Monday, 1 September 2014

Part 2: Dark Souls, Todestrieb and That Thing we Don't Know we Know is Missing

Donald Rumsfeld may well be remembered for his somewhat paradoxical "Known knowns... known unknowns... unknown unknowns"*. He forgot one though, didn't he? The unknown knowns, things we don't know but which determine our actions and identity: the unconscious.

Dark Souls: Prepare to Death Drive

 Freud asserted that we are unconsciously guided by drives, one of which being the Pleasure Principle (Eros) - that we seek pleasure and avoid pain. However, in his Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) he explains that there must be something else. When creating Dark Souls the developers wanted a focus on repetition where the player has to repeat difficult, frustrating and even unenjoyable situations until they either overcome or they give up. Such a process can be seen in opposition to the Pleasure Principle where Freud observed that it was common for people to relive painful and difficult situations repeatedly. From this Freud came to the notion of death drive(s) (aka Todestrieb or Thantos), that there is a drive towards death, a return to the inorganic, to exhaust a thing until the situation mirrors the state before said thing existed. It was and still is an idea that is widely criticised and unaccepted. Freud openly admitted in Beyond the Pleasure Principle that it was highly speculative but continued to have faith in his notion until his death.

Not many games have such a strong focus on death as Dark Souls and many aspects of the game seem to illustrate the idea of death drive. Firstly, the goal of the game is to undo a state of deathlessness that has cursed the world, to bring about a state of non-existence. This idea is akin to Buddhist enlightenment where an escape from endless rebirth is the ultimate goal (an opposite goal to Abrahamic religions that aim for an eternal life in the afterlife)**. This overarching plot is the very essence of death drive. Secondly, a result of death drive is self destruct, the situation the world of Dark Souls finds itself and which the player becomes part of. A further outcome of death drive is when aggression is turned inwardly***, creating masochism. The developer of Dark Souls has confessed to having masochistic tendencies, so do many players of Dark Souls and critics of the game often fob off the player-base of Dark Souls as masochistic.

Although many didn't accept death drive, Lacan embraced the idea explaining that: every drive seeks it's own end and that every drive involves the subject of repetition until any joy experienced turns into suffering. By Lacan's understanding death drive was not an autonomous drive but was a fundamental aspect of all human drives. Lacan therefore placed death drive in the Symbolic (see previous piece), in our human mechanics. Within the mechanics of Dark Souls is the same repetition; areas are reset intact until overcome - albeit without treasures - and even the game is reset once completed - albeit with added challenge. A player can continue to play until the want to play has dwindled (often after 100s of hours).

Finally, Freud put death drive as a counter drive to the Pleasure Principle. The dominating aspect of the Pleasure Principle is sex and it's pursuit (of which the energy Libido is in conflict with the energy of death drive Mortido). In Dark Souls almost all sexuality is removed (almost) or worse. The world is full of asexual creatures, nude sexualised forms of females have their lower torso replaced with a hideous insect-like deformity, all children and ideas of procreation are removed from the game (character models of children were found in the game files and so must have been consciously removed) and the only inclusion of children are a  few skeletons. This denial of all things sexual really makes the game a testament to death drive. It seems there was an active focus by the developers to desexualise the game... with one exception (more on that later).

Freud's Structural Model & Dark Souls

The game employs a sense of vertical importance where, from a central starting point, the player either ascends or descends. The starting hub is a place where a majority human interactions are made, where the reality of the game world is explained and the non-player characters express motives. If the player ascends they find structures of power; castles, fortifications and ultimately a legendary city of gods. Should the player descend they will find darkness unto an abyss, primordial beasts and death. This structure corresponds directly with Freud's psychoanalytic theory of personality, where the personality is made of three elements; the Ego, Id and Superego.

The Ego is the part of the personality that develops around age three and understands the needs of others. It mediates between the wild needs of the Id and the reality in which we find ourselves and is there in the preconscious, conscious and unconscious. The Id is that which is present at birth with the beast-like striving for what it wants at any moment, slave to the pleasure principle. It is placed in the dark of the unconscious. Freud believed that the Id was the source of all psychic energy (this is also echoed in Dark Souls, where humanity is described from the outset as coming from the dark). The Superego is the place where ideal forms of the Ego exist, ideas of authority, internalised standards of society, gods.

