the environment so that it rolls or is pulled into the lights.  Unlike AB, this game has a constant musical score, and where AB’s introductory theme is jaunty the CJ music is gentle piano.  The creature does make a few small noises, huffing or chuckling rather like a newborn puppy; this combined with its odd cuteness, little tail, and expressive mono-gaze makes it quite endearing, so the player is distressed when it rolls over the edge of the abyss with a faint whimper, or (more traumatically) is unexpectedly snapped up by a carnivorous plant-thing that then calmly spits out its naked eye.  CJ is distinctly a game of romantic pathos, of finding one’s way, and its motto might be “go toward the light” — a thought that, to a person of a Certain Age, has a distinctly maudlin appeal.  And yet, in the truest comic tradition, each momentary death, each transition through the light to the next level, is overcome at the touch of a finger; the game starts over, again and again.  In both games, action is pleasantly futile, character and episode are all.