Self-Guided Evolution: What “Deus Ex” and “Flowers for Algernon” teach about personal development.

Regulars of With a Terrible Fate know that, back in the spring of 2013, I undertook a project analyzing the various role-playing dynamics of well-known video games and theatrical pieces.  I have been publishing pieces of this study over the past few months on this site, which is the first time they have been published online — I began with an analysis of “Legend of Zelda:  Majora’s Mask” and “Six Characters in Search of an Author” (which you can read here) which I followed with an exploration of the similarities between “Dishonored” and “Macbeth” (which you can read in Parts 1, 2, and 3).  Now, I am releasing the third installment of this old study, in which I argue that “Deus Ex” and “Flowers for Algernon” both give us unexpected insights into how we can become better versions of ourselves.  My hope is this will be a timely moment for this work, in anticipation of the latest addition to the “Deus Ex” franchise:  “Deus Ex:  Mankind Divided.”

Note, again, that this older work is not altogether reflective of my current stances on video game theory.  It also focuses much more heavily on the phenomenology of games — that is, what it is like to experience playing a particular game — whereas my current work is more focused on the architecture of games as aesthetic objects.  Nevertheless, I hope readers will enjoy the piece.  Stay tuned, too, for updated work on “Deus Ex” in the weeks to come.  It is a series well-deserving of its many accolades.

Adam Jensen

Treatment IV

The Augmentative Role: Striving to be more than We Are

I had to know. The meaning of my total existence involves knowing the possibilities of my future as well as my past. Where I’m going as well as where I’ve been. Although we know the end of the maze holds death, I see now that the path I choose through the maze makes me what I am. – Charlie Gordon, “Flowers for Algernon”[1]



  • “Deus Ex: Human Revolution,” Square Enix

“Deus Ex: Human Revolution” poses a question hauntingly relevant in our modern society: ought humans to implement biotechnology to take control of their own evolutionary development? The game is set in a near-future world where biomedical corporations have taken the lead in the new market of human augmentation: the enhancement of humans by implanting technology which allows them to “unlock the hidden capacity of our DNA,” ranging anywhere from increased physical strength to enhanced social skills. The central conflict asks the question of how society will move forward with this newfound ability to “play God,” with “purist” organizations and extremist factions standing in opposition to biomedical companies and their patrons.

The player assumes the role of Adam Jensen, the head of security for Detroit-based leading biomedical corporation, Sarif Industries. On the eve of a planned meeting between the company and the U.N., at which the company planned to present their most recent findings and argue against the need for augmentation regulations, an unknown group attacked the company; their leading research team, headed by Dr. Megan Reed, was killed. Adam was brutalized in the attack, and was subsequently heavily augmented by David Sarif (the company CEO) so that he might survive. He then embarks on a mission across the city and globe to uncover the truth behind the attack, and finds a far greater conspiracy than he ever imagined. He learns that the attack was orchestrated by a number of high-powered cogs in a much larger machine: the Illuminati, seeking to exploit augmentation implants to exert control over all augmented people from the inside. They staged the scientists’ deaths and kidnaped them in order to develop a biochip that they could distribute under the pretense of a software update, thereby literally enabling mind control over vast populations. Hugh Darrow, the father of augmentation technology, having discovered this, broadcasts his own signal to the chips, inducing acute psychosis in all augs (i.e., ‘augmented people’) in an effort to “put the genie [of augmentation technology] back in the bottle” by making mankind privy to its dangers through example. Adam is left with the task of disarming the signal and deciding what message to broadcast around the world explaining what happened. He has the options of: blaming the signal on purist group “The Humanity Front”; blaming it on a biomedical error; telling them the truth of what happened; or destroying the entire broadcasting facility, letting the truth die with it.[2] In so doing, Jensen is made to choose the future trajectory of humanity in regards to its perception of augmentation. After a journey in each Jensen has seen every way augmentation has affected the world, the player is given the onus of choosing how mankind might best proceed.

  • “Flowers for Algernon,” David Rogers, based on the novel of the same name by Daniel Keyes

“Flowers for Algernon” tells the story of Charlie Gordon, a mentally disabled thirty-two-year-old, whose teacher volunteers him for an experimental intelligence-amplifying operation, which enables him to learn and retain information at an exponentially higher rate. Charlie steps out of the shell of his disability and sees the world first as others see it, and eventually in a far more integrated, enlightened way than any of them can perceive it. Yet his emotional development is unable to keep pace with his intellectual development, as he is tormented by his past, the way he can now see how little respect he was given when he was mentally disabled, and his inability to relate to those of lesser intelligence than he.

Eventually, Charlie learns that there was a flaw in the original research (a flaw which, ironically, could not be perceived except by his enhanced intellect), and that he will eventually lose his intelligence until he is back where he began. In so learning, he is put in a position where he must live the entirety of his life as intelligently conceived in the space of a few short months of research – and learning to love. Charlie’s tragic story speaks to the question of who we truly are, who we might become, and how we change by virtue of the journey.

  • Role Playing in Psychotherapy, Raymond J. Corsini

In this slim volume, Corsini deftly outlines role-playing’s role as a pragmatic, aggressively effective tool in the psychotherapist’s arsenal. He describes its threefold usefulness for purposes of diagnosis, teaching, and training. Of particular interest to us are his theories of role playing’s use in ‘training’: he argues that a patient, directed by the psychoanalyst, can effectively change his behavior through role playing sessions – and, subsequently, can change his perception of himself (what Corsini refers to as the patient’s ‘self-concept’). This idea of self-transformation through an external enabler is similar to the dynamics of both Charlie and Adam’s growth; therefore, it is a useful template through which we can understand role-playing in both of these stories.

Introduction: “Without control, there’s no room for freedom”

A canonical philosophical question is whether free will exists. Do we, as humans, possess the capacity to genuinely choose? Or are our decisions, along with everything else ever to occur, predetermined by some metaphysical god? Or, is choice illusory by virtue of our behavior being conditioned by external stimuli and subsequent reward pathways? Complex, involved arguments exist for virtually every side of this debate, and we will not presume in this piece to offer any substantive framework for answering this question; rather, the question of free will serves as our jumping-off point for a central issue of this study: how do the measures one takes to define oneself relate to external influences?

B. F. Skinner believed that behavior was a function of external conditioning and reward, what he referred as ‘operant conditioning’. In his world, everyone’s behavior (or ‘will’) is a product of the feedback their actions yield from the environment upon which they are performed. Skinner’s world is not necessarily one of strict determinism – rather, environments establish behavioral patterns by greatly increasing the probability of individuals electing to act in certain ways that yield desirable results. Thus, the individual still acts “as he wishes” – the environment simply influences how he wishes to act.

A behaviorist paradigm such as Skinner’s is not far-removed from questions of role assumption, particularly where theater is concerned. Consider the director-actor relationship: the actor is responsible for bringing the reality of the play to life, and it is his choices and actions onstage which effect this; yet these choices are heavily informed by the vision and directions of the director. So the word of a theatrical play might be roughly generalized as ‘a distinct but not discrete reality with an onstage locus of choice (i.e., the actors) and offstage locus of control (i.e., the director)’. To continue the Skinnerian analogy, the director serves as the environment by which the actors onstage – and, consequently, the collective and personal realities of the play – are conditioned.[3]

By considering this dynamic, we are beginning to flesh out a fourth version of the meta-role: what we will call the augmentative role paradigm. It is this paradigm that provides a distinct mechanism for a change in self. When Adam reaches Hugh Darrow’s Arctic hideaway, ‘Panchaea’, he finds Humanity Front leader William Taggart holed up in a server room, hiding from the crazed augs. In trying to convince Adam to blame the catastrophe on biomedical corporations to compel strong industry oversight, Taggart warns Adam that, “without control, there’s no room for freedom – only anarchy.” The augmentative meta-role paradigm offers insight into people at their most dynamically transformative, but with a crucial caveat: this transformative capacity is externally potentiated.


“Hybrid life support”: a sketch of the evolutionary self

To better understand the augmentative paradigm at work, we will break it into a multi-component model, and assess the way in which the components work together to facilitate self-evolution. We can graphically represent the model as follows.

augmentative meta-role paradigm

We can formally define the paradigm in this way: the augmentative meta-role paradigm describes the transformation of a base role (‘A’, the triangle) into the base role’s choice of any number of variant roles (‘C’, the set of possible shapes) by virtue of an internal evolution of A made possible by an external evolving agent (‘B’, the arrows transforming A into a member of set C). In our standard meta-role terminology, the base role is the primary role, and the variant role is the secondary role.

