No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous –
Almost, at times, the Fool.
—T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
Having described a painting of two pears in rather minute detail in Wallace Stevens’s poem, “Study of Two Pears,” the narrator of that poem completes his observations by saying, “The pears are not seen / As the observer wills.”
In literary studies, we love the idea that we interpret poetry and novels by bringing our own personal perspective to bear on an artistic work, creating a unique interpretation of our own through our interaction with that text, but Stevens reminds us of the power, the “author-ity,” of authorship. No matter how you attempt to bend the work to your will, there is this simple assertion to contend with, the painter, the poet, the writer chooses how you begin to see his or her subject matter in the first place. The framework, the angle, the viewpoint is governed by the brushstrokes, the language, the letters of the artist, not by you.
Any number of video games in the last 10-15 years have made similar contentions by “putting the player in his place,” as it were. From Bioshock to Portal, twenty-first century games have emphasized the antagonistic relationship between the player and the game world that that player occupies, indicating the illusory nature of player choice and decision making in gaming.
After all, games seem like the medium that might best challenge the authority of the author, given as they are to allowing the player to manipulate their “texts,” to build within their systems, and potentially to break, rearrange, or reorder them in some personally satisfying way. Nevertheless, Bioshock reminds the player that a few “suggestions” from the voice of a narrator, of the character that seems to serve as tutor to understanding a game world, and off the player will go, down the developers path, not his own. The game is not played as the player wills.
In some sense, this constant theme of challenging the power of systems only to recognize that submission to systems of rules as being an inevitable one has grown rather old hat. In other words, there are so many games that recognize that gaming systems are excellent metaphors for power relationships and handle that theme maybe better than any other artistic medium that, frankly, this “metaphor” isn’t all that metaphoric. Really these are just games interrogating the nature of games themselves, We seem to have run aground in a period in which “games about games” persist ad infinitum.
Thus, coming to Simogo’s Device 6, a game about a woman coming to terms with her own seeming disappearance into a simulation might seem less fresh than it is predictable, especially within the gaming landscape.
Device 6, of course, certainly has its own own unique vibe among the sea of “games about games.” Aping its mood and aesthetics from the weird sci fi/international espionage of some of the more offbeat moments in 1960s television (to say that this game borrows much of its tone and attitude, if not some of the premise of its plotline, from cult classic The Prisoner is fairly undeniable), it is a game world that comes at this long time gamer as something still rather novel amid gaming’s more prevalent narrative genre preferences, science fiction settings, fantasy settings, and war stories. Additionally, the fact that the game is mostly one that is read as text, a text mixed and amplified by multimedia through the interspersing of images and sound in a text scrolled through on an iPod or iPad, also makes it an unusual one. No fancy animations or cinematics needed here. Device 6 is a new school take on the text adventure.
Nevertheless, the adventures of Anna (also known rather importantly for my purposes as Player248) as a woman whose experiences the player is reading about (strange experiences that follow her awakening on an island that she does not recognize amidst a surreal collection of objects and people, including animatronic bears, funerals officiated by gramophones, and sinister men in bowler hats) through a device simulating this odd moment in her life is still one that seems thematically concerned with the player’s relationship to systems, to authority, to games themselves.
The Prisoner‘s protagonist, the man known as Number 6, infamously declares, “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own,” before resigning his job at a British intelligence agency and just before he is awakened on a mysterious and surreal island where his identity is reduced to a mere number. Number 6’s even more infamous declaration, “I am not a number. I am a free man,” is a nice parallel to the seeming declaration of autonomy that gamers seek to define themselves by but that games like Bioshock (with its assertion that the player is always following the rules, even when he thinks he is acting independently) seems to deny. Thus, simply retelling the story of The Prisoner in Device 6 might seem a less than innovative approach to this theme of power. We’ve heard this story of power before.
However, all of these games, Portal and Bioshock among others, nevertheless, remain centralized in their focus on the player and the significance of his actions. While neither Jack, nor Chell can be seen onscreen in their game, as both games feature a first person style of play, the personal nature of exploring the world is still emphasized by playing behind the eyes of the “hero” of their respective stories. Even if they aren’t “there,” there is no doubt who Prince Hamlet is in these stories, the player themselves struggling to succeed within the systems of puzzles and combat provided by the game. Sure, the player has fallen for the illusion of a game world that can be impacted by his choices. Still though, the play belongs to the player. The heroic attempt to progress through the story’s challenges may remain a noble effort at the very least.
And this is where the experience of Device 6 takes a turn from the typical “game about games.” Indeed, what Device 6 does by immediately numbering you, the player, in the game itself (the game initially “scans” your face and declares that you are “Player249”) is recognize the still lingering narcissistic viewpoint that games provide players, even those games that seemingly humble the player by acknowledging that to play within a rule system is to submit to it. For even if Jack and Chell are subject to the will of Fontaine or GlaDOS, still they heroically defeat these emblems of authority in the closing sequences of their games. They are unique snowflakes, chosen heroes (And, after all, chosen ones are chosen. Their will is not altogether their own. Their destiny is to be a hero, not as a result of their choice. Still though, they are heroes) that are still important in the grand theme of things somehow.
This may be the ultimate solipsism of video games, the promise that each one of us can be a hero, that each of us is, in fact, Prince Hamlet, whether we chose to be or not, as we save the world or the princess, thanks in part to our own unique effort—an effort taken on by hundreds and thousands of players who feel uniquely chosen themselves. And that’s the rub. That’s the recognition that Device 6 provides the player and that differentiates it from the other “games about games.”
This horrific message about the irony of the ability to have a unique and special experience of our own as a result of heroic action in the simulation is rather playfully declared in the fifth chapter of Device 6. The player in that chapter reads how Anna, the character that he is playing as, encounters a robot pop singer who serenades her with a song that contains the following lyrics:
A perfect snowflake
Our needle in the hay
A four-leaf clover
on a lovely summer’s day
That’s Anna, sweet Anna
Dreams are coming true
One in a million, that is you
Now this is the song that Anna and the player hear the robot sing. However, the lyrics accompany the song and can be read as the robot sings them. The most significant thing to note in the transcribed version of the lyrics, which actually isn’t a transcription, but seems instead to be instructions to the robot on what to sing to Anna, is that the line “That’s Anna, sweet Anna” actually reads something like “That’s [insert Player248 name], sweet [insert Player248 name].” The irony that the song wishes to point out to Anna, to the player, her uniqueness (“perfect snowflake”), unusual nature (“needle in the hay,” “four-leaf clover”) in a song that can be tailored to any of hundreds of similarly “unique” players gets at the heart of the illusion of the significance, not merely of the freedom, of the player that games provide. Games grand illusion may not be that we are “free men,” but that we are “special men.”
If you, like me, have played a lot of video games, then you, like me, have saved the world countless times, have saved princesses, have stormed castles, have reshaped history countless times. One in a million, that is you.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.