Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Alienation Effect? Part 2

Forewarned is forearmed: this post does connect pretty closely to what I wrote the other day, so if you haven't read that one yet, you may want to have a look. This will still be here when you get back!

Okay. If I told you that I thought part of the reason these old games, and these, well, these new but old-fashioned games, have such a hold on me, was that there's something to them that reminds me that they are games, what would you say?

Would you think that that was weird? Would you say that you prefer an "immersive" or a "realistic" gaming experience?

Well, hear me out.


I think more often than not we're conditioned to think that an entertainment should be involving, so that when we come to a game, for instance, we expect something that's simply going to engage us and make us forget that we are just playing a game, whether it does so with mindless action or gripping drama. Some people, maybe most people, think gaming is a hobby or a distraction, and what they demand from gaming proceeds from that assumption.

There may be another way to approach games, and I have an acknowledgment to make at this point. You probably know that this "alienation effect" thing isn't my term. It was actually coined by Bertolt Brecht (Verfremdungseffekt in Brecht's native language). It refers to the distancing Brecht thought ought to occur during the production of a play.

That's not really the usual deal. The classic Aristotelian theory of drama from the Poetics—the only part that's left to us focuses on tragedy—says that the aim of a play is to engender an emotional response in the audience, something that can't happen unless the audience is drawn in, its sympathies taken over by the events displayed on the stage.

This seems like a natural direction for Aristotle's theory, considering that some of the most famous plays from the century or so before he wrote were the intense tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Not to belabor the point, but one of the primary concerns of these plays, and one of the elements you'll remember longest from reading them or seeing them performed, is the degree of suffering in them.

Aristotle said that we could sympathize with this suffering by watching it take place, and this experience would then cleanse us of our own negative emotions: this is the effect of catharsis you always hear about with respect to Aristotle.

Anyway, to get this thing moving back toward video games, Brecht (who fell in the midst of a whole gaggle of like-minded playwrights, though he's the best known of them) disagreed that this was the most appropriate way for drama to operate. He believed that a detached, intellectual response was preferable, and so he and his colleagues created what is usually called epic theater, a form of drama that acknowledges its artificiality and tries to keep the audience aware that it is watching a play. This involves dispensing with the whole pretense that the play is a series of actual events that the audience is watching unfold. Actors break the fourth wall continuously, addressing the audience and making use of the entire theater; sets appear just a bit unnatural; summaries of or comments on events are often read out or projected as text.

You can imagine how this eats away at the suspension of disbelief! Brecht worked to cultivate a sense of disbelief in his audience.

And so the audience is detached, alienated, distanced, estranged from the actors. Or the actors from the audience. Either way, this is how the alienation effect works.


A game like Left 4 Dead or Gears of War shows that the search for the right kind of immersion in video games continues, by and large, to coincide with the search for the right degree of realism. Games of their ilk, I think, are the inheritors of the Aristotelian theory of artistic products. Now, I would say this model has become less monolithic than it used to be, but it's still the dominant paradigm. Console games—console games!—now display in resolutions up to 1080p. 3D rendering is the standard approach to video game graphics. Many (maybe most; the statistics aren't crucial) games are presented in a first- or limited third-person perspective. All of these methods of presentation, I think, are employed in order to make games feel more realistic and thus immersive. These qualities aren't inherently connected at all, as I'll show, but I think that designers have both of them in mind when they produce the usual modern game, or at least the usual triple-a blockbuster game.

It really bothers me that I'm oversimplifying so much when there are perfectly good examples of games that don't fit on either side of the artificial dichotomy I'm setting up at all. Madworld will probably be one of the more important Wii releases of 2009, for better or worse, but it's presented in highly stylized black and white graphics that aren't all that "realistic." Games like Super Mario Galaxy push for something approximating the same sort of high-res beauty that games on the more powerful consoles achieve, but they bear only a passing resemblance to anything in the real world. But I still think games like that belong more in the big-budget category. And I love games like this. Still, I always find myself drifting towards games that don't uphold the same aesthetic standards, whether they're just too old to compare, like Zelda II or Ghouls 'n Ghosts, or deliberately out of step, like Mega Man 9 and Super Paper Mario. The latter aren't just games that try for simple or even archaic graphical styles, they are also two-dimensional platformers (more or less, in the case of SPM): they're breaking away from the more prevalent philosophy altogether.

