LISA and Postmodernism in Video Games
Postmodernism, if reduced to three words, is defined by Jean-François Lyotard as “incredulity towards metanarratives.” Not unlike poststructuralism, postmodern works have sought to deconstruct, delegitimize, put under scrutiny long-standing claims of truth by society – such as patriarchy, capitalism, and religion, for instance. Such master institutions, considered by many as natural to humanity and society, clearly become harmful social constructs, used to preserve a status quo which benefits the people at the top of said society, when put under a postmodern magnifying glass.
Scholars and critics of postmodernism turn first and foremost to literature as an expression of this movement, whence much of its theory stems. Fewer critics have sought to highlight postmodernism in cinema. But only a handful have looked into postmodernism in gaming. Without pondering over the eternal yet outdated – can we move on? – debate of video games as art, their legitimacy in academia is very much just sprouting.
The past five to ten years have seen an incredible rise in so-called indie games – games developed by a relatively small team (or even one single person), rather than by a huge corporate team of thousands. Without disregarding mainstream games, a free artistic approach is de facto much more prevalent in indie games, privileged over a consumerist or business-minded intent. Let us think of a few gems such as Braid, Fez, Bastion. Of course, as with anything, the line between indie and mainstream is (and should be) blurry, as highlighted for instance by mainstream-ish games such as Portal and Child of Light, both ascribing to a very much artistic approach. Or even games such as The Legend of Zelda, Silent Hill, and Mass Effect, which are sort of Gesamtkunstwerke in that their many pieces of art (the soundtrack, the storyline, the animations, the cinematics, etc.), already powerful separately, come together, creating one gigantic piece of art. In fact, I am absolutely not trying to raise a dichotomy between art and business, or between indie and mainstream, this would be quite ludicrous with the postmodern approach I am taking – let us remember: the postmodern ethos is to fight such normative boxes. Everything is and should be a spectrum, its own category which it creates through its existence. Lyotard wrote of the encouraged proliferation of “small narratives”; the destruction of globalizing, forceful, constraining boxes, in order to promote everyone’s individual story, the self-construction of their own identity, and their own willful association in small groups. I am not either trying to place artistry under the realm of indie games, and entertainment under that of mainstream gaming – again, such divisions are silly: good art is entertaining, and good entertainment often has artistic quality to it. However, the reason why the bringing up of the concept of indie gaming in this discussion is pertinent is because of freedom of expression. Rather than being the result of a huge team of developers, some of which have a full time job taking care of just a tiny aspect of one game, such as lighting, designing doors, voicing a character, or sound effects, indie games are the result of the vision of one single person or very few people (relatively speaking), who take charge of many aspects of one said game, their voices creating a choir. In so doing, they convey a vision through their game, a vision which doesn’t stem from a boss ordering employees what to do in a very top-down hierarchy inherent to a great number of harmful metanarratives. This is what makes some indie games relevant when discussing postmodernism, more so than mainstream ones. Not coincidentally, this is why I brought the corporate issue in mainstream games; money and its inherent power dynamics have not played the same role in the making of The Binding of Isaac and that of Call of Duty. They do not obey to the same market-driven driving forces. These economic power dynamics, which are central to the creation of some games, are tenets of capitalism and corporatism, which are naturalized by Western society, and which are sought to be deconstructed by postmodernism due to their latent harm and constraints.
One major goal of postmodernists, as literary critics such as Linda Hutcheon, Barbara Havercroft, and Janet Paterson have advanced, is to destroy existing norms which limit identity-building in oppressive social institutions. This destruction can involve, for instance, an appropriation of these metanarratives in order to show their ridicule and lack of legitimacy (see Hutcheon), the repetition of these metanarratives with variations or disruptions (see Havercroft), the underlining of the harm perpetrated by them (see Paterson), among many other processes. A major postmodern writer is Angela Carter, who, for instance in Bloody Chamber, appropriates canonical characters from Baudelaire, and even the writer himself, rewrites their stories, and gives a voice to the voiceless characters. The perspective is turned around: main characters and heroes become weak and helpless, damsels in distress become heroes. Anne Garréta appropriates the timeless iconography of the Sphinx, major in Western culture and society, and challenges the equally timeless notion of gender. Her protagonist is neither (both?) male nor (and?) female, and so is the object of her/his/their desire, challenging the readers themselves who come to see gender as a riddle to be redefined, rethought over again. Another writer, Nicole Brossard, criticizes literature through the dismantled use of that medium, through the fragmentarity of her writing – the disruption of preconceived notions of time and space that have stuck to the literary institution seemingly forever, as embodied in all of its Western canons. Expectations must be shattered: they are instilled by an age-old institution which dictates what is and what is not literature – an institution, paradigm of society as a whole, which decides what and who has value, and what and who does not (as a writer or text in literature; as a person or identity in society).
