US: 8 Feb 2011
There’s something about game boxes that makes them fascinating as objects.
I’ve habitually held onto all my console boxes since childhood, in part because my family were frequent movers, but also largely because I was fixated on their uniqueness and their role as signifiers. As a kid, there was something almost religious about them, as though they’d literally given birth to the fat collection of plastic and computer chips sitting underneath my TV. The fact that game devices were most typically a Christmas gift only enhanced the quasi-Catholicism with which these boxes were silently revered.
Maybe I’m just weird.
Nevertheless, gamer culture is indeed marked by a sort of box fixation. On the one hand, it relates to collectorship—boxes connote not just protection but also completion, which is the main reason that two equally unblemished discs will go for different prices on eBay. On the other hand, they also act as indexes to what the machine or software is as well as what it can potentially be in the user’s hands.
The design of a box can also communicate a great deal about the intentions of its manufacturers and the inferences being made about audiences. Cover design, packaging layout, and weight and durability all double as complex systems of signs that can communicate utility, frivolty, apathy and much more.
So let’s extend the analysis further to cover games about boxes, Double Fine’s Stacking, for instance. These dolls, hollow shells with basic personalities and functions, may be more bulbous than oblong but they work in the same way as any other container in doing the job of being both object and referent. Yet ultimately the figures have more in common with the masks of the Persona series than with real matroyshka dolls, because however many you stack together, it’s always the innermost and outermost shapes (that is, Charlie Blackmore and whichever shape that he’s most outwardly assuming) that have presence. Psychically, in effect, Charlie swells to meet the shape of his container with each successive stacking, shrinking again when the dolls unpack. Containers may convey identity in Stacking, but they don’t accrue one atop the other.
In this way, Stacking deemphasizes containers as containing something (acting semiotically as indices) and emphasizes their nature as icons, objects fully possessed of themselves as subjects. In other words, in the spirit of their real world equivalent, the shells become dolls that become characters because they’re assigned a certain animus and autonomy. Boxes don’t in themselves become personified without some root fascination or superstition, so we’re back where we began: what is it about boxes (and containers in general) that gamers like so much?
“Your home is a box. Your car is a box on wheels. You drive to work in it. You drive home in it. You sit in your home, staring into a box. It erodes your soul, while the box that is your body inevitably withers . . . then dies. Where upon it is placed in the ultimate box.” -Richard Kelly’s The Box (2009)
Containership confers an interior. It also infers an exterior; something that exists outside of boxes. In the same way that we “box in” what is ludic and by doing so define what is not ludic. Stacking reduces down to objects that may be interacted with—that are part of the game—and those that are simply background, even though the background is in fact another yet larger container. We as players move between these containers of games, which are still contained on our console. Our consoles come to us in boxes, which we must break open in order to get at the many smaller contained spaces therein. In that light, whether we hold some sort of religious or preservationist reverence for game boxes or tear them apart as soon as possible, they still count in some respect as the first ritualistic threshold of gameplay.
Stacking has the user exist at the center of a series of containers, while still penetrating successive barriers and game spaces. But Charlie Blackmore remains the ultimate interior, something that is more contained and transported than fully self sufficient. I mentioned the Persona masks earlier in relation to the game’s process and it bears repeating, since and despite the layering mechanic and idiosyncratic art design, the structure of ludic stacking is as old as the power up. The construction of outer layers, defenses and support structures, are inherent to a great deal of not just electronic games but computer technology in general.
By the way, your computer is a box. And on its box-shaped screen reside the many smaller boxes containing information like this text. We are as obsessed with content as we are with the boundaries to them. The particular class of Stacking is in the player’s capacity to be both at any given time.