And it's these older design values I really want in a game, I think. I still want to play games cast in the newer mold, but, all things being equal, I'll always take the original-looking indie side-scroller over the new big-budget 3D game.

I thought the reason for this might be nostalgia. These were, after all, the prevailing design values of the games of my childhood. And you know, nostalgia is almost right.

But it isn't quite right. It's really the alienation effect I want, and something extra.


Though games of the 8-bit era seemed adequately expressive at the time, playing through one now can create overwhelming levels of what might be considered the video game version of the alienation effect. The NES displayed at a resolution of 256 x 240; the Atari VCS displayed at 192 x 160! Under typical circumstances, the NES displayed up to 25 colors at a time. Real 3D graphics were a generation away, and they wouldn't become really popular until the mid-1990s. This meant that the 8-bit games I came to know before any others had few colors and simple graphics. They had two-dimensional worlds—and the games that didn't were usually disasters. They were immersive, sure, but only on their own terms, and in ways that I suspect are hard to appreciate for newer gamers raised on newer games.

For example, try to imagine playing the game pictured above, Haunted House for the VCS, if you're too young to have had the pleasure. According to me, Gamespy and, I think, Retronauts (episode 29), it's a forerunner of the survival horror genre. In 1985 or so, when I was playing it, it was terrifying. That may be partly because I was a small child, but it was also because my experiences with the VCS had taught me to think that this was what video games were supposed to be like. Without anything more refined to compare to it, I bought into the illusion and became a willing participant in the VCS' blocky charade.

But early console games had a lot of what Alexander Galloway, drawing on the language of film criticism, calls non-diegetic elements, pieces of a game that exist outside its narrative, pieces that theoretically could detract from a game's illusion. These games were still incorporating the conventions of the arcade, where the point of a game wasn't to grant players any sort of closure but to extort as much money from them as possible. In the early 1980s in particular, home games were making a gradual, often clumsy transition from this arcade-like gameplay model to a more teleological one where the player had a clear goal to work toward. As a result, many games had score counters in one corner of the screen, and some, like Street Fighter II, still preposterously invited you to enter your initials, as if you were going to leave your console on all day and have hundreds of people over to marvel at your skills.

Even as some games moved away from the arcade gameplay model, they shed or adapted at least some of their now extraneous non-diegetic elements. Score counters became less common, certainly in the action and adventure genres; abrupt transitions between levels were phased out and replaced with more natural overworld/underworld systems and world maps; even the conceit of multiple lives was dropped in favor of a single life in some genres. Some fairly recent games have continued these trends to such an extent that what non-diegetic elements they retain have withered like vestigial organs: the Grand Theft Auto games repackage the older level concept as small missions that take place across a single city or geographic swath; Shadow of the Colossus has restricted its non-diegetic information to a compact, unobtrusive lifebar and health meter.

I'm making a big deal out of this process because I want to make completely clear what sorts of things I think are being removed or minimized in games at the one end of this spectrum I'm creating. And yes, creating this spectrum is my way of misrepresenting the way designers think about games. I'm telling this lie so that I can make a broad point, but every artistic theory is a shoe that doesn't quite fit.


So what I've been trying to do all along is to point to two groups of elements in video games that contribute to this special kind of alienation effect. One is the narrower category of non-diegetic elements, and the other is the less defined category (more like a misshapen, taped-up cardboard box) of "obsolete" game parts, things like 2D perspectives, level-by-level structures, and outdated aesthetics. I can't think of many games that can be made without using at least a few parts from these two boxes, but the more of these parts a game uses, the further it gets from the "realistic" ideal, and the less the game maintains the illusion of a perfectly, naturally, and consistently realized world—the more, in other words, it "admits" to being a game.