Can some of these postmodern tools of deconstruction be found in video games as well? This is what I attempt to see. There are games which contribute to redefining what is a game. There are games which do look away from what has been done and is being done; persons or teams developing their very own game in their very own language. There are also games which point toward or outright appropriate elements of past games, turning them around completely. There are games which satirize, parody socio-cultural elements. There are games that openly exhibit a strong critical and political component. And so on. I do not attempt to survey all postmodern aspects of games but rather create, through postmodernism, a tiny fissure in the shell of video gaming that has preserved it from much academic, theoretical, and philosophical discourse.
The main game that interests me is LISA. In fact, this is the game that inspired this discussion in the first place. The premise is set in a post-apocalyptic society reminiscent of a decadent, desperate, destructed Western society. This type of setting isn’t unusual for postmodern works. This is the setting in which men (solely men) interact in a gruesome manner. They are constantly drunk, depressed, obese, wounded, monster-like, wage war against each other, exchange “magazines” and weapons. They are constantly on the verge of death. The art has a grotesque quality to it which becomes the norm for all characters in the game – the player does not cringe at the sight of Queen Roger, a transvestite pimp; of Carp, a half-fish half-man; of Birdie, a drunkard; of Fardy, a shirtless, obese, depressed truck driver. These characters in fact join your party, come to be controlled by the player, are heroes essential to the player’s success. A new norm is created for the game’s universe, one which is very far from what the player is used to in the usual RPG virtual world – he or she does not control black mages, paladins, and archers, as (stereo)typical of RPGs, but rather, grotesque versions of people in his or her real world, confronting him or her with distorted versions of his or her reality, or ones that are completely nonsensical (such as Geese, a goose who speaks in rhymes). LISA is a parody of RPGs. It actually brings up actual elements of society and turns them around, for instance when a non-player character dramatically says “I like big butts… They cannot lie…”reminding us of a popular song, but imposing it a new context completely, or when there is a retake on the Power Rangers with the Salvation Rangers.
More emphatically, one area of the game consists of a village of worshippers of a fast food God. There are “W” signs made of fries (the inverted “M” sign of McDonalds), characters that are obese and starving, and that pray to an intercom as in a drive through, begging for food. The particular scene involves a child asking for food. Then, magically, a meal falls from the sky. Just past this intercom are two bodyguards that refuse access to everyone, safeguarding the “God,” who is in fact Wally, a suicidal, twisted mascot whose intestines are all over the place.
McDonalds is the prime example of a multinational capitalist and harmful corporation that deals in something as basic as food and that is anchored in most of the world, incorporated in and naturalized by many societies. LISA expresses an all-too-clear criticism of the restaurant, depicting it as a false God who slowly destroys an entire population that reveres it. The way the criticism is constructed as well as the object of critique are very postmodern: through clear and poignant appropriations and deconstructions, LISA destroys a metanarrative’s legitimacy, emphasizes the harm it perpetrates, and turns it into its paroxysmal caricature, parodying it.
The protagonist himself is always on the line between hero and anti-hero, never quite one or the other, and the storyline forces the player to make difficult ethical decisions. The prime example is when the player must choose to let the protagonist get his arm cut off or let a party member die permanently.
This brings forth the fascinating issue of morality vis-à-vis success. In fact, the player must not only make a choice accordingly to his or her own morality and conscience, but also in terms of gaming logic. Being the protagonist and a fist-fighter, losing an arm is a very heavy drawback that decreases the player’s rate of success highly in all future fights, while party members are quite numerous and somewhat dispensable – though the disadvantage of losing one must not be neglected, particularly if said member happens to be one which the player has fought much with, and thus is strong, has good items, and has leveled up. So, on the one hand, the player must weigh the pros and cons of both the moral and gaming elements of various decisions, but also weigh morality and gaming logic themselves. This process, whether conscious (actually measuring pros and cons) or subconscious (following one’s gut instinct and desire), is one which engages the player himself or herself with the game and with himself or herself. The reflection is not merely one which happens fictionally in order to complete a game, but happens in the player’s actual reality, bringing forth questions of morality. At one point, the game even forces the player to play Russian roulette with a party member of his choice (and eventually more), again killing them permanently, pushing this engagement with the game and with morality even further.
