“What Is It Like to Be a Gamer?” A speech on the value of video games.

Regular visitors of With a Terrible Fate may recall that, last February, I delivered a speech as part of the Lowell House Speech Series at Harvard University. In it, I discussed my decision to pursue the study of video game philosophy instead of medicine. This year, on 1.26.16, I delivered another speech as part of that same Speech Series; in it, I discuss why video games are worth playing and studying at any age.

I offer the transcript below, in full:

What are video games good for? I study the stories of video games, so I worry about that question a lot. I want to share one way I think the special stories of video games, and the way we engage them, teach gamers to learn from one another.

We often try to communicate with one another by referencing our experiences. We argue about aspects of society that offend us; we talk about aspects of our identities that other people lack direct knowledge of – if you are a woman and feel that your employer treats female employees worse than men, you might want me to understand what that is like, although I am a man. We want to convey to others what it is like to be us – but how can we, when others have no way of standing in our shoes?

Video games can help us share who we are. Let me explain why.

When I was in high school, I played a little-known video game called “Nier.” The game tells the story of a man, Nier, who will stop at nothing to save his daughter, Yonah, from a deadly plague. The emotional depth and complexity of this game were what first motivated me to study and analyze video games in school. If you haven’t yet, you owe it to yourself to play it some day.

At the same time that I dove into analyzing Nier, I also felt compelled to share the game with two of my closest high school friends, Dan and Nate. Just as I wanted everyone I knew to read The Catcher in the Rye after I first encountered the classic in middle school, I now wanted Dan and Nate to experience this game. One after the other, I passed my copy of the game along to Dan and then Nate in the hall between classes.

But when I spoke with them both after they handed the game back to me, I discovered something I hadn’t expected: although they had played the same game as I had, we each made different choices in the game—something that couldn’t have happened if we’d all seen the same movie or read the same book. I had focused on exploring the secrets of the game’s world, digging through virtual basements for classified government records to learn what had caused the apocalypse. Dan focused instead on exploring the relationship between Nier—the player’s character—and Yonah. He completed quests collecting food for Yonah, and she surprised him by making him a cake to thank him. Nate found the desolate wasteland of the game depressing, so he completed it once and moved on.

As I discussed Nier with my friends over lunches and in between classes, I learned about my friends and myself through the choices that we each made. We talked about how a single story prompted us to act differently from one another, and we accounted for our actions. Through these conversations, I learned how much Dan valued the intimacy fathers share with their daughters; I learned that Nate wanted to be excited about the environments of video game worlds, so that he could jump at the opportunity to explore them. Through these conversations, I began to articulate to my friends my desire to unravel mysteries.

Video games allow players to share their experiences with one another by grounding them in a common story. Games invite players to enter a single world, chart their own course through it, and compare their journeys with their friends. By giving us a special position in an artistic world, our choices become part of the work of art—something we can discuss and make meaning out of with others.

When I think about video games’ practical value, I always reflect on the degree to which they can unify people and allow them to understand and share their way of being. This invitation to share ourselves with others is the hidden utility of the engaging, epic stories waiting in the many worlds of video games.

But be warned, it can take a lot of work to get to know someone else—so you may just need to spend many hours playing video games.

Critical Review: Xenoblade and Leibniz.

A few weeks ago, I laid out With a Terrible Fate‘s plans for celebrating its one-year anniversary. One of the several things that I promised readers was that I would re-release some of my most popular analyses, with bonus commentary reflecting on the strengths, weaknesses, and reception of the piece. Today, on the eve of the North American and European releases of Xenoblade Chronicles X, I am offering the first such retrospective: a critical review of my analysis of Leibniz’s influence on Xenoblade Chronicles.

Read on for the full text of the original article, which I wrote back in February of this year, and read on after the article for my critical review.

Finding your Monad: Xenoblade and Leibniz.

We are about to bear witness to the birth of a universe.

Once, only a god could perform such a miracle.

Klaus, “Xenoblade Chronicles”

The clock counts down to the release of “Majora’s Mask 3D” on Friday, February 13th.  At the moment, however, I want to turn elsewhere, and give fans a sample of what is coming beyond “Majora’s Mask.”