There are two distinct-but-similar mechanisms by which the augmentative meta-role paradigm is actuated in “Deus Ex” and “Algernon”: in the former, the mechanism is human augmentation; in the latter, it is intelligence enhancement through neurosurgery. Both are effected by an external party: Adam is mortally wounded and in no position to choose whether or not he wants to be augmented, so Sarif makes the decision for him; Charlie is not intelligent enough to actually understand the implications of what is going to happen to him through the operation, merely saying that he wants to be smart like everyone else so he won’t be lonely, and so the choice is largely left to his teacher and the scientists.[4] In both cases, the base role is enabled through the external evolving agent to develop in a multifarious way: Adam is given license to activate any of the implanted augmentations he desires to evolve himself however he sees fit; Charlie, having been given the enhanced capacity to learn, may absorb whatever information he likes and administer his newfound knowledge in whatever ways he sees fit – ultimately doing so in the tragic irony of scientifically proving that he will lose his newfound intellect. Given the similarity of these two cases, we will examine the finer points of the augmentative meta-role paradigm’s dynamics in the case of each subject, and then synthesize a more general conception of the ways in which the paradigm functions.

Deus ex machina: stealing fire from the gods

How would the gears in the modern political machine respond to the potentials of human-controlled evolution? Square Enix explores that question by presenting a debate set in the home of democratic discourse (The United States of America, Detroit), as well as on a global corporate scale. As one might expect, people’s opinions are immediately polarized between those who want to move forward in human development through augmentation – biomedical corporations and augs – and those who vehemently decry human augmentations as a crude distortion of the natural order of life – lobbying groups such as the Humanity Front, and extremist factions such as Purity First. Each side is represented by a leader who conveys their group’s opinion on humanity: David Sarif, Adam’s boss and head of Sarif Industries, is a progressive aug who is seeking to drive humanity forward with unrestricted human augmentation development; William Taggart, psychologist and de facto leader of the Humanity Front, is seeking to effect rigid restrictions on human augmentation through either U.N. oversight or under-the-table support of the Illuminati bid for more authoritarian control over augmentations; Zeke Sanders is an ex-marine who was augmented to replace an eye lost in war, but, after an incident of augmentation-induced psychosis, tore out his augmentation himself and founded militant anti-augmentation group Purity First as a more direct way of opposing the advancing wave of augmentation. In the midst of all this stands Adam Jensen, the effective interloper between opposing factions.

Adam’s mobility between augmentation factions is stark, and is the main vehicle that justifies the choice placed before him at the game’s end. Adam is the ultimate symbol of augmentation in several ways: he was born as part of a genetic engineering experiment, and it was his extremely resilient DNA which enabled the technology supporting human augmentation to be developed and brought into the mainstream; his own augmentation was chosen by Sarif in Adam’s time of dying. As Adam reiterates several times throughout the game, he “didn’t ask” to be augmented – in point of fact, one private investigator who spent time investigating Adam later tells him that Adam was effectively brought back to life by augmentation. He refers to Adam’s body as a “metal corpse,” calls him a “robot,” and says that Sarif “butchered [him]” by making him a “weapon.” Adam is an interloper by virtue of the fact that on the one hand, he is under the employ of a biomedical industry, yet on the other hand, as his pilot, Malik, says has “every reason to hate augmentations” because of the way in which they were forced upon him. Thus, he has reason to sit in either the pro-augmentation or anti-augmentation group. He may also move between moderate and extremist camps insofar as he is part of the “legitimate business” sector in serving as head of Sarif Industries security, but is also granted extreme leeway in how he goes about getting things done. He may just as easily kill a mob leader in cold blood and stage it to look like a suicide, or plant drugs in the leader’s apartment and let the proper authorities neutralize him.

It is interesting to note the ways in which the game’s avatar mechanics mirror these thematic elements. Drawing from the terms explored at the start of our third treatment, we can describe “Deus Ex” as a first-person, active-avatar game. We noted in our initial definition of these terms that such a setup is an exception to the trend of games being designed either as silent-avatar first-person or active-avatar third-person, and are now in a position to explore how such an exception uniquely defines Adam as an avatar.

Adam is a character compelled to face certain situations based upon external factors – his forced augmentation, his job, the genetic experimentation upon him, and so forth. Adam earns his name by being analogous to the first man: as that Adam was God’s experiment and the root of humanity, so too is our Adam an experiment, the heart of man’s exploration into a new, biomechanical identity. This experimental origin presents Adam with a unique matrix of choices made available to him by parties external to him, but for which choices the locus of control is internal. The actual game dynamics present a strikingly similar situation: Adam is a character with a degree of independence from the player – there are actual scripted, movie-like cutscenes in the game wherein Adam is seen acting from a third-person perspective – yet his path may be directed by the player through choices of directions to take in conversations with NPC’s, methods of completing assignments (e.g., the above-mentioned mob boss), and, of course, the ultimate decision as to how to end the game. In this way, the game recapitulates Adam’s own creation by providing players with certain dimensions of a character, which they may then direct along any path they choose. The methodology of the augmentative meta-role is thereby built into the very fabric of Adam’s reality.

But what choices in particular do Adam’s augmentations, for which he did not ask, allow him do make? The most direct answer is that they enable him to explore his development in far greater depth in whatever area of growth he wishes to pursue. As we have already noted, Sarif went above and beyond the call of duty in outfitting Adam with the latest augmentations after his attack: when he first visits a LIMB clinic, one of the sites set up to perform augmentation surgeries and services augs, he is informed that his implants were designed to activate naturally over time to avoid traumatic after-shock, but that Sarif also made arrangements for Adam to be able to “turn them on manually” over time as he sees fit via Praxis kits, tools available for purchase at clinics or discovery in various places around the world. This leaves it at the player’s discretion to activate and upgrade the augmentations most suitable to his own playing style. The choices of how to proceed is broad: there are cerebral augmentations such as enhanced hacking capabilities; physical augmentations increase such things as stamina for running and armor resilience for greater health; aesthetical augmentations are as wild as dermal armor which refracts light so as to make Adam invisible; and there are such miscellaneous augmentations as the “Icarus landing system,” which allows Adam to fall from any height and land safely, stunning adversaries on his way down. Of course, a player could hypothetically acquire enough Praxis kits to activate and fully upgrade all augmentations (a time-consuming and taxing undertaking), and they would in theory all activate naturally over time; nonetheless, the immediacy of Adam’s quest at hand necessitates a measure of personal choice, meaning that our theory of internally-localized developmental choice still holds. (We can easily see by virtue of a more general example how this logic holds: given enough time, a human could no doubt become a master in every field they could possibly pursue; however, within the confines of the human lifespan, this is infeasible, and so the human must make choices as to which developmental paths they wish to take.) Within this framework, the player is able to explore the game in unique ways based on his own inclinations: if he is aggressive, then he might augment Adam’s health and inventory for as much ammunition as possible and run headfirst into the fray; if he is predisposed towards stealth, he may make Adam invisible and render his footsteps silent even while sprinting, so as to easily slip fast the most heavily-guarded areas.

It is easy to see how such potential advancement gives Adam an enormous advantage over virtually everyone else (even those who are augmented, because they typically only have one or two augmentations due to how expensive they are, whereas Adam has the works – to the point, as previously mentioned, where the P.I. refers to him derisively as a “robot”); yet we can go further and see the sheer magnitude of this advantage by examining one particular augmentation, which we will see is somewhat analogous to Charlie’s situation in “Algernon.” The Computer Assisted Social Interaction Enhancer, or CASIE, is a social enhancement augmentation that allows Adam to chemically analyze people with whom he is conversing, and, at the right moment, release appropriate pheromones (alpha, beta, or omega pheromones) to persuade them to do what he wants. Such an augmentation can be used to extract information from targets, talk someone out of suicide, and convince people to pay him for missions upfront, among other things. With it, Adam is able to easily convince adept psychologist Taggart to give up the location of his aid when it becomes clear that the aid is implicated in the Illuminati conspiracy; with it, Adam is able to convince Darrow to give up the code to shut down Panchaea’s security system by pointing out the fact that the father of augmentation uses a cane – an indicator that he himself was incompatible with the technology, and is partly motivated by bitterness about that. In fact, the only people Adam cannot convince using this software are Malik, who may be similarly augmented, and a rogue private security operative named Zelazny, who was outfitted with similar high-functioning augmentations by the company for which he once worked, Belltower. If Adam tries to use this method to persuade him to turn himself in, Zelazny responds by telling him “It’s a cute little toy you have there, Jensen. But don’t waste your time. Your CASIE won’t work on me.” Malik calls him out on using his software in a similar way. It seems, then, that Adam is only matched in his ability through augmentation by those who are similarly augmented – a fact strongly supportive of the notion that the external augmentative forces exerted upon Adam have literally enabled him to evolve to a point where the rest of humanity is, in a certain way, less able than he is.

This is certainly a significant degree of change, but the game goes further to justify the title’s allusion to the notion of deus ex machina, literally a “god from the machine.” When Adam finds Darrow at Panchaea in the midst of all the chaos he has wrought, Darrow decries humanity by saying that “People believed we should steal fire from the gods and redesign human nature.” These words at first glance seem a bit strong for what we have considered; but Darrow, as the father of this technology, knows the extent of how far it can go, from whence he derives much of his Oppenheimer-esque regret for his own proverbial atom bomb. Darrow understands the depths of his technology’s implications because he has realized its potential in the depths of Panchaea: his fortress’s security system is the deus ex machina of human augmentation.

