Playing with Memory
Video Game Perspectives on Memory Loss
Alzheimer’s Disease and amnesia are terrifying prospects, demons lurking in the shadows that could strike at any time, time bombs that explode on entire families. However, nonetheless counter-intuitive, is it productive or even possible to turn the perspective around and see memory loss as an opportunity, an open space of agency and re-growth? Video games offer an altogether less negative outlook on the topic.
Fictional and autobiographical works of art have sought to provide a perspective on, if not an understanding of, memory loss and Alzheimer’s whether it be through Alice Munro’s forgotten husband in The Bear Came over the Mountain or the diligent Harvard professor in the film Still Alice. As valid works of art in themselves, video games also depict memory problems dramatically, shedding light on highly personal accounts, sometimes fictionalized, sometimes biographical, often both. However, there are some specific elements of the medium itself that inevitably render its depictions of memory and lack thereof differently from literature or cinema.
This paper aims to provide a fresh insight into the theme of memory loss by exploring it through the lens of video gaming, an art form still looked down upon by more conservative academics despite its obvious and growing importance in society and in general artistic consumption. I will draw out a few concepts in videogaming that I deem to be relevant in the study of memory. I will then exemplify these concepts and explore the theme at hand in some video games. This will hopefully help not only in furnishing the fan of cultural expressions of memory with one of its components, but also further our philosophical, personal, and conceptual reflections on memory loss and its impacts.
The most notable feature unique to the medium at hand is its interactivity. The game developer(s) and the player become co-narrators of a narrative whose control is ultimately shared by both of them, according to Tamer Thabet who theorizes co-narration in Video Game Narrative and Criticism: Playing the Story. The player’s input is indeed necessary for the visual and literary narrative to even take place. Games are indeed initially coded, so the narrative is ultimately constrained by that which is coded – however, the narrative is complete with only a fraction of the visible codes. In other words, much like a reader of a “choose your own adventure” novel, players have a certain level of agency (which varies incredibly from game to game) in the narrative that goes on – though unlike these novels, video games present a virtually infinite number of variations from playthrough to playthrough, and most games still do present a plot whose beginning and end are the same in terms of plot, but the in-between is entirely malleable. This difference from other narratives is indeed major as the visual and literary world that is presented to the player is one which must be actively explored by her. The narrative is co-created by the player as it unfolds in front of her, simultaneously as her fingers input commands. Her fingers write and draw the narrative made available to her by the developer(s), in a “dance of the hands,” as Graeme Kirkpatrick conceptualizes in Aesthetic Theory and the Video Game. The game presents a mirror to the player, in a sense reminiscent of film theorists’ (debated) argument that movies force identification of the viewer with the protagonist, but even more so, as the player really is, becomes, embodies the protagonist. The movements of the player’s hands (and also her whole body in some recent games) are emulated by the protagonist. They become one another.
Ruggill and McAllister identify the medium as “immersive” (5) and “persuasive” (11) in Gaming Matters because of its interactivity, and Wolf explains that the “interactive nature of video games, the possibility of many different outcomes, and the illusion of effectiveness and power on the part of the player can make video games potentially more attractive to people than more passive media” (4). Indeed, video game is the epitome of activeness in art, which is rendered obvious right away by the linguistic term “player” for the audience of video games, rather than simply “viewer”. To play is to be active, like one plays a sport or plays a role. But this activity is interactivity: there is not only an interaction between the player and the developers in order to narrate the game, but also between the player and the protagonist of the game. In fact, in an ever growing number of games, players get to choose an impressive number of elements of the protagonist, from their hairstyle, their voice and their favorite meal, to their race, their gender, and their sexual orientation. Does the protagonist become the player or does the player become the protagonist? This is indeed a very big, multilayered question, but in the context of this paper, I will stop this train of thought at the idea that player and protagonist are a (more or less blurry and distorted) mirror of each other, a product of the interactivity inherent to videogaming.
