Limbo


This is a videogame almost entirely without words. The few letters that appear are so huge you can climb on them. They light up in intervals and electrocute you. Why am I saying you, when I mean him? Because it is he, not you, who dies over and over again; his tiny head flies off, his tiny guts fling out, his little body clumps broken on the floor. If he was you then you wouldn’t find it so amusing to watch his body break. He comes back and you do it to him again and again until you can proceed without killing him. His deaths are meaningless because they are, of course, not real. But more importantly so because they are not death (singular, final).
You see this world in silhouette and through various shades of misty grey. He sees the world through tiny, shining white dots. Is he a child? Is he human? The questions that occupy your mind come from a curiosity towards this strange place, but also from the precise movements and problem-solving required to explore it.
The mood is calm, but everything is hostile. Even water is hostile, as the Boy can’t swim. Other children set traps or shoot arrows into his skull. A giant spider pierces the Boy’s entire body with it’s long leg. Later, the same spider mummifies him in silk in order to eat him once his flesh has congealed. He hops away. A series of switches appear on the landscape that turn the ceiling into a floor. Gravity becomes like a knife: a useful tool that can potentially destroy you. The world literally turns upside-down, left, right.
The air in this place seems hazy, as if filled with gas. Surfaces are black like coal. The forest from which you watched the Boy wake up in seemed like it could be a real place, but the deeper you take him into the pit the more the world becomes its own environment, autonomous from representative reality and with its own rules and inhabitants. A glowing tube jumps from a pulsating plant into the Boy’s brain, taking control of the direction he walks in. It is terrified of sunlight, or what one might call sunlight in this colourless place. The tube seems to use the Boy for transport, like pollen uses a bee, and once the boy reaches another pulsating plant it releases him to join it.
The videogame world is not split into levels or compartmentalised. After the Boy dies (as he will often) the screen fades to black then fades up with the Boy standing before the obstacle that killed him. As the obstacles become more difficult to pass your mind becomes more occupied with problem solving. You sometimes repeat the same section over and over in order to execute the exact sequence of movements with precise timing. Then suddenly the Boy is thrown out of the world and time slows down as reality shatters. He is tossed onto a familiar patch of grass in a familiar forest. He looks dead. Then, in a manner similar to the start of the videogame, he gets up. You walk him to the right and the videogame takes over his movement. He finds… what? And there it ends.

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Immersion and the self

My post Against Immersion was mentioned today in Ben Abraham’s useful round-up of videogames journalism, This Week in Videogame Blogging. Commenting on the conclusion of my post, Abrahams says “To offer a quick alternative – my understanding is that in some spiritual philosophies the letting go of ‘self’ can be a path to enlightenment.”
This is an interesting point. I have wanted to write on the concept of the self and its relation to videogaming for a while, but as it’s a complicated topic I haven’t written more than a few notes. So this is what this post will be made of: vague notes made in the spirit of Abraham’s comment.
When talking about the self it is obvious to start with Descartes’ oft-repeated axiom “I think therefore I am”. This is as succinct a definition of the Western concept of the self as one could wish for.
The problem is that it is completely wrong.
The self is essentially the consciousness. Not ‘conscious’ as in being awake, but a brain process that discards information in order for us to focus on one thing at a time while still taking in a huge amount of information per second. This process of focusing makes it seems like there is a centre to our thoughts and that this centre is the self. The illusion is that the self is a kind of “I” inside the brain, a self that controls the mind and the body like a pilot in an aeroplane.
In reality, there is no pilot. The body and the mind are not separate. If there was an “I” inside, then we would never be able to react quickly enough to blink when something moves in front of our face or to pull our hand away from fire when we feel heat. Consciousness is a process with such a low bandwidth – around 10-20 bits per second (the eye takes in around 10,000,000 bps of information) – that it could not possibly be the control centre for the brain. It is just not fast enough.
There is no “I” to think. There is only thought – thought that is inseparable from the body.
Regarding the religious beliefs that Abrahams alludes to, letting go of the self becomes pointless once one recognises that it doesn’t exist. The illusion is here to stay, but it needn’t worry us. There are various illusions that we live with every day that have little effect on our lives; the sun appearing to travel across the sky for example. The religious impulse towards getting rid of the self is similar to the concept of immersion I detailed in my previous post, except the “self” for videogames is not an illusion, it’s the player. Videogames need not trouble themselves with attempting to disappear the player. If dedicating one’s life to Buddha doesn’t do it, then why should a videogame.
Amusingly, the illusion of the self is sometimes called the “user illusion”. With videogames there is of course a user: the player. Immersion, as Abrahams correctly identifies, is similar to religious attempts to get rid of the user. This is my objection to immersion; that the player herself is in the way of videogames being great. What I propose is an acknowledgement that none of us forget we’re playing when we play. Play is not something embarrassing that should be hidden or ignored. It is central to videogaming and it can be profound or flippant, meaningful or meaningless. We should start from this position and move forward, rather than pretend it doesn’t exist and stagnate.