What is the ultimate formula for a system of control? Such a system much have the knowledge-set of a computer, handling copious amounts of data at once to the point of omnipresence, along with the versatility and creativity of response afforded by the human mind. This is what Darrow has achieved in his stronghold’s security system: when Adam reaches the broadcast center, he finds a room containing an enormous machine – the central hub of the security system. In the center of the room is a column connecting three stasis chrysalides to the machine. Within each pod is a heavily augmented girl bonded to the machine via a “hybrid life support” system. The battle begins when Zhao, a biomedical company’s CEO and the last known surviving Illuminati conspirator, desperately hooks herself up to the system in a bid for control over the broadcasting beacon and all the people receiving it. It is haunting to listen to what the girls are saying during this encounter: before Zhao connects herself, they make such exclamations as the following.

“Who am I?”

“I feel cold.”

“I don’t remember.”

“Oh God, please help me, I’m scared.”

Zhao connects herself, trying to assume a god-like role as the ultimate god-from-the-machine, and the girls respond.

“So much pain.”

*Visceral scream*

“Shut this thing off!”

[Yet soon, as the battle proceeds, their responses change in kind.]

“No! Protect mother! Stay away!”

“Why does he want to kill us?”

“Kill him.”

“No more pain! Please. Keep him away from us!”


“Vital signs… normal? No, this is not normal.”

To defeat the system, Adam must first kill the external, mechanical defense turrets, then open the pods, kill each of the girls in turn, and finally strike Zhao herself, elevated and bound by mechanical chords in a disturbingly Christ-like fashion to the system. But what is the nature of the system itself?

The girls provide the answer to this question. At no moment do they come off as malicious, vindictive, or sadistic – in fact, they radiate innocence, which is perhaps why Darrow comes off as guilty when warning Adam about the defense system that “thinks for itself,” and telling him how to shut it down. The girls seem afraid, having lost their identity in the overarching sentience of the machine. They directly express their desire for the machine to be shut off because of the pain it is causing them; yet a shift soon occurs when Zhao connects and they imprint upon her as their mother. This emotional dimension to the machine allows them to bond with Zhao in opposition to Adam, their aggressor. Yet Zhao proves inadequate as a mother figure, because she seeks to manipulate the machine for her own egoistic benefits, and has no desire to protect or foster its human element; thus the girls are not relieved of their suffering in any way, and helplessly ask their “mother” “where [the light is].” Thus, the very humanity which renders the machine a god also renders it imperfect: its mechanical aspect robs its human component of identity, and Zhao is unwilling to appease the human aspect because she is using the system as she would any other machine, seeing herself as the only human interface. When she is finally bested, she is literally incinerated by the energy of the system coursing through her body, proving her own being inadequate for the system. In this way, the methodology of augmentation taken to its extreme, wherein the difference between human and machine is inscrutable, is shown to be a truly terrifying force: the system is self-contained and terribly powerful in that it destroys Zhao, but also deeply pained and scared in its human sense of lacking identity. It craves fulfillment that cannot be humanly found because someone who could serve a human role, like Zhao, is insufficient because the system’s machine qualities interface with her before its human qualities ever can.

We see, too, in the story’s periphery, the plights of those less fortunate than Adam, whose bodies reject augmentation implants in a potentially lethal reaction, who are then forced to rely for the rest of their lives upon a drug called ‘neuropozyne’ to stave off rejection symptoms. In much the same way that drug addicts turn to crime and underground operations to get a fix, these people often deal for neuropozyne in the dark because of its price tag. We also saw the way in which Zeke Zanders violently rejected augmentation after his own induced psychosis, at which point he attempted “suicide by cop” before William Taggart talked him down. Considering this in conjunction with Darrow’s security system, we see the augmentative methodology presented in “Deus Ex” as bookended by two horrifying extremes: on one side, visceral rejection of augmentation, threatening the subject’s life and sanity; on the other, perfect fusion with the machine, destroying the subject’s humanity by irreparably handicapping their capacity to relate to their own human qualities, or the humanity of others. We must also not forget that even those augs who are happily in the middle of this spectrum were susceptible to the madness invoked by Darrow’s mind-controlling signal. Adam, then, appears to sit in the perfect balance of an augmentative paradigm which, under certain circumstances, can be wildly evolutionary, but, in many other circumstances, can destroy one’s very fabric of being from the inside out.

The Other Charlie: “I can’t help feeling that I’m not me”

If we could enhance the intellect of the mentally handicapped to genius levels, ought we to do so? This is the exposition at the heart of “Flowers for Algernon,” where a man not intelligent enough to understand the world around him is thrust headfirst into it by an operation designed to revolutionize I.Q.

The crucial distinction between the evolutionary potentiation of Charlie and Adam is that whereas Adam, essentially dead, was not in a position to choose what became of him at all, Charlie was fully conscious, rendered naïve by virtue of his mental deficiency. As mentioned earlier, Charlie is aware and eager of the opportunity to become smarter through the surgery, but in an innocent way that does not grasp the implications of what would actually happen to him. Charlie clarifies this after the operation, when he is confused as to the lack of immediate change within him, and Dr. Strauss tries to explain to him how the operation worked.

Charlie: Am I smart?

Strauss: That’s not the way it works. It comes slowly and you have to work very hard to get smart.

Charlie: Then whut did I need the operation for?

Strauss: So that when you learn something, it sticks with you. Not the way it was before.

Charlie (disappointed): Oh. I thought I’d be smart right away so I could go back an’ show my frien’s at the bakery… an’ talk smart things with ‘em… like how the president makes dumb mistakes an’ all… If you’re smart, you have lotsa frien’s to talk to an’ you never get lonely by yourself all the time.[5]

Charlie, then, is in a position to “consent” to his evolutionary potentiation, but not from a competent mindset – such a mindset would only emerge after his intelligence was enhanced. The choice he made, therefore, while certainly a real one, could only be understood by him on an integrated level after he shifted (to use augmentative role terminology) from a state of base role to actuated role. After this brief state of enlightenment, he returns to his original state of intellect, and the integrated conception of his change again eludes him – we see that Charlie’s final progress report reflects this lack of understanding.

I did a dumb thing today. I fergot I wasn’ in Miss Kinnian’s class any more. So I went and sat in my old seat… an’ she looked at me funny… an’ I said, “Hello, Miss Kinnian. I’m ready fer the lesson on’y I lost the book we was usin’”… an’ Miss Kinnian… she start in to cry – isn’ that funny? – an’ ran out. Then I remember I was operationed an’ I got smart… an’ I said, Holy smoke, I pulled a real Charlie Gordon.[6]

In Charlie’s ultimate regression to his base role state, he forgets about the relationship he established with his teacher, Alice Kinnian, at his intellectual peak, reverting to his original submissive-student relationship to her. He reverts to his original simplified conception of how his intelligence-operation was meant to work, and his own conception of himself as mentally challenged, for which his cruel coworkers termed doing something stupid “pulling a Charlie Gordon.”[7] The case of Charlie Gordon illustrates an important point: one undergoing the evolutionary process of the augmentative role paradigm cannot comprehensively conceive of the evolutionary path connecting base role to variant role, unless one is currently operating as a variant role. This point was not as apparent in “Deus Ex” because Adam never “regressed” from being augmented, but we could presume it to be equally true – after all, it would have been virtually impossible for Adam to have conceived of such abilities as the CASIE without having first experienced it, thereby being in a state of variant role.

Such an isolation of understanding between base role and variant role suggests a stark stratification of self – one at which we have already hinted by means of our evolution-based terminology, but which “Algernon” explicates in even greater detail. The further Charlie evolves, and the closer he draws to his inevitable return to his mentally impaired state, the more he is haunted by the image of himself as a teenager, whom he calls “the other Charlie.”[8] This ‘other Charlie’ appears before Charlie as the psychical representation of who he once was, brought into more dramatic relief by Charlie’s increasing memory of his traumatic childhood experiences, growing up with a family who dealt terribly with his condition. In the throes of his increasing emotional instability, he explains this situation in vivid detail to Alice. The scene begins by his landlady coming to check in on him, mentioning how she saw him the previous night fumbling outside his apartment, behaving “like he was a little boy,” which we recognize as his reenactment of his childhood. Alice, upon hearing this, asks if this is why Charlie called her after ignoring her for a long time.

Charlie: I called because I wanted to see you. I didn’t remember… that. But I’m not surprised. He wants to get out. The other Charlie wants to get out.

Alice: Don’t talk like that.

Charlie: It’s true. He’s watching me. Ever since that night at the concert. That’s why I couldn’t see you. I was afraid of seeing him.

Alice: That isn’t real, Charlie. You’ve built it up in your mind.

Charlie: I can’t help feeling I’m not me. I’ve usurped his place and locked him out… the way they locked me out of the bakery. What I mean is, that Charlie exists in the past, but the past is real… so he exists… It’s Charlie, the little boy who’s afraid of women because of things his mother did to him, that comes between us.[9]

The separation of Charlie across two forms underscores the incompatibility of the base role (Charlie pre-operation and post-regression) with the variant role (Charlie post-operation, pre-regression). The difference between the two is not one of circumstance, but rather one of fundamental quality.