The One Instance of Sexuality in Dark Souls

After one of the most grueling tests in the game the player reaches a climax in the game's pacing and is rewarded suitably. The reward is bequeathed by the most overtly sexualised character  in the game, Gwynevere, replete with soft lighting, reclining position, prominent breasts and hips (breast and hips being almost universal physical traits of fertility). This character is described as a "Princess of Sunlight" and an only daughter, "sunlight" a symbol of fertility and "daughter" a result of procreation. She seems somewhat out of place in a game so focused on death and it has been hinted at that Hidetaka Miyazaki (the game's creator) wasn't pleased with the character's design. 

There are two interesting qualities to Gwynevere. Firstly, that she is an illusion created to deal with another character's nostalgia. Freud and Lacan both saw nostalgia as a result of the death drive with the latter describing Death Drive as a nostalgia for lost harmony, a desire to return to the preoedipal fusion of the mother's breast. That Gwynevere isn't in fact real but is a projection of nostalgia works to explain the prominent chest. A second, more interesting quality of Gwynevere is her positioning in the City of Gods, the Superego tier of Dark Souls. Libidinous drive is usually confined to the Id but when such designs are made in the Superego one definite conclusion can be made: the Superego isn't functioning. 

 Dark Souls 2 in Contrast

The sequel borrows a lot from the first game but sadly doesn't have the same psychological depth. The areas of the game world have no clearly defined relation to each other and just appear as places along a journey. There are both sexualised enemies and non-player characters, almost needlessly so with the feeling that more creative designs could have been made. There are various lore elements of romantic ties (queens and their kings etc), albeit without any clear results of procreation. Dark Souls 2 isn't completely without psychoanalytical worth but surely has little of the wealth of the initial game. 

NEXT WEEK: Part 3: Link's Father

*This and the vicious illegal war he promoted.
** Given the choice of returning to the inorganic or an endless existence I know which I'd prefer.
*** Outward aggression is not seen as a result of death drive as it (usually) has the function of reducing pain and/or creating pleasure

Sunday, 24 August 2014

part 1: Sublimation, God's Unfinished Work, Outside the Symbolic Order and Games

Although psychology cannot withstand Popper's test of falsification, it allows a space of contemplation. Similarly, a gallery of bad art reveals few truths but still allows a place where criticism and interpretation are welcome. What did Freud or Lacan have to say about video games? In particular, what did they have to say about freeware games? This should by rights make for a very short paper, since Lacan and Freud in fact say absolutely nothing about video games. Neither do they say anything about Becket, Lynch, Philip Glass nor Martin Creed. However, as many artists and creators seem to work as silent partners of Freud and Lacan so does modern media help to elaborate and uncover psychological "truths"

Through games our sublimation breaks down.  

 Lacan believed cinema helped highlight certain eccentricities of human behavior, that we lay prostrate to the cinema screen, agape like babes suckling at the nipple in a preoedipal state. I find such notions easy to dismiss, let us now entertain them. That we make ourselves susceptible to the entertainment before us is hard to argue when confronted with the pathetic, child-like squeals of youtube stars. The slack-jawed grunts of appreciation uttered by those who watch said youtube stars again enforces the idea that we enter an infantile psychic state*. In "Civilization and it's Discontents" (1930) Freud mentions that we are left in a comparable childish psychic state in the arms of religion. Religion has come to pass for many people to be replaced by medicine at the end of the last century to be replaced by interfacing in the past decade. In the same work Freud details sublimation - a process where instinctual urges are translated into non-instinctual acts: "Sublimation of instinct is an especially conspicuous feature of cultural development; it is what makes it possible for higher physical activities, scientific, artistic or ideological, to play such an important part in civilized life" (Freud 1930). Often a positive thing, sublimation can also be a (psychologically) negative thing: a fascination of the anal stage of development can create a got-to-catch-'em-all tendency in a person. Such a person may well have a Steam library of games for reasons other than escapism and entertainment. 

The instinctual energies may well be translated through play and a child's games; the urge to run in circles becomes a race, the need to scream emotion becomes a song. When such urges are refined into physical actions with reactions they can be honed into interfacing with games and, as the game tests you, the sublimation breaks down; rage quit, throws gamepad, praise the sun, beat the level. 

Zizek and the Time he Mentioned Video Games.