I personally couldn’t bring myself to kill some of the characters I like, namely Terry and Geese, simply because I like them and want to see them develop further, despite them being rather weak. Though I couldn’t quite bring myself to kill some of the stronger characters either, which I deem crucial to my succeeding the game, despite me finding them bland or boring. In The Art of Failing, Juul debunks the idea of games as purely fictional, as creating their own distinct world away from reality, highlighting the engagement of the player with the game, his or her need to succeed (the phrase “it’s just a game” is just a way to cope with failure). This blurring of the line between reality and fiction, between self and the Other, between the virtual and the actual, is quite postmodern. LISA is constantly engaging the player in its virtual world, while also using his or her own actual world morality, and emphasizing his or her agency through the presentation of difficult, heavy choices. The game is more than just a game. It opens a rift between reality and virtuality – though all games do, LISA does so in a particularly engaging manner, involving both logic and emotions.
The game opens with a flashback – one which the player controls – of Brad’s, the protagonist, childhood. A traumatic one, to say the least. Throughout the game, the present timeline is disrupted with various flashbacks of his abusive father, his bullies, and his finding of a little girl. In fact, memories seem to mesh with not only the present but also with Brad’s imagination. At the beginning, for instance, exiting a room randomly triggers Brad’s father’s apparition, holding the baby girl that Brad found and leaving it on the ground, until the player, as Brad, goes to her and picks her up, taking us back into the present. And so, three timelines are intertwined and made to interact, in a postmodern moment which is actually the protagonist’s imagination as the timelines do not cross per se in reality. They are, however, Brad’s reality as he experiences it – his traumatic experiences follow him in the present and taint his reality. And not only are they Brad’s reality, they are also the player’s reality, since he or she controls Brad even while he is imagining. It is also interesting that LISA challenges notions of first and third person in gaming. Though the player controls Brad in the third person, he or she sees through Brad’s eyes. His hallucinations become the player’s hallucinations, for instance when Brad is high on “Joy” (the infamous drug in LISA, which I could also go on about) and the player controls Brad walking in a discoloured world of blood, and also when the player sees the numerous appearances of Brad’s daughter hung, which has never happened but is only Brad’s fear, scattered through the game.
His imagination, his trauma, and his fears materialize in tangible manner in his world and in the player’s. The unusual way in which third and first person perspectives mesh in the game pose a challenge to these very clearly defined notions in gaming. These postmodern techniques of breaking away from the mold provide real, meaningful insight into the protagonist’s mind, who is obsessed with finding his adopted daughter (the purpose of the game) and his own tormented childhood, of which his father is the embodiment. Finding his daughter is an act of agency, Brad reclaims his past through fatherhood. The baby’s gender is of course central to the narrative, as she is seemingly the only woman left. Brad’s goal is to protect her no matter what, against all of society (or what is left of it) – even against her will? Even if it means the end of humanity? And so, Brad is a hero from one standpoint, but completely evil from another.
LISA plays on this blurry line, and ultimately puts the player in a position to judge himself or herself the hero. He or she must use his or her own judgment, without the game imposing its own morality, which is very postmodern. The concepts of right and wrong are, after all, informed by metanarratives such as religion which have come to be naturalized by society and imposed as norms. Both LISA and postmodernism (attempt to) break free from these, making the reader/player hyperaware of his or her own morality that is being involved in the narrative. The game forces an informed introspection and reevaluation of one’s own values.
Postmodernism in video games does appear to me as a valid and legitimate field of inquiry, one which may contribute to postmodernism as a movement. Video games are a medium which offer a relatively new and very powerful sense of agency, if only through the direct control of characters, and so, they can become great postmodern tools of deconstruction, as individual agency is so central to postmodern philosophy. The game developer(s) and the player become conarrators of a narrative whose control is ultimately shared by both of them. And in fact, many games, particularly indie ones, depict such an agency as completely separate from metanarratives and in reaction to oppressive institutions – not only in the narratives that are recounted, but also on a variety of levels in the making of the game which offer a stark contrast with what is the norm in the video game industry. Considering video games as postmodern also builds a bridge between the said industry and other art forms, giving it credibility, depth, and weight. It also imbues it with an additional well-grounded layer of legitimacy in terms of carrying social and political critiques. Indie games in particular highlight the subversive potential of video games, coming from a position of relative artistic and economic freedom, thus not obeying to direct orders and constraints.