The notions of co-narration and of interactivity, as they pertain to videogame, take on a notable significance when exploring the themes of memory and memory loss, I advance. There is undoubtedly a cognitive element in videogaming which relates to mental work associated to memory, though this is beyond the scope of this paper. It is nonetheless worth noting that Gazzaley Labs at UCSF have developed a videogame, Neuroracer, which is intended to fight the aging of the brain in older adults, and so, dementia and memory problems. But beyond these player-centred cognitive mechanism, videogames offer a rich perspective and treatment of the theme of memory itself.
Let us first take a look at To the Moon, a game published in 2011 by Freebird Games. The game follows two so-called memory doctors, whose work consists of changing and creating memories, as they attempt to change a man on his deathbed’s memories in order to fulfil his last wish to go to the moon. To do so, they travel to the physical space of his memories, which the player and the protagonists freely explore, solving puzzles, to first and foremost figure out where the desire to go to the moon is rooted, and then to make changes to a series of memories that would make him truly believe, right before his death, that he was indeed an astronaut that set foot on the moon..
The narrative thus seems to follow the same stages of Alzheimer’s disease, that is, in reverse chronological order until the patient’s death. The protagonists are timed, as they must find a way to make him go on the moon before his death; before his complete loss of personality, pointing towards retrogenesis itself, but actually living his retrogenesis, becoming it through the entering into the space of his memories in reverse chronological order. His state in fact deteriorates the further the doctors regress into his childhood. As Tadié underlines in Le sens de la mémoire, personality does not survive the destruction of memory, citing Alzheimer’s as case in point. And, as the game progresses, the man forgets absolutely everything except his desire to go to the moon. This is how the game presents itself as an allegory of Alzheimer’s – or at the very least, as loss of memory with old age, as regression. The most interesting part however is the role played by the doctors, and by extension, the player. Memories are considered as malleable, much like identity, and so it comes down to the player to shape the memories and so the identity – and thus, the player’s own identity, as we have considered earlier the characters to be mirrors of the player. Memories become not only a figurative but also a literal space of reconstruction of the self, as they are themselves reconstructed by the protagonists/player.
In fact, videogaming as a medium seems obsessed with memory loss. This seems without a doubt linked to the previous ideas of interactivity, co-narration, and immersion. Role-Playing Games such as Breath of Fire and Final Fantasy initially present protagonists which are memory- and identity-less, blank canvases of sorts, which allows for the player’s input. This has in fact become a trope, a cliché. These games, and even games such as Pokémon, often open with a black screen requesting the player/protagonist to input her name on a keyboard. This name is then used throughout the entirety of the game. Right away, the player must name her character, the pivotal element of the narrative, a clear act not only of agency, but of player-protagonist identification. The game screen becomes a mirror, but an active one, in that it requires the player’s input, unlike that of a film. Following this, a more or less long series of questions are to be answered and input by the player, which will affect the very narrative which is created by the player and her (desired) identity or persona. This concept is taken to the extreme in online games, where interaction with other players are made through the created character. What these amnesiac protagonists ultimately highlight is that, though their lack of memory is often very much a curse, it creates a space of re-creation. The recovery of memory becomes the premise, the quest of these characters who are embodiments of the player, so rather than seeking to recover a blank character’s memory (coded as such by the game developers), these games are actually about the creation of a new identity by the player, who, let us recall, co-narrates them.
My preliminary conclusions are that, on the one hand, videogames may succeed in depicting with emotional depth and breadth Alzheimer’s and memory loss, as To the Moon does, while still retaining a certain optimism towards them which seems to be embedded in the medium. In fact, videogame protagonists’ shaky memory is not presented as a void, a black hole that sucks everything in of the patient and her environment, a time bomb, but rather as a blank space – a crucial difference. Identity is not destroyed: it is given the opportunity to re-create itself. And in fact, the medium itself does so in actuality to players, not only through the aforementioned Neuroracer and the likes that are truly offsetting the effects of Alzheimer’s and dementia, but also through the creation of communities that allow for a constant redefinition of oneself, a space of agency and appropriation of one’s identity. So, not only does videogaming become relevant in the present context as artistic practice, consumption, and representation, but also as a scientific tool and as a catalyst of identity-construction.
Thanks go to pinko commie queer bastard for letting run a few ideas by him, and for inspiring some points.
(This article is to be continued. The bibliography will be added.)