Slavoj Žižek has an analogy explaining that god did not finish the world. Said god is the ideology that everything is perfect, thoroughly designed, well-oiled and functional to the core (nothing of benevolence). The Einstein idea that god does not gamble or play dice. However, we got too smart and questioned. Heisenberg looks at the uncertainty principle and finds it immeasurable and is faced with the radical conclusion that it is in itself indeterminable. This is at the quantum level. Žižek presents that god's world is the phenomenological world of face value and that if we look closer we first see the dirty, excessive, insect-ridden nature of things as presented by Herzog and Lynch in their cinema. Then we can look closer, past the Lynchian underbelly, and we can simply see holes - that the universe is not complete. When we play the video game we get to the boundaries of the level and we see in the background trees, cities, sky, Heides Tower of Flame etc but they are not fully programmed. Why? Because it is not part of the game, you cannot go there. Something similar is the lesson of quantum physics.

Lacan's Three Orders/ Big Other as Seen in Video Games.

Lacan presented an understanding of the symbolic order which consisted of the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real. The Imaginary, with it's illusions, deceptions and imaginations, where our egos and alter-egos play (here we find the "other" with a little "o" referring to the egos - talking of others we talk about what we imagine them to be like). The Symbolic, with it's systems, laws and structures (here we find the "big Other" with a capital "O", a dominating objective spirit of the socio-linguistic rules that precede us and make up our subjective interactions. The big Other can be (often fantastical/ fictional) ideas of anonymous authority and/ or power; the state, big brother, God, science, Bowser's Koopa Kingdom, the Devs [who-made-this-must-be-on-drugs]). The Real, unatainable, "it is the world of words that creates the world of things". Within the Real there is a second [aspect of] Other, the unknowable x, the Nietzschean abyss, perhaps what Freud would see as Neighbour-as-Thing/  Nebenmensch als Ding. 

These concepts in which our symbolic lives are contained can pleasingly be described through video games. The Imaginary is the game world, the images depicted in the game; the zombie, the bazooka, the race car, the child in the basement shooting tears. The Symbolic is the mechanics of the game, the fail/ win states, the rules of play the double jump. The Real is everything outside; the player, the gamepad, the PC/ WiiU/ PS3, the temperature in the room, the temperament of the player, the phone off the hook and the curtains drawn. 

Lacan's symbolic order provides us with a deeper understanding of maternal and paternal Others, gender, abjection. In terms of abjection, Kristeva saw that the abject object is often perceived outside the Lacanian Symbolic Order. We can see the effects of this in Ivan Zanotti's Imscared - A Pixelated Nightmare and Nik Sudan's Slender Ultimatum, where common rules of play are second to unorthodox mechanics that provoke fear/ abjection. Glitch. Be it fear or humour in the work, explore it for a deeper understanding and you may find that the point of contention lives on the borders or beyond the symbolic order. 

*here the observation is of an observer observing an observer.

NEXT WEEK: Part 2: Dark Souls, Todestrieb
and That Thing we Don't Know
we Know is Missing

Friday, 31 January 2014

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Sluggish Morss: Ad Infinitum Coming Friday 31st of January

To celebrate my birthday I'm going to release my first commercialish game, the mini EP Sluggish Morss: Ad Infinitum. The game will be for Windows, Mac and Linux and will come with the sound track.
It is a narrative of the most abstract kind and the first of the Beeswing games (free to the relevant kickstarter backers).

Friday the 31st of January!
scary scary

Thursday, 19 December 2013

top 10 games of 2076, a retrospect

it's been an exciting year for gamers; the first eye-circuit, flightless bird implants, the reintroduction of hands into the interfacing and the release of the Ninticrosony Wiistation Surface. But the real triumph of gaming has surely been the first female developer to have released a game without being verbally assaulted. With the release of her artisan game Cool Suede, B. Trevors has turned co-op, god simulation on it's well trodden head by allowing the integration of super symmetry to replicate game objects IN YOUR FRONT ROOM.
It sadly caused an abrupt rise in infant moralities. 


6. Anus Remover:
Co-op godsim where the objective is to remove as many of the opponent's anuses within a given time limit (8 years).

5. Fippy Nipply :
Co-op godsim, guide Fippy through a proceduraly generated procedural generator (WARNING CAUSES INSTANT INFANT MORTALITIES)

4. Max Payne in Shakespeare's the Tempest: 
Co-op god-sim, take the role of a director and direct the greatest play featuring gaming's notorious HARD MAN IN YOUR FRONT ROOM. 

3. Cole off Duty :
FP Co-sim God-op. Ashley Cole will always be remembered as the man who assassinated Ant and Dec but what was his life like in his downtime? 

2. Glubby 2:
More of the same excellent gameplay from this co-op godsim-like sequel.

1. Cool Suede: 
New shift in god simming!