Beyond Charlie’s personal turmoil, he provides us with insight into the the augmentative meta-role paradigm’s dynamics in his world: his “life’s work” is a scientific paper on exactly this, which he names the “Algernon-Gordon Effect,” after himself and the mouse, Algernon, who was part of the same experiment and who serves as Charlie’s mirror image throughout his developmental journey. The hypothesis of the paper is as follows: “artificially induced intelligence deteriorates at a rate of time directly proportional to the quantity of the increase.”[10] This hypothesis explains why mice whose intelligence was simply made average through experimentation maintained that intellect throughout their lifespan, whereas Charlie and Algernon had no such hope.[11] The report itself is never explicated, but we may posit several ideas as to how this hypothesis comes to be. Perhaps the most likely explanation is the fact that such artificially induced intelligence actually impairs the subject by virtue of its not being accompanied with comparable emotional growth. Strauss explains this situation to Charlie in therapy when Charlie intimates to him that he no longer finds any joy in working at the bakery, which was his job prior to the operation.

Charlie: …why don’t I enjoy working there anymore, Doctor?

Strauss: Why? You tell me.

Charlie: … They ignore me… No, it’s more. Joe, Frank, they’re… hostile to me. I thought they’d be happy for me [about my intelligence]. They’re supposed to be my friends. It takes the pleasure out of all of this. Why?

Strauss: The more intelligent you become, the more problems you’ll have.

Charlie: Why didn’t you tell me that before the operation?

Strauss: Would you have understood? (Charlie doesn’t answer.) Your intellectual growth is going to outstrip your emotional growth, so, there will be problems. That’s why I’m here.[12]

Such raw intellect without the social skill to handle it with others or emotional skill to handle it within himself marks Charlie as a pariah in the bakery, renders any real human relationship viciously difficult, and leads him to be haunted by “the other Charlie” seeking his body’s return to him. Contrary to the image of Adam as one who can only be enhanced through augmentation, Charlie’s evolution also seems to serve as his Achilles’ heel by rendering his unenhanced dimensions inadequate to his new life.

Another possible explanation for the Algernon-Gordon effect is the sheer influx of information assimilated as a result of operation. The operation only makes Charlie “smart” insofar as it allows him to retain all the information with which he is presented. This is exemplified by one instance in which he read War and Peace in a single night.[13] Such an enhanced capacity suggests an almost inevitable overload: particularly given the inequity of overall development, as described above, it seems highly unlikely that a partly-enhanced subject would be able to sustain so dramatic a transformation permanently.

“Algernon,” we see, also defines an evolutionary capacity within certain bounds, though these bounds are somewhat different from those defined in “Deus Ex.” Whereas “Deus Ex” defined augmentative success as a spetrum of human-machine relationship between total rejection and total fusion, “Algernon” defines it as successful within moderation: that any true qualitative evolution, in the absence evolving the subject holistically, is fated to decay over time. Thus, while both suggest augmentative moderation as the key to success, the former suggests it within a framework of the base role’s level of association with the evolving agent (i.e., the human/machine relationship), whereas the latter suggests it within a framework of level of difference between the base role and resultant variant role. The overarching theme seems to be that the augmentative paradigm is most effective when moderate changes are made between the base role and variant role – so, to return to our graphical representation of the paradigm, a moderate change, such as changing a triangle into a quadrilateral, would be the most viable sort of augmentation.

Synthesis: Pragmatic Evolution

Considering the somewhat bleak admonitions of our subjects in this treatment, it might be refreshing to step back for a moment and immerse ourselves instead in a positive, realistic application of this very role-playing paradigm: the implementation of role playing in psychotherapy.

In his book on the subject, Corsini advocates for the therapist’s use of role-playing in a myriad of circumstances: in individual therapy or group therapy, for the purpose of either diagnosing the patient, teaching the patient by allowing them to observe a role-played scenario, or training the patient to alter behavior and self-perception through role-playing exercises. Corsini has useful insights on all of these means of therapeutically employing role-playing, but we will only examining its use in individual therapy for the purpose of training; we limit ourselves to this lens because, as we shall see, this particular use of role-playing perfectly mirrors our established augmentative framework, while shedding new light on some of its finer points.

Corsini defines role-playing in a psychotherapeutic training context as “a process of making inner gains, in insight and empathy, generalizations and motivations, self-confidence and peace of soul, and all of the usual subjective states of ‘mind,’ through peripheral, i.e., actional processes.”[14] The understanding is that there is a two-way street between one’s behavior and one’s self-concept, Corsini’s term for the “kind of superordinate conception of self which enable the individual to function harmoniously and predictably.”[15] He sees role-playing as an ideal psychotherapeutic tool because “the therapist and assistants can manipulate the situation to create a peak type of experience in which considerable emotionalism will be displayed. This ‘breaking of the log jam’ is invariably followed by insights and usually by feelings of comfort and behavioral changes.”[16] He supports his methodology by such examples as a small boy (‘George’) in a delinquent school, constantly beaten up, who was given a safe space in psychotherapeutic role-playing group to act intimidating and have everyone else be terrified of him. He began raining (pretend) blows upon them, and afterwards – outside of therapy – was more self-assertive to the point where he was no longer beaten up.[17] “[George’s] assumption in therapy of a role,” writes, Corsini, “though it only lasted ten minutes, that was contradictory to his self-concept, must have so shaken his self-concept that it changed into the notion: I don’t have to be afraid of others. It didn’t matter that what actually occurred in the therapy room was only play-acting. It was a veridical experience for George who grasped a new concept of himself, and changed the structure of all his thinking and behaving as a result of this one concept.”[18]

We have here a situation wherein a person’s actual conception of self is changed through an artificial-yet-veridical role-playing environment, orchestrated by a therapist serving as a “director,”[19] with the intent of making inner gains through actions which can generalize to overall observations of self. If there is any doubt remaining as to whether or not the augmentative paradigm is at work, we need only consider the therapist who directs the role playing: as Corsini says, “on the one hand [the patient] generally admires and trusts the therapist, and tends to get in a dependent relationship to various degrees; but on the other hand he resents the manipulation that the therapist engages in.”[20] This is the exact description we would expect of an external evolutionary agent, who must guide the developmental process of his subject in a way the subject cannot understand until he has evolved – the subject naturally trusts the agent’s judgment, because it is that capacity of the agent to change the subject for the better for which the subject first approached the agent for therapy; yet resentment must also linger to a degree based on the fact that the methods employed by the agents necessarily go “over the subject’s head” to some degree. We saw this resentment present in the cases of Adam and Charlie as well.

Corsini’s examples suggest that role-playing as training in psychotherapy can truly do patients good by shaking the foundation of their self-concept and liberating them from old patterns of behavior – changing their understanding of “self,” that is, in a shockingly abrupt manner. Such change, of course, cannot occur in such a way that a single session of role-playing therapy would be sufficient. Corsini gives a fitting example of this in the patient who had difficulty communicating with friends, strangers, and authority figures in situations of trivia, conflict, or where he wants something. This problem was confronted by role-playing all nine combinations of person with whom he is interacting and type of conversation being had.[21] Such a comprehensive ironing-out of every facet of behavior in order to evolve one’s self-concept seems to be in direct response to the issues of incomplete evolution by augmentation raised in “Algernon.” The issue of the base role’s relationship to the evolving agent is not directly addressed, but is opaquely resolved in the considerations of the immediacy of change effected by this role-playing device. Thus, it seems less likely that the subject would develop either a particularly dependent or adverse relationship to the tool itself, because the length of time needed for it to be effective can be as small as a handful of minutes. This, of course, does not negate the fact that role-playing will be more useful in some situations than others; nonetheless, it provides a positive, pragmatic context for consideration of how the augmentative meta-role paradigm might be beneficially implemented.

It is clear in light of this that the augmentative role paradigm can empower a subject by allowing them to determine their own self-concept. Though the paradigm is effected by an external body, that external body in this case serves only to empower the subject to change and evolve himself as he wishes. One might say that therapists are able to mold their patients as they see fit; but, ethically speaking, they may only work to change the patients in the way that the patients wish to see themselves change. So it was with Adam and Sarif, and so did it glaringly fail to be with Charlie. The augmentative meta-role paradigm, misused, can undoubtedly throw its subject into a state of internal disarray, which is why the onus on the evolving agent to enable the base role’s growth into variation in a balanced manner is so great; yet, properly implemented, this may be the most progressive meta-role paradigm yet conceived. As Sarif asks Adam pointedly before the final confrontation at Panchaea, “Would you have been able to do any of the things you did without augmentations?”

[1] “Flowers for Algernon,” Act II.

[2] The four endings vary slightly depending upon whether the player has played through making virtuous choices, malicious choices, or neutral choices; but this variance is much more subtle than that of “Dishonored,” and the primary distinction of endings is the breakdown of four choices enumerated here.

