All This Useless Interactivity

“For whom is the funhouse fun?”

— John Barth, “Lost in the Funhouse”

About four months ago, I wrote an essay entitled, “How Games Challenge the Tyranny of Authorship”. (“How Games Challenge the Tyranny of Authorship”, PopMatters, 17 February 2010). This discussion is intended to be a companion piece to that essay, so if you’re interested in the topic, you may want to check out the aforementioned link before reading this one. Or, check it out afterwards. Do what you want. I don’t want to force you into anything.

In the aforementioned essay, I framed my discussion of video game authorship with a poem by Wallace Stevens called “Study of Two Pears”, in which Stevens describes a painting of two pears and then concludes that “The pears are not seen/As the observer wills” (”Study of Two Pears”, Poetry Foundation, 2010). Part of Stevens point in the poem seems to be to suggest that the poet or painter is capable of enforcing a way of seeing on their audience, and that this, perhaps, is part of the purpose of art, getting a viewer to understand the world the way that an authority (the author) wants them to see it.

I then briefly discussed the interactive qualities of video games as an art form and the possibility of challenging that authority in games because of the ways that players can become complicit in the way that a game is seen. We control the camera and make choices about the direction of the story and how the game is played.

However, I have spent some time playing a number of games by Remedy Entertainment (Max Payne, Max Payne 2, and Alan Wake) that have made me want to revisit the topic, particularly because of Remedy’s seeming insistence on validating Stevens’s thesis.

Certainly, Remedy is not alone amongst game developers in considering the issue of player choice and authorial design and suggesting that any belief that we might have as players in having enough free will within the context of a game to break out of the developers’ frame is just an illusion. The infamous sequence in the first Bioshock game, in which Atlas forces the player to kill Andrew Ryan with just three words, is certainly a reminder of how coercive gameplay is. Bioshock reminds the player of how easily the player falls prey to suggestion in a game world. Atlas has been that “helpful” voice throughout the game telling us what our next objective is; most modern games have some kind of on screen prompt telling us what the next “thing to do” is. While we seemingly get lots of choices in a game about how we get from place to place, how to kill enemies (and with what weapon), and even how we make moral decisions, when the game prompts us we usually get down to doing what it tells us to do. Even if we don’t, if we really want to play the game, ultimately we will have to.

While gamers speak of multilinear options, ethical choices, and open worlds as somehow offering a different kind of experience than more passive forms of entertainment like films and novels, which always go in one direction, we are often merely prodded in a direction or towards a predetermined conclusion.

Indeed, one sequence in particular in Max Payne 2 prompted me to consider how illusory player choice often is, and it was Payne himself and his thinking about a funhouse that he enters towards the end of the first part of that game that specifically prompted me to reconsider my “options” as a player of Payne’s drama.

In the funhouse, Payne is looking for a woman named Mona Sax. A funhouse has parallels to games, as they both are simulations of slightly unfamiliar worlds that we seemingly interact with in order to derive pleasure from such experience. We can choose to look at ourselves in the funhouse mirrors and laugh as we see ourselves distorted. Moving forward, something pops out at us and literally makes us scream. We have to figure out ways of navigating tunnels that move and shift on us. However, as Payne observes, these interactions always lead to a predetermined conclusion on a predetermined route: “A funhouse is a linear sequence of scares. Take it or leave it is the only choice given. Makes you think about free will: have our choices been made for us because of who we are?”

This observation presented in voice over is compelling as the player is struck by the truth of Max’s words because the experience of this sequence in the game is exactly as he describes. You don’t “do” much in the funhouse level. There aren’t any enemies to fight or any switches to flip to move forward. You just proceed along with Max through several creepy sequences. A cardboard cut out of an “enemy” may pop out from a wall, prompting the player (who is on edge from earlier ambushes in the game) to take a shot at it, but the illusion of interactivity persists. Nothing hinders you here. You are simply always moving forward through the most obvious paths in the funhouse. Indeed, while I have chosen to inhabit the avatar of Max Payne, the plot that unfolds around me is one related directly to “who I am”, which is Max, not myself. Max’s route through the game must be through his funhouse, and my funhouse and route is his too.

Max is a character that is very much trapped in an inescapable identity. It is written into his name, Payne. As the first game suggests with its repetition of “Prologue” sequences (scenes in which Payne revisits the deaths of his wife and child), Max is haunted endlessly by his inability to save his loved ones, and the player is forced in these hallucinatory segments to be reminded of Max’s inability to change this part of his past and the pain that has made him what he is, a player in a game much larger than himself. Like Max, despite confronting the killers in his wife’s bedroom several times in the game and having multiple doorways to choose from to approach the scene, the resolution for the player is always the same. You can’t kill these enemies before they have dispatched her. The game won’t let you and is quite frank in its insistence on your lack of choice. Doors that seem to offer a different entry point on the scene are boarded up before the player’s eyes, forcing the same path to this scene over and over again.

Remedy’s most recent offering, Alan Wake, shares with the Max Payne series an interest in the inescapable qualities of storytelling on players that are merely characters in a drama that is already written and directed. The central conceit of Alan Wake is that the titular character is an author who is finding pages of a manuscript that he doesn’t remember writing. As the player that is taking on the role of Wake finds manuscript pages, he finds that the pages most often refer to events that haven’t happened yet in the game. The “horror” of the game is that they inevitably will occur. No matter what course the player takes in the game or seems to take, what is on the page is ultimately fulfilled.

Max Payne 2‘s funhouse sequence teases us with the illusion of choice that the game seems to offer. Upon getting out of the funhouse proper and behind the backdrops, it would seem that Payne and the player can chart their own course in the world. However, getting out of the backdrop only returns Payne and the player to their original goal for the level, reaching Mona. When Payne finally reaches Mona’s place behind the backdrops, he finds the door locked, which seemingly leaves the player “free” to explore the level a bit more on his own. Payne views this idea more cynically: “Mona’s door was locked. I could have knocked, but I felt an urge to snoop around more, keep acting paranoid. I pretended I had a choice in the matter.” Truth be told, Payne is right. We cannot knock, the developers have offered no way of allowing the player to interact with the world in this way. Instead, the only “exploration” left in the level’s linear sequencing is to explore an alleyway and then reach Mona’s place via an open window, instead of the door. The goal of the level is inescapable, despite all of the “interactive” activities littered along the way the route there.

Oh, at this point, you may want to check out the aforementioned link. But that’s entirely up to you.