You might reasonably wonder exactly where an enterprise named With a Terrible Fate could go beyond the analysis of “Majora’s Mask.”  However, I believe that my analysis of the game over the last four months has, beyond examining the architecture of “Majora’s Mask” as a work of art, has provided the basis for a mode of general video game criticism.  The major points I draw your attention to are best articulated in my works of line analysis on the first line and last line said by the Happy Mask Salesman in the game.  If we want to be snarky about it, we can refer to the analytic mode I have in mind as ‘the Majoran critique’:  ‘examination of the narratological architecture of a universe, the metaphysics of which reflect existential contingency on an agency exogenous of that universe.’  Put another way:  we’ve seen that Termina very deeply depends on the player as a character in its story in order to exist.  This mode of literary criticism takes player agency as a crucial, central element to the stories of video games, and aims to uncover how different games architect worlds and stories in relation to that agency.

If you want to read more about this, you’re in luck.  I wrote an academic paper about it, which you can check out here.  Drawing from various parts of my analysis of “Majora’s Mask,” the paper models how the game creates a world whose coherence and narrative are functions of the player as a participant.

But it’s sometimes easier to teach by example.  So today, “Xenoblade Chronicles” meets With a Terrible Fate.  


Before proceeding with analysis, a disclaimer.  I never felt the need to warn about spoilers in “Majora’s Mask” — partly because I’m a delightfully callous video game analyst, and partly because, as far as RPG’s go, the narrative of “Majora’s Mask” doesn’t really depend on sudden twists and turns.  “Xenoblade” thrives on twists and turns, and I promise you that the narrative is far more rewarding if you experience it for the first time by actually playing the game.  This analysis will heavily focus on the end of the game — and, callous analyst that I am, I’m going to be using spoiler-worthy details all the time.  Consider yourself warned.

“Xenoblade” has become a modern classic in gaming, to the point where its main character, Shulk, has “earned a spot” in the latest iteration of the “Super Smash Bros.” series.  The reasons why it’s enticing are pretty clear:  it’s a great example of a massive overworld, with a lot of potential for exploration, and an epic-length plot to match.  It’s a world with rich history, and this history stretches out before the player in two directions:  ontologically, the side quests of the game offer tremendous insight into the ancient history of species and civilizations across the world; metaphysically, the game’s main plot reveals how the world itself came into existence, and how the world functions as a closed system.

There are also subtler aspects that make the game memorable.  For one, it’s directly informed by Leibniz’s metaphysics — the sword upon which the plot turns is called “the Monado,” a direct reference to Leibniz’s monadology, something to which I will return later.  It’s also a great example of storytelling that utilizes thematic mirroring of the macrocosm and microcosm:  the same questions of identity and teleology emerge in the case of individual characters as emerge on the universal scale.

I offer this all by means of background; the point is that there are a lot of different things one could say about “Xenoblade,” because it’s an appealing game from a variety of angles.  What I’m going to do in this article, drawing in part from the different game elements I just mentioned, is use the theoretical machinery first outlined in my work on “Majora’s Mask” to defend the following thesis:  the narrative of Xenoblade describes the ‘death of the author’ by transferring metaphysical authority from the game’s creator to the player.

ShulkGottfried Leibniz

To understand how the world within “Xenoblade” functions, it’s crucial that we understand some of Leibniz’s mature metaphysics, because, as I mentioned above, the game’s narrative turns on an object explicitly referring to that metaphysics.  This will be a rough gloss, but my hope is to provide enough context to do Leibniz justice, while also equipping us to move into a well-reasoned analysis of the metaphysics in “Xenoblade.”

Leibniz’s metaphysics is grounded in his theory of monadology, which describes the real world as constituted by mind-like substances with perception and appetite, but without extension.  These substances are called ‘monads’, and physical entities in this framework are understood as less-real phenomena grounded in the interactions of these monads.  Each being can be described by a ‘dominant monad’, which in living beings (e.g., humans) is equivalent to a ‘soul’.  Importantly, each monad, while lacking extension, possesses a unique perspective with respect to all other monad — and, consequently, to the world.  ‘God’, which we can frame here as something like a ‘first cause’ in the causal chain of the universe, is knowledgeable of all monads, and therefore perceives the universe from all perspectives at all times.