[3] We cannot ignore that the audience’s responses also serve to condition the actors – something considered in Appendix B. For now, as we are concerned with the initial formation of the reality, we are necessarily operating within a pre-audience production context, and therefore will not consider them.

[4] “Algernon,” Act I.

[5] Ibid, Act I.

[6] Ibid, Act II.

[7] Ibid, Act I.

[8] Ibid, Act II.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, Act I.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Role Playing in Psychotherapy, p. 91.

[15] Ibid, p. 21.

[16] Ibid, p. 102-103.

[17] Ibid, p. 22-24.

[18] Ibid, p. 24-25.

[19] Ibid, p. 41. Corsini’s treatment of the psychotherapist as a director draws a direct, completely appropriate parallel to the stage.

[20] Ibid, p. 92-93.

[21] Ibid, p. 95-102.

“Aerith Is Gone”: Perma-Death in Games

-by Nathan Randall, Featured Author.

Aerith's Death

I’d be remiss to discuss death in video games without mentioning Aerith’s death in Final Fantasy VII.  It’s regarded as one of the most impactful scenes of one of the greatest video games of all time, and there’s good reason for it.  The moment is pivotal plot-wise, turns an already terrifying villain, Sephiroth, into something much more, and is tender and poignant all the same.  But something else happens in this moment when Could lays Aerith to rest forever, which can only be achieved in a video game — and this ties back into our discussion of capacity, the ability and degree to which the player can act within the world of a game (see my last article for a more involved exploration of capacity).

Screen Shot 2015-05-23 at 9.38.47 PM

In order to understand why Aerith’s death is so compelling, we first must understand how death typically works in video games.  Death of major characters in stories is actually quite common in video games, especially mid-battle.  But these deaths are completely non-consequential outside of the context of an individual battle, since you can revive your characters both during the battle and afterwards.  Many battle systems in games lead to fairly frequent character death, so you get fairly accustomed to it as a player.  I’ve played many Final Fantasy games where during late game boss battles my party looks something like this:

Battlefield Death

And you’re not really worried about it too much, because you know that, as soon as the fight’s over, you can just revive all of your dead party members.  One might object that this kind of death in battle is actually a non-trivial kind of narrative event, since this is a part of game mechanics through which the narrative is conveyed.  However, we can see that this sort of death really is trivial by comparing it with our conception of death in real life:  death is by nature a permanent thing, from which one cannot return.  So death in this context within video games doesn’t represent the reality of death — and in this way, it makes a typically serious concept trivial.

In contrast to death being a trivial event in gaming, a few notable games decided to make any character death in a game permanent.   I use the term ‘Perma-Death’ to pick out instances in video games of death that mimics the permanency of death in real life. One example of a franchise that uses Perma-Death is Fire Emblem. Fire Emblem, which is primarily a military strategy game,features large amounts of playable characters; if any of these characters die during battle, they are truly gone forever.  And these deaths are always the player’s fault.  You can (and in my opinion, should) play the game with no character death.  But, if you mess up, they bid you farewell, die, and then the game goes on, except you can no longer use that character.  They are dead in the way that we would expect someone in real life to be dead.

Death in "Fire Emblem"

This ended up being an amazing decision on the part of the developers of Fire Emblem, Nintendo.  The game mechanic is awesome in terms of gameplay, since it makes all of the battles immensely harder:  you only have a limited number of playable characters in the first place, so the game ends up being a constant tactical balance of winning the fight and keeping your characters alive and well.  The Perma-Death game mechanic actually changes the narrative of the game.  What would be a game simply about tactics and war without Perma-Death becomes a story about careful planning and tending to your troops.  The narrative becomes more stressful, since you personally feel responsible for all your troops.

Let’s dive a little deeper into this concept of responsibility.  In most Fire Emblem games, you play as a completely silent tactician, to whom every unit under your command listens unflinchingly.  This means that you, the player, are solely responsible for the fate of these units.  If a character dies, then you allowed them to die; this is true because their death is not a necessary part of the overall game structure (unlike Aerith’s death).  You know that, if a character dies, that you could have finished the mission with a strategy that doesn’t lead to their death.  All responsibility for their fate lies on you, the player.

This makes each individual character’s death more meaningful, since you, the player, personally know that there was something you could have done to save them.  If you allow the character to die without retrying the level, then you have to play the rest of the game with that weight on your shoulders.  The power of the mechanic has actually made it too stressful for me to play at times.

So now let’s turn our attention back to Final Fantasy, a game series that historically does not make use of the PermaDeath mechanic.  By way of summary for those who are unfamiliar with the game, the primary antagonist, Sephiroth, kills Aerith, one of the two love interests of Cloud, at roughly a third of the way through the game.  The aspect of the scene that I’d like to focus on is what Cloud says in response to her death, and how the designers then masterfully use game mechanics to make Cloud’s response visceral and real for the player, such that they can truly feel the loss of a loved one along with Cloud.

So what does Cloud say?  Holding Aerith dead in his arms, Cloud exclaims, “Aerith is gone.  Aerith will no longer talk, no longer laugh, cry… or get angry…  What about us…  What are we supposed to do?  What about my pain?”

Cloud mourning Aerith

Cloud is lamenting her death.  He is exclaiming that what just happened was not a joke; it wasn’t fake.  Aerith is really dead.   And not only that, but Cloud is also trying to understand how he’s supposed to move forward and continue to live and act even with a friend gone.  The stroke of genius on the part of Square, the game’s developer, was how they managed to transfer this sense of loss from the virtual Cloud, to the real player.

For those of you who are more familiar with the game, you may note that I take it for granted here that Aerith is truly gone after her death.  But the game does allude to the possibility that she is still alive in some capacity after her death in a spiritual way in the “life stream.”  I will go into this possibility next time in my discussion of narrative dissonance.  But, for the sake of this article, I assume that Aerith is indeed completely dead in an existential sense, because this appears to be the reality for Cloud.

In a game that usually trivializes death—where characters often die and are resurrected during battle—the power in terms of game mechanics regarding Aerith’s death is that it is a case of Perma-Death.  And she has no replacement either:  one of your playable characters disappears from the game structure.  Unlike Lavitz and Cait Sith, from Legend of the Dragoon and Final Fantasy VII respectively (see my previous article), who are immediately replaced in the game by characters that are almost identical mechanically after they die, Aerith has no character analogue that appears after she dies.  The player’s capacity changes drastically after Aerith’s death.  It’s the changes in capacity that make a permanent death in a game poignant.  Three of these changes make the player’s sense of loss at her death visceral.

  1. Aerith can fully develop as a character to the same degree as every other character in the game before her death.
  2. She has abilities that no other character in the game has.
  3. She truly is unplayable after her death.

All of this is to say that after Aerith’s death, the player’s capacity has decreased dramatically.  The player’s literally loss easily leads to a feeling of loss.

Let’s start with Point 1.  Each playable character in Final Fantasy VII has two unique “ultimate” powers.  One is the character’s most powerful weapon that exists in the game, and the other is the character’s most powerful “limit break,” or most powerful attack.  More often than not, players do not concern themselves with either of these elements until the main story of the game is over, and they want to explore the rest of the large amount of additional content.  This is largely due to the fact that these elements cannot usually be found until late in the game.  So one would think that, since Aerith dies only one third of the way through the game, she wouldn’t have either a top-tier limit break or an ultimate weapon; but, even though the player is unlikely to be looking for them at that point in the game, they both exist.  The game features an ultimate weapon for Aerith is called “Princess Guard” that is actually more powerful than Cloud’s ultimate weapon.  The same situation is true for her limit break, called “Great Gospel.”  It is listed on the same tier level, and is as powerful as every other character’s top-tier limit break (if not, once again, more powerful).  Unlike the ultimate powers of the rest of the characters in the game, Aerith’s can be acquired prior to her death.  The equivalent items for other characters do not become available until later in the game, well after her death.  Aerith can actually become more powerful than every other character in the game before she dies.

So you can see that  Aerith can indeed become a fully developed character before her death, and by that fact alone she becomes unique..  She’s the only character with limit breaks that heal your other party members, as well.  But the most readily observable bit of uniqueness is that Aerith quite simply has the highest magic stat in the game.  She is better with spells than every other character.  This makes her a huge asset in the parts of the game where she is alive.

But once she dies, she is simply gone.  And her death is inevitable.  Unlike Fire Emblem, you cannot beat the game without her untimely death.  When she dies, her ultimate weapon disappears; you can’t use her limit break.  And your most powerful magic user is nowhere to be found.  You spend the rest of the game astounded at the acute absence of a playable character and one of Cloud’s closest friends.  The game doesn’t just tell you that there is loss—the game makes you feel loss.  When she dies, your ability to act in the game world decreases.  Not only does Cloud express to you his grief, you’re led to really feel it.  These are the kinds of details that separate Final Fantasy VII from the multitude of run-of-the-mill games.  These are the details that can make video games powerful.


Nathan Randall is a featured author at With a Terrible Fate.  Check out his bio to learn more.

“You are not Stanley”: Cyranoids in “The Stanley Parable.”