Against Immersion

“See, the hypothetical ultimate model of gaming is total immersion. The whole Matrix thing. Plugging your brain into a virtual world that you see with your own eyes, feel beneath your own feet, and commit genocide upon its inhabitants with a napalm launcher in your own hands. […] I’m talking about a direct neural interface here, something that plugs into your spinal cord and diverts the signals from your brain to the computer avatar, so your own body doesn’t move, but the one in the game does.”
– Yahtzee Croshaw

The concept of immersion is unquestioned in videogame discourse. It is applied to all types of videogames and all videogames must live up to its allusive goal.
The idea is that to get the full experience from videogames one’s consciousness must be completely “immersed” in the videogame – to the point where one cannot tell the difference between the game and reality. Videogames that supposedly achieve this extraordinary feat are considered the pinnacle of gaming software. But this is a very self-effacing goal. It’s almost as if the only way videogames can be any good is if we pretend they don’t exist. If the idea is that technology and game design will be refined to a glorious point where you don’t know you’re playing a game then one has to wonder; what’s so bad about videogames that we need to forget them?
But what is immersion? It seems based on a false premise – the assumption that anyone ever forgets that they are playing a videogame while they are playing one. This is negligible.

The idea that videogames have to create this immersion actively encourages creative conformity and stagnation. If the player is ever to “forget” that she is playing a videogame, she must be very familiar with every aspect of the software. From control to graphics to sound to story (and so on), everything has to conform to what has come before in order for the player to turn her brain off and “forget”. Anything new or unexpected would require the player to think, to snap out of her stupor, and the spell would be broken.
But this is not usually the way we talk about art works. On the contrary, when engaging with art, people are always aware that what they are playing is a videogame or what they are watching is a film. That we can have emotional or even physical reactions to such stimuli does not change this fact. We say that x is a “great game” or that y is a “brilliant movie”. We do not feel the same about wandering a videogame forest as we would a real forest. To truly confuse the two would be pathological.
The player only entertains the idea that she is inside the game. She extends her mind into the videogame world, in a lesser but similar way that she extends her mind throughout her body. But unlike the body, she is just visiting the videogame. The player both entertains the idea that she is inside the game and is aware that she is not. This awareness never goes away. A videogame does not impair our senses to the point that we are ever truly “immersed”.
If we were talking about dancing, then it would be entirely appropriate to talk about the conscious mind fading into the background while the dancer loses her self in music and movement. But more often than not, the videogames that are spoken of as “immersive” are played with the body in repose. If there are really any “immersive” videogames then they are body movement-based games like Wii Fit. Videogames that are played with the mind are played with the consciousness – we cannot turn off the consciousness and play the videogame at the same time.
Wii Fit may seem like a drab use of body movement, but Sony’s Microsoft’s new Kinect technology – which senses body movement as player input without a controller – is a step towards the selfless play of dancing. The promotional hype says that Kinect offers a body-as-controller interface. Yahtzee Croshaw and others are looking forward instead to a mind-as-controller interface, as they believe this will be the best way to play videogames. The best way is to be “immersed” in the videogame world as if immersed in water.
Yahtzee points to The Matrix as the model for this artistic future of videogames, but in the movie the Matrix was a form of control. The heroes struggle against the illusion of the Matrix by exploiting it and they can only exploit it once they have realised that none of it is real, that “there is no spoon”. Before he “wakes up”, Neo has a mundane office job that he hates. He is so totally immersed in the Matrix that he, like most everyone else, has no idea that the world he inhabits is virtual. He has no idea that he is essentially playing a videogame.

Rather than pretending that the videogame doesn’t exist, the way to get the best out of the medium is to exploit it. By ignoring it, or making it self-effacing and bland, we run the risk of missing everything that makes videogaming worthwhile.
Ultimately, “immersion” is a marketing term – like “attitude” in the 90s – a word that people understand to be good without knowing or questioning what it means. We can all agree that immersion is important in videogames. This is because immersion doesn’t mean anything at all, except maybe shorthand for the feeling one gets when playing a videogame that one enjoys.
The use of immersion as a prescriptive term however, can have other negative side effects. If videogames ever highlight their artificiality or require concentration or the learning of new rules, then these videogames will be undervalued for not fitting in with the immersion concept. Also because all that immersion really means is that the player liked the videogame, critics can lazily justify videogames that they like just because they liked them without having to explain themselves. All they have to do is claim that the videogame exhibits this mystical quality and that’s that.
Calling for immersion in videogames is an unnecessary restriction. Unnecessary because videogames quite easily involve the player without having to trick her into thinking that she isn’t playing a game. Videogame worlds are fascinating and full of potential precisely because they are not real.
Part of the logic of immersion comes from denial. It’s a short step from “I am not playing a videogame” to “therefore I am not wasting my life”. But being hooked up to the Matrix is not just a way to waste one’s life – in the movie the Matrix exists to keep humans in permanent suspended animation. It exists to keep humans from realising that their life is being drained away from them to power machines. Knowing that one is playing a videogame means that one is able to stop and/or to look at the videogame from a distance. This distance makes videogames, film, literature, music (etc) so symbolically powerful. From this distance we can see things happen and grasp their meaning at the same time.
Pretending that videogames are real is a way to avoid living. One of the definitions of the verb “to immerse” is “to embed; bury”. Immersion is nothing less than a death wish.