Voilà: there's the alienation effect, the deliberately provoked sense the player has that she or he is playing a game. It doesn't—doesn't!—preclude a sense of immersion, but it is an intellectual rather than an emotional response. It is a moment where your involvement in the game is disrupted, even slightly, while the designer pulls back the façade a little and reminds you, again, that this is a game.

Because games aren't a, I don't know, a technology, like computers, that move off into the future, always improving, always advancing. They're pieces of art. Get the hell off my blog if you disagree ;) As such, they have a history, and there is no reason they can't dip into that history for inspiration. In fact, I think what I'm discovering about myself as a gamer, the reason that I like old games and old-style games, is that I'm a little more interested in games' history than their future. I'd rather experience games that are either a part of gaming history or, even better, that situate themselves in that history and express their appreciation for it openly.

What I want is the intertextual games like Braid, with their Donkey Kong homages. I want the 2.5D remakes of sidescrolling classics, the Bionic Commando: Rearmeds and the Castlevania Dracula X Chronicleses. I want games that are almost too retro, like Bit.trip Beat. I want the Paul's Big Adventures, the games that exist just to subvert and parody the medium (though it would be great if they could be more interesting than the coconut-gathering minigame in No More Heroes). I want to play video games, and I don't just want to play video games; I want to play video games that are about playing video games.

That's the alienation effect: that feeling you get that you're in on something with the designer, that the two of you have something in common that this game is a way of getting at. The sense that the two of you are participating, almost, in a dialogue about what games are. And ultimately, it isn't about the mechanics or the aesthetics, though those retro stylings almost invariably help. It's about games presenting themselves as games. I know there are going to be some mistakes. But this is what I want.

The Pong screen is from Screen Play, a blog at The Haunted House screen comes from The Braid screen is from MTV's Multiplayer blog. The Bit.trip Beat screen is from WiiWare World.


  1. I need a lot of time to digest this, but I'm deeply intrigued. You really are my favorite blogger. I don't want to skip past your reasons for preferring the alienation effect, but wasn't Brecht's goal to break through people's escapism, and raise their awareness of the injustice of the class system in their own lives? Wasn't he actually seeking to provoke people to actually go out and do something about exploitation of labor? I'm into that, too, although I feel the theater of alienation was not nearly as successful as guerrilla theater. Guerrilla theater's counterpart would be an ARG, I guess.

  2. Fascinating! Now that I think about it, I know I've enjoyed more than a few games that broke the fourth wall specifically because they did. The Mario RPG games, The ARC Trilogy, Maniac Mansion (whenever someone said something absurd, one of the characters would look at the "camera"), and Link's Awakening ("Press B...whatever that means!") are the ones that immediately come to mind.

    And of course I felt perfectly immersed in these games. If anything, I might have felt even more like I was involved rather than simply following along with what the main character was doing.

  3. Hey eirwenes! Yes, Brecht had a particular social agenda that I've passed over here, though I'm eliding that for brevity more than anything. Brecht was rejecting naturalism, I take it (I'm no Brecht-spert), as lacking aesthetic value (and so impact?), and he was rejecting expressionism as lacking any didactic value. I also think naturalism was too fatalistic a movement for him; why try to change something when you "know" it's destined to stay the same? So neither movement was ultimately effective for creating the sort of social consciousness he wanted to instill in his audience.

    There are all kinds of aspects of Brecht's epic theater that I'm passing over by using "alienation effect" as my term for self-reflection in video games, but I guess what I'm doing is taking that as a convenient anchor and then thinking around it. After all, Brecht was stating succinctly and intelligently what was already obvious about art in general, which is that to some degree most of it is artificial. I've always thought "alienation effect" was a great term for what happens when the author parts the curtain and lets you see in, so I thought I'd steal it!