In 1897, Frenchman Edmond Rostand wrote a play entitled “Cyrano de Bergerac.” The play told a story which has since been retold in various other plays and films: an eloquent man (Cyrano) who is in love with a woman, but who finds himself too ugly to suit her (in particular, he is ashamed of his long nose), instead woos her by feeding lines of his own poetry through one of his more handsome but less eloquent friends – essentially using his friend as a puppet for his own affections. Confusion ensues when this leads to the damsel falling in love with the man’s friend, as opposed to the man himself.

Cyrano de Bergerac

This story has impacted more than literature alone. In the 20th century, one psychologist, a Doctor Milgram, was well known for his controversial experiments on deference to authority (the infamous “Milgram experiments”); what Milgram was less known for was theory developed at the end of his life, which was directly related to the plot of “Cyrano.” Milgram hypothesized that people could not tell the difference between conversing with an ordinary person, and conversing with someone whose speech was transmitted to them by a third party. This latter kind of situation exactly mirrors the plot of the play; in reference to the play, Milgram termed a person whose speech originates somewhere other than their nervous system a ‘cyranoid’. For current purposes, I expand this definition to ‘an entity whose actions originate somewhere external to themselves’.  (You can read more on this in a very well-crafted 2014 Wired article on the subject of cyranoids.)

Milgram did not have the opportunity in his own life to conduct a large amount of research into the dynamics of cyranoids; however, since Milgram’s time, studies conducted since then (such as Corti & Gillespie 2014) have suggested that Milgram’s hypothesis was right: people seem unable to distinguish cyranoids from ordinary people.  This is the reason, for example, why unwitting participants in ABC’s hidden camera show, “Repeat After Me,” watch celebrities do and say whatever the show’s host (Wendi McLevon-Covey) tells them to do through a remote earpiece, without ever once doubting that the celebrities are acting and speaking genuinely.

Research in cyranoids is still wanting in terms of scientific data; however, there is another entirely distinct field in which cyranoids have substantial potential utility: the aesthetics of video games (in particular, I refer to narrative-driven video games).

The most general way in which cyranoids hold potential for game aesthetics is that, at first pass, it seems that most video games provide explicit cases of cyranoids. This is because of the avatar-player relationship: the player dictates the avatar’s actions, by definition of what it means for a character to be an avatar. In light of this, Milgram’s theory gives us a robust way of understanding just what sort of entity an avatar is: an avatar is an instance of a cyranoid. This also gives us a potential way into analyzing the relationship between avatars and NPCs: in light of how humans have been shown to behave around cyranoids, we might be able to point to cyranoid dynamics as the theoretical grounds for why NPCs treat avatars as “just another person” in their world, despite avatars being ontologically different from NPCs.

This general mode of analysis will take significant fleshing out, which is outside the scope of this paper. Presently, I wish to demonstrate the analytic utility of cyranoids by showing how they shed insight on the narrative dynamics on a well-known game that is explicitly concerned with how narrative functions in games: this is “The Stanley Parable” (Davey Wreden, 2011).
The Stanley Parable

“The Stanley Parable” tells the deceptively simple story of a man, Stanley, who arrives at his office job one day to find all of his fellow employees missing. The game is voiced over by a narrator, who describes what Stanley is doing at each moment in the story, as well as what he is going to do next. The player, controlling Stanley from a first-person perspective, has the choice of either acquiescing to the narrator’s description of what Stanley is going to do next, or of doing something different. For example, there is a point in the game at which Stanley encounters a door on his left and a door on his right. At this juncture the narrator says that “Stanley went through the door on the right”; the player, then, can either acquiesce by directing Stanley through the left door, or contradict the narration by directing Stanley through the right door. When the player contradicts the narrator, he will initially try to recalibrate the narrative such that Stanley still arrives at the conclusion that the narrator had in mind; however, should the player continue disobeying, it will be impossible to return to the narrative’s story, and he will express his mounting frustration as the game evolves in all sorts of ways that he did not desire.

Ultimately, “Stanley” is a game that is explicitly concerned with problems of choice and the linearity of game narratives. Immense as these subjects are, there are many possible tacks to take in analyzing the game as an aesthetic and argumentative piece. What I now wish to show is that one particularly efficient and useful way into the game’s dynamics is to analyze its narrative as a conflict between three distinct conceptions of Stanley as a cyranoid: Stanley controlled by the narrator; Stanley controlled by the player; and Stanley controlled by the game designer.

One of the useful tools offered by Corti & Gillespie 2014 is a compact notation for describing cyranoids, of which I will avail myself in this analysis. The notation is as follows: a cyranoid, in which the actions some agent x are dictated by some third party y, is defined as {[x] y}. So, for example, the three competing conceptions of Stanley that I just picked out are codified as {[Stanley] Narrator}, {[Stanley] Player}, and {[Stanley] Game Designer}, respectively.

It is useful before turning to “Stanley” to consider how cyranoid dynamics function in other storytelling media, such as films and novels. It is clear enough that there exists no analogue in these media to the {[Avatar] Player} cyranoid that I pointed to as a typical feature of video games; we assume, unless explicitly shown otherwise (cf. Cyrano de Bergeron), that the actions of character in a story are not dictated by another character. However, there is another type of cyranoid that is virtually ubiquitous in these media, and which is so obvious that there is usually no point in noting it: the narrator of a given narrative determines the actions of characters as conceived within that narrative. So characters in these media are cyranoids of the form {[Character] Narrator}.

I will dwell for a moment on this last claim, because it is easy to doubt its veracity if one fails to parse ‘as conceived within that narrative’ correctly. Many narratives depend on the notion of an unreliable narrator, on whom the reader cannot depend for an accurate account of the events that are described within the narrative. In light of this, one might object that it cannot be the case that the narrator determines the actions of characters within a narrative in the way required of cyranoids. But what I am referring to by the ‘character’ in {[Character] Narrator} is the semantic complex resembling a particular entity within the narrative that is being told by a narrator. If there is some notion of objective truth in play, then it may well be that the narrative in question is untrue if the narrator is unreliable. However, this has no bearing on the status of the character as conceived by the narrative itself; it only has ramifications for the truth-value of the narrative and its constituents in relation to objective truth. So, saying that the narrator of a given narrative determines the actions of characters as conceived within that narrative is merely claiming that the actions of a character constructed within a narrator’s narrative are determined by that selfsame narrative, which is the product of the narrator. It is easy to read too far into this claim because, as I said, the claim is typically too trivial to bear mention.

The {[Character] Narrator} cyranoid becomes non-trivial when we turn to “The Stanley Parable” – in fact, part of what makes the game so interesting is that is underscores this concept and makes it nontrivial. The narrator of “Stanley” has a linear storyline formulated, which he is presumably aiming to recount to an audience – viz., the game begins by the narrator delivering the start of a story over a cutscene, which perfectly coheres with his descriptions; it makes sense that the narrator would expect the remainder of the story to progress in this way. The narrator, in other words, expects the {[Character] Narrator} dynamic to hold as in traditional narratives. This is the first of the three competing conceptions of Stanley: {[Stanley] Narrator}.

The problem with this conception of Stanley is that video games integrate choice and possibility in ways that traditional narratives don’t, as manifest in the relationship between player and avatar. The ability for the player to choose different ways to direct an avatar through the world frustrates any conception of narrative as a single, fixed path from a beginning to a conclusion. This peculiar dynamic of video games is what I described earlier as the {[Avatar] Player} cyranoid, and in this case is the second competing conception of Stanley: {[Stanley] Player}.

The conflict between the first and second conceptions of Stanley describes the friction of traditional storytelling in the medium of video games. We typically suppose in stories that the actions of characters are determined by some third party – a character with genuine free will, after all, would not function so much as a semantic component of a story, but rather as a genuine, living being. In this way, characters are always some type of cyranoid, narratologically speaking. But the question of who gets to determine the actions of characters is complicated by video games, and a tension emerges that is not present in other media. On the one hand, a typical narrative seems to require some kind of definite story arc, which would imply the {[Character] Narrator} framework of cyranoids; on the other hand, the person engaging a video game is explicitly able to control at least one character – the avatar – and this leads to a {[Avatar] Player} framework. When the character that we are analyzing is the avatar, we have a problem: two different entities, the player and narrator, are in a position to control the actions of the same character.

The conflict can be formalized using a model of game narrative that I call ‘narrative three-space’. The broad idea is that, because narrative-driven games have a main plot as well as a variety of sidequests and other things for the player to explore, we need three axes in order to represent the course of a video game narrative.  This can be graphically represented as follows.

Narrative Three-Space

In this model, the game’s narrative begins at the origin, (0, 0, 0). The z-axis describes progress in the main plot of the game, concluding at some maximal z-value, which typically represents the point at which the game’s credits roll. The (x, y) plane represents what I call the ‘exploratory domain’, which encompasses all actions the player can take that do not advance the game’s main plot. A point, which I label ‘lambda’, describes the current position of the avatar in the game’s narrative. The game’s narrative proceeds by the player relocating lambda by one of the vectors available to them at that position in the three-space, each of which represents a different available choice in the game’s narrative (so, for instance, a player may be able, at some point, to either battle a boss, pursue part of a sidequest, or start a different sidequest) Each point in the three-space represents a narrative event in the game. Given this narrative space, a playthrough of a given game is described by the path of lambda, as directed by the player, from the origin to the maximum z-value of the three-space.

Returning to “The Stanley Parable,” we can describe its narrative three-space in the following terms: the narrative dictated by the narrator is the ‘main plot’, represented by the z-axis. Every narrative that results from the player disobeying the narrator is a distinct path through the exploratory domain, described by vectors which have only x and y components (that is to say, they do not advance the main plot). Notice two things about this framework. First, the formalization makes clear that “Stanley” inverts the narrative structure of most video games: whereas the narratives of most video games are anchored by the main plot, which the player ultimately aims to see through to its conclusion, the majority of narrative in “Stanley” comes from avoiding the main plot. Second, this allows us to schematize the conflict between the {[Stanley] Narrator} concept and {[Stanley] Player} concept like so: the game highlights a conflict between lambda (i.e., Stanley) being guided by vectors with z-components, thereby advancing the main plot, and vectors with exclusively (x, y) components, advancing without regard to the main plot. This is a precise account of how “The Stanley Parable” pits traditional storytelling and video game storytelling against each other: linear storytelling is at odds with choice mechanics because the multidimensionality of an exploratory domain necessarily eschews any potential for a narrative that is perfectly linear. Put another way, the dynamics show that the kinds of strictly deterministic linearity we have been discussing and genuine agency on the part of the player are mutually exclusive.

The Phone

In one of the possible 19 endings to “The Stanley Parable”, the player “breaks the game” by making a choice that was supposed to be impossible within the context of the narrative: trapped in a room with a ringing phone, which Stanley supposedly must answer, the player instead directs Stanley to disconnect the phone. This leads the narrator to acknowledge the player directly, saying to her, “You are not Stanley!” This is the crux of the conflict between {[Stanley] Narrator} and {[Stanley] Player}: the narrator assumes he is describing a character, a complex semantic unit, the actions of which are entirely determined by the narrative; but in fact, as the narrator realizes in this outcome, he is interacting with an agent external to the world of the game, who imbues this character with the ability to choose whether or not to follow the narrator’s narrative.

The Museum

The preceding dynamics alone would suffice for a game with insightful meta-commentary about video game aesthetics; however, “The Stanley Parable” goes one step further by also inviting the player to consider the fact that it is the product of game designers. In another possible ending, Stanley is taken to a pristine museum with vaulted ceilings, transported away from the narrator moments before Stanley’s death. A different voice poses a question to the player: “When every path you can walk has been created for you long in advance, death becomes meaningless, making life the same. Do you see now? Do you see that Stanley was already dead from the moment he hit start?” The exhibits in the museum are various pictures and stories from the real-world development of “The Stanley Parable”: concept art, early beta versions of various endings, snippets of narrator speech that were ultimately discarded, and so forth. After the interlude in the museum, the narrative returns to the moment immediately preceding Stanley’s death, and the voice implores the player to make “[her] only true choice”: quitting the game. This is our way into the third conception of Stanley as a cyranoid: {[Stanley] Game Designer}.

I have said that, as we can see by the narrative three-space, the player is able to make choices that lead Stanley to diverge from the narrator’s linear narrative; however, the choices available to the player are not unlimited. The totality of the game’s narrative, as represented by the three-space, is the product of the team that developed the game (I gloss the entire team as “Game Designer” in analysis); the Game Designer also codes the set of vectors available for the player to relocate lambda. As such, even though the player has choice within the narrative, the actions from which the player chooses are a function of the Designer – a third party. So in this way, it looks like we can actually define the player as a cyranoid in the form of {[Player] Game Designer}, so long as the player acquiesces to the act of playing the game. Since we have already determined that the player determines the actions of Stanley, the fact that the player’s possible actions are determined by the Game Designer lead to the conclusion that there is a third cyranoid as which we can define Stanley: {[Stanley] Game Designer}.

This also tracks with the narrative three-space model: this third cyranoid picks out the totality of the three-space, which the Game Designer created and over which the player seems to lack authority. This is the sense in which quitting the game is the only “real” choice available to the player: it is the only choice that is not fundamentally encoded by the game itself – and, as such, it is the only choice that is not the work of the Game Designer. This highlights a second tension that, unlike the first, is particular to video game storytelling: are the actions of the avatar determined more by the player or the game designer? “Stanley” suggests that the game designer ultimately has more authority, since the only true choice for the player is quitting the game; however, the answer is not clear-cut, which is part of makes the tension interesting to explore within a narrative context. After all, although the set of total choices available for the player to make through the avatar is determined by the game designer, the matter of which members of the set the player actually chooses to use in the playthrough does seem to be determined by the player herself. This means that there can exist a real push-and-pull between the degree to which a player defines the avatar and the degree to which the Game Designer defines the avatar. So a complete definition of a Stanley cyranoid would be most satisfying in a form along the lines of {[Stanley] Player/Game Designer}, where ‘Player/Game Designer’ represent a dynamic relationship in which both the Player and Game Designer exert partial influence over Stanley.

Cyranoid analysis allows us to see the crux of “The Stanley Parable” in a new light: on this reading, the game is an exploration of determining exactly what ‘Stanley’ is. It highlights how this seemingly simple question has drastically different answers depending both on what medium Stanley is represented in (traditional media versus video games) and on whether we emphasize which choices he actually makes (which are determined by the player) or all possible choice he could make (which are determined by the Game Designer). The game itself can thereby be seen as a study of precisely what constitutes the character, and how seemingly innocuous choices of how the character is represented can drastically alter the character’s existence. This demonstrates both the utility of cyranoids in video game aesthetics, and also what makes “The Stanley Parable” such an enticingly bizarre game to play.

Oh, and not that I concern myself with authorial intent, but I close with a moment of icing on the cake.  Doctor Milgram, to whom we owe the concept of cyranoids?

His first name was “Stanley.”

Link the Gaijin: The Outsider God and the Hero in “The Legend of Zelda”

by Dan Hughes, Featured Author.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and the fourth kind, beloved and devoted readers of With a Terrible Fate, I’m a simple man. I, like many of you, enjoy disrobing at dusk, pouring myself a nice wine glass full of Welch’s, and spending the evening looking up strange ludicrous theories about the vast Zeldaverse. So as I sit here typing, letting my 2014 Concord grape breathe a little, I would like to offer you a guided tour through Crackpot Town by making the claim that Link, the beloved little green hero of ours, is meant to portray a Shinto deity. But don’t worry, I specifically mean the deity of dirt, outsiders, and questionable mustaches. Link, while not necessarily going three for three with those descriptions, can absolutely be called an outsider in each and every title in the long-running “Legend of Zelda” series. And far from only being a deliberate game design decision, I believe this connection between Link and the outsider god of Japan provides interesting commentary on what it takes to be an acceptable hero. So down that grape juice, my fine friends, and let’s take a look.

Based on the title alone, odds are good that if you’re reading this article you have come across the Japanese term gaijin at some point in your Internetting. Gaijin, while loosely translating as “foreigner,” is used for anyone who is not hereditarily Japanese. Yes, that means even if you were born in Japan, have Japanese citizenship, and speak fluent Japanese, if your parents are gaijin, so are you. Now you may be thinking that the term “foreigner” is less a slur and more an objective description without any real negative charge, and for the most part you would be right. Gaijin in Japan are not discriminated against in any real way, but you can talk to any international living in Japan and find out that they never feel like they truly belong. Gaijin, when broken down into its Japanese kanji, literally means “other person,” or “outside person,” and with that little piece of language shaping the culture for centuries, it’s no wonder foreigners can never quite break through that last barrier of acceptance and belonging. But where does this special brand of separation in Japan come from? Like with any good story, it begins with genocide and cultural hegemony.

Up until the mid 8th Century, the country we now know as Japan was split into several smaller nations, each of which was led by a dominant family. War was a constant threat, but it was largely contained to small skirmishes between one or two clans. That is, of course, until the Yamato clan began systematically destroying other clans, completely wiping out what many anthropologists believe to be several distinct races. The Yamato were so powerful, in fact, that after a few decades of razing the land, the island of Japan was actually referred to as Yamato for quite some time. As with most early civilizations, all historical records of the Yamato clan and their conquest were lost in a huge fire before anyone thought to make copies. So while we have no real record of these early wars between clans, we do have a text written by the Yamato, which details the history of Japan. It’s called Kojiki, and it’s the first written record of Shinto practice.

On the surface, Kojiki is what we in the religion business call a mythopoeic text, which means that it describes the myths of a particular culture or belief system. Essentially, Kojiki is an origin story for not only the country of Japan and its people, but also its beliefs, traditions, and religious practices. Puncture that thick mythopoeic skin, however, and you can see murky political pudding lurking beneath. The Yamato clan, which would later become the Imperial family, tailored each story in Kojiki to their power, exerting over Japan that they were in fact the rightful rulers. The best and most well known example of this is the account that Amaterasu, goddess of the sun – and, coincidentally, the most important, powerful deity in Shinto – gave birth to Emperor Jimmu of the Yamato clan. The Yamato are deified and rule over everything without opposition. History is written by the winners, roll on snare drum, everyone head home.