    Almost done here. I think the gaming equivalent of full-on guerilla theater would have to be an ARG, as you say, but (and I wish I could shut up about this guy) Hideo Kojima often makes games that use the player-controller interface to "control" the player. One subtler (but more significant) instance of this is the manipulation of both the player's and the player's avatar's perspectives in Metal Gear Solid 2, which I think does an amazing job of playing the player. Of course, the usual response to that game is outrage, so I guess that's what happens when you manipulate people that way. Or else I'm just way too charitable to that game.

  4. Thanks, GB! Yeah, I was just playing Links Awakening recently, and I was blown away by all the fourth wall tricks in it. There's that "press B," of course, and then there are all the Mario Bros. enemies that show up inexplicably. Does Nintendo think that when characters in their games dream, they dream of other Nintendo games?

    I completely agree about the level of immersion. Putting aside something like Bit.trip Beat, which is just plain trance-inducing, I think that the acknowledgment of this link between the designer(s) and the player really draws me in. If it's done right, it really makes me feel more invested and more, I don't know, more valued and more important as a participant in the whole thing. It makes the process feel more like a dialogue.

    Thanks for linking to this, btw!

  5. Excellent post.

    Though I take issue with a few things here, it's more from personal wishes that I see games doing things that further their own existence. Like you suggested though, I reach out and I see these as pieces of art (it's never been up as an argument for me). I've been using that simple grasp as the basis for a series I've been doing for almost two years now.

    Anyway, the alienation effect is something I partially agree on, but at the same time I take issue not really with you, but the minds behind games these days. One statement in this post that really struck me was:

    "And it's these older design values I really want in a game, I think. I still want to play games cast in the newer mold, but, all things being equal, I'll always take the original-looking indie side-scroller over the new big-budget 3D game."

    What I want is simply for those older design values to be carried over into this era of gaming, there's certainly room for it and I'd argue it's a necessity for games to actually flourish from their youth, rather than steamrolling into a bumbling future like they've been for the past five or ten years.


  6. Thanks, sLs! I agree that these are not actually obsolete or regressive values and that it would be wonderful if designers would carry those things forward more often. I think the simplicity games had to work within in the past in many ways engendered much more creativity than the relative freedom designers have now. I think the same thing about modern special effects films, incidentally, and I suppose the two media are closely related on that point. I think there's a gooey mess of sensibilities right now, and sometimes designers take the available advances in technology and use them right (the Pixeljunk games, maybe), and sometimes they use them poorly (I hear Killzone 2 is kind of more of the same). I don't see why the FPS or the 3PS should be the default design, and if it is, fine, but I also don't see why it's so often used without any kind of creativity at all. A lot of games that are cast in the usual mold these days are all right, and some are great, but I do feel like there's been a general fall-off in quality (and certainly originality) since the early 90s, and I really don't think that's just the nostalgia speaking. It feels like something really great is happening now, though, with lots of experimentation, and I hope that's not just an illusion, because you're right--the status quo is not enough.

  7. It seems like recent Nintendo titles break the fourth wall quite a bit (someone brought up the SMRPG, add SPM to that, too). And they can go an extra step with it because not only do they have an increasingly universal language of gaming to play to, but their own games are so rich in history that they seem to have their OWN language and iconography.

  8. Absolutely, Mike. SPM is an excellent example for Nintendo-specific references, too; the dragon who's the second (?) boss says "I am Error," and his eyes briefly turn into the rotating "loading" icon from the Wii Shop Channel. And this is out of several other examples from that game alone, of course. I remember the first time I noticed this was while I was playing Super Mario Bros. 3--the warp whistles play the same tune as the warp whistle in the original Legend of Zelda. I was eight, and that blew my mind! I had no idea what to think of that. Then later, of course, the Princess makes a joke about the old "Our princess is in another castle" thing, though I understand that's only in the English translation of the game.

    Are there any earlier examples of Nintendo-specific references?