Oh, but shoot, there was that pesky genocide thing…How to explain that?

Remember that Outsider god from three paragraphs ago? Well, Kojiki states that before the Yamato clan, before Emperor Jimmu, and even before Amaterasu the sun goddess, there were Izanagi and Izanami. Izanagi and Izanami were brother and sister as well as husband and wife; together, they created the heavens and the Japanese islands. Creating the various realms of being would make any couple frisky, so the two engaged in some post-creation coitus. Unfortunately, Izanami, the wife, made the faux pas of making the first move, and this union resulted in a horribly deformed son referred to as Hiruko, or the leech child. Not wanting to raise this pitiable creature, Izanagi and Izanami set it in a boat, and floated it out to sea, never to be seen again. Except he was totally seen again, and went on to become one of the more important deities in Japanese religion – but I’m getting ahead of myself.

This story of the leech child is culturally important for two reasons: it explains the relationship between men and women in sexual relationships, namely that men are to take the helm or horrible leech children shall be spawned; and it explains where “the other,” or gaijin, enters into the hegemonic world of the Yamato.

“This hideous creature that looks nothing like us shall be sent away forever, never to be spoken of again, just as the other clans shall find no quarter in the land of Yamato.”

But of course, the surviving clans that still held some power in the rule of the Yamato were not happy with Kojiki, so they created a brother text, Nihongi, which added lore and history that the Yamato conveniently left out of their text. This includes a story about the leech child, henceforth called Ebisu, who was found by the Ainu (considered gaijin at this time in history) in northern Japan and nursed back to health. Kojiki vilified and demonized Ebisu, but Nihongi embraced him, lauded him, and placed him high atop the list of important and beloved Shinto deities. Instead of shunning Ebisu for his differences, the Japanese embraced his otherness and made him a folkloric hero.

Well folks, it took a truncated history of early Japan and an all too brief explanation of Shinto-driven cultural hegemony, but I’ll be damned if we didn’t finally find our way back to “Zelda.” As I mentioned, you could make the claim that Link is just as much an outsider as Ebisu in any one of the “Legend of Zelda” titles, but for brevity’s sake I will be focusing my attention on “Ocarina of Time,” and the displacement of Link the Gaijin.

“Ocarina of Time” begins with narration from the Great Deku Tree, and it is through his words that we are introduced to Link.

The children of the forest, the Kokiri, live here with me. Each Kokiri has his or her own guardian fairy. However, there is one boy who does not have a fairy…

So at this point we know there are at least two groups in play:  those with fairies, and those without. And seeing as Link is the “one boy” without a fairy, he is in a pretty exclusive club. Before we have any chance to get to know Link or his circumstances, he is described to us in terms of his difference, his otherness. Of course Link does eventually receive a fairy companion, Navi, but only because the Great Deku Tree charged Navi with guiding Link on his journey through Hyrule. After meeting with the Great Deku Tree and learning of the momentous task set before him, Link understands that he is not really a part of the Kokiri tribe. Before leaving the forest which he can no longer truly call his home, Link is stopped by Saria, who says, “Oh, you’re leaving…I always knew that one day, this day would come. I’ve always known we’re so different…” After a small chat, Link turns his back on Saria and the forest and runs toward uncertainty. He begins his journey as an outsider.

Heeding the words of the Great Deku Tree, Link heads to Hyrule Castle to meet Princess Zelda. Flashing back to the opening sequence of the game, Mido and another of the other Kokiri make it pretty clear to both Link and the player that he does not belong in the forest. Knowing now that Link is not a Kokiri but a Hylian, perhaps Link will be met with more acceptance in Hyrule Town Market. And while he is never met with vitriol by the townspeople, the first person you speak to upon entering the town proper is Malon, the farm girl. After seeing Link’s green clothing and fairy companion, she says to him, “Your clothes, they’re so different. Wait, are you from the forest, fairy boy?” Once again, a major character in the story refers to Link as “different,” a trend which continues as the story unfurls. Notice too that, despite being a Hylian smack-dab in the center of the most heavily populated Hylian area in all of Hyrule, the first thing someone says to him is that he must be from some other place. Link cannot be seen as a Kokiri in the forest, nor can he be seen as a Hylian in Hyrule. Link the Gaijin is caught between worlds.

The final point regarding Link’s displacement that I would like to discuss is perhaps the most important one, as it makes him fundamentally different from nearly every single living thing in Hyrule. After collecting the Spiritual Stones and unlocking the door to the Sacred Realm, Link is flung seven years into the future, where the evil Ganondorf has spread his dark influence to every corner of the land. Link must then take on the task of awakening the sages, sealing the Sacred Realm, defeating Ganondorf, and saving the people of Hyrule. While this is no small task, with the help of friends he met along the way, Link pulls through and saves the world. Or rather, he saves that world.

After defeating Ganondorf in the future, the future version of Princess Zelda says her goodbyes to Link. She explains that Link must return to the past and place the Master Sword back in its pedestal for good, effectively severing the connection between the past and the future. Regardless of whether this future timeline will cease to exist if Link stops Ganondorf in the past or if it persists per the multiverse theory, the fact remains that once Link Link can never return to the world he has saved. In this sense, Link is banished from the world he protected, put once again in the role of the outsider.

Now go home, Link. Regain your lost time! Home…where you are supposed to be…the way you are supposed to be…

Zelda plays the Song of Time, and as the notes hang in the air with her final words, Link is sent back to the past. As he removes his hands from the Master Sword one final time, he looks towards Navi. It is at this point that Link’s friend and constant companion flies off into the distance, severing the only connection he had to his life as a Kokiri — to his home, to the way he is supposed to be. The game ends with Link, avatar of otherness, wandering into a world in which he no longer has any place. Link the Gaijin, now and forever.

But all is not miserable, my friends, because if Link had not been such an outsider, he could not have become such an admirable hero. Consider Ebisu:  he is so beloved by everyone because, despite being the manifestation of otherness, he belongs to every single group. At one point or another, everyone in society will feel marginalized. Whether for race, gender, belief, or any number of other reasons, there is not one person or group of people on this earth who have not at one time been made to feel like “the other.” But we muddle through, we persevere, and we hope for the courage to overcome the obstacles presented by our own otherness. Both Ebisu and Link were born between worlds, and their lives were shaped accordingly. Just as the outsider god Ebisu was molded by the Japanese into a friendly, accessible deity, Link the Gaijin became a hero, able to gain the trust and love of the Kokiri, the Hylians, the Gorons, and the Zora across time.

Although Link can never truly belong anywhere, he and he alone can ensure that everyone else has a home where they are supposed to be.

Dan Hughes is a featured author at With a Terrible Fate.  Check out his bio to learn more.

Taking Defense Case #3: In Defense of the Reapers

by Dan Hughes, Featured Author.

There is no question that Mass Effect’s Reapers are pure, chocolatey badness. So what is it about them that makes them such great characters? So great, in fact, that Malcolm finds them worth defending? Tune in and find out!
All music and video clips used under fair use. This video is for analytical purposes, and is only meant as an educational/comedic romp into video game land.
Batman: The Animated Series belongs to Warner Brothers, and Mass Effect belongs to Bioware and our lords and masters, EA.
“Leaving Earth” Metal Remix arranged by Symba Plays.
Special thanks to Aaron Suduiko (With a Terrible Fate) for help with the script! Check out his brilliant work!

License:  Standard YouTube License

Dan Hughes is a featured author at With a Terrible Fate.  Check out his bio to learn more.

Taking Defense Case #2: ME!ME!ME! and the Trial of Shock Art

by Dan Hughes, Featured Author.

Viewer discretion is advised.

A few weeks ago, those wacky Internet Gods descended upon the Earth and bestowed a little gem called ME!ME!ME! upon us unsuspecting mortals. Is it just a piece of filth, or is there a little more to this video than meets the eye? This week on “Taking Defense,” Malcolm Lockwell, the first, last and only name in Internet Defense takes on ME!ME!ME!
All content, apart from Malcolm Lockwell’s opinions, belongs to its respective creators. We are simply making jokes, and mean no harm.

Music:  “Lydia The Tattooed Lady” by Jimmy Lunceford ( • • )

License:  Standard YouTube License

Dan Hughes is a featured author at With a Terrible Fate.  Check out his bio to learn more.

Taking Defense Case #1: The People of the Internet vs. Navi

by Dan Hughes, Featured Author.

Malcolm Lockwell, Internet Defense Attorney extraordinaire accepts the case against Navi from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
Does the little blue fairy really deserve such vitriol? Find out in the exciting first episode of “Taking Defense!”
All Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time video clips belong to Nintendo. I have made this video for educational/entertainment purposes out of love and tenderness.

License:  Standard YouTube License

Dan Hughes is a featured author at With a Terrible Fate.  Check out his bio to learn more.