Shulk with Monado

So much for Leibniz, for the moment.  Moving to “Xenoblade”:  the Monado is a sword which, over the course of the game, reveals itself to be a tool that allows its wielder to see and change the world’s future.  The explanation of this is that the sword is able to tap into the flow of ether, the fundamental element of the universe; as ether constitutes the world, its flow, by extension, is numerically identical to the causal chain of the universe as it moves forward in time.  This turns into a plot point and game mechanic because, by virtue of viewing the future as it presently stands, one (Shulk / the player) is able to take actions to change the future, altering the causal chain as the universe proceeds in the forward direction.


“Xenoblade” is also a world of gods, and a story of killing the Zanza, the god who claims ownership of the universe.  In the final moments of the game’s main plot, the ontology of the universe is explained to Shulk (27:24 in the video; we will return to the matter of who explains it to him in just a moment).  We learn in the final moments of the game that the universe was created by two scientists — Klaus and Meyneth — who, in turn, entered the universe and became its gods, with Klaus taking the name of “Zanza.”  The world created by Klaus consisted of two enormous titans, the Bionis and Mechonis, serving as manifestations of Zanza and Meyneth, respectively; Zanza thrust the universe into a state of decay and rebirth, in order to ensure that the creatures of the world would never forget his place as their god.

Meyneth, however, did battle with Zanza, believing that the people of the universe they created should not be subservient to gods.  In the battle, Meyneth was rendered dormant, and Zanza was imprisoned on the Bionis.  Ultimately, it is revealed that Zanza had inhabited the body of Shulk, the player’s main character; at the climax of the game, he shrugs Shulk off in a way similar to Majora’s Mask shrugging off Skull Kid; he takes Shulk’s Monado, and moves to destroy the world and create a new one yet again.  Meyneth, who had inhabited the body of Shulk’s childhood friend, Fiora, manifests herself, summons her own Monado and dies fighting Zanza.

Zanza claims both Monados and leaves to complete his plot; but Shulk and his friends return to challenge Zanza.  When Shulk first confronts Zanza, he finds that he cannot properly anticipate the future, because Zanza is the god wielding the Monados.  Yet as the battle continues, Shulk’s resolve strengthens, and a third Monado appears in his hands.  Throughout the game, the Monado has shown symbols on its hilt reflecting the creatures it can fell; in the moment when the third Monado appears, it bears the symbol for “god.”  Shulk reclaims his ability to see the future, declaring that “the future doesn’t belong to [Zanza],” and he kills the god.

At this point, something unexpected happens:  Alvis, a man who has guided Shulk from the periphery of the narrative for much of the game, reveals himself to actually be Monado itself, and says that Monado is “the administrative computer of a phase transition facility.”  He then tells Shulk the history of the world, beginning with how Klaus and Meyneth created it in an experiment on a space station; he ends by saying that, in killing Zanza, Shulk has become the new god, and must choose the world he wants to create.  Shulk decides to create “a world without gods,” which is “boundless” in nature.

Even on a flat analysis, I find the game’s storyline compelling; however, moving to full analysis by adding the player and Leibniz is where things start getting really interesting.  Recall that the thesis I am after is a narrative describing the ‘death of the author’.  To be specific, I use this term to denote a position in literary criticism that examines art object independently of the author’s intention, background, context, etc.  In other words, this approach “kills” the artist, and only looks at the art for what it is.  So, for a narrative to describe this position, we would expect the narrative’s architect to appear within it, one way or another.  A theoretical diagram will help show how this happens in “Xenoblade.”

Xenoblade Diagram

One of the metaphysical stratifications to notice in games that refer to their own universe from outside of it — like “Xenoblade” — is the difference between the universe as conceived within the game, and the totality of the universe established by the game.  Klaus and Alvis are both literally within the game, but they are also outside of the universe described by the game, which Klaus created in his “phase transition” experiment.  The player, too, is outside the universe conceived by the game, but is still an agent within the game’s narrative.  A return to monadology will explain what I mean here.

Recall that monads, the fundamentals of reality, describe the causal chain of the universe, according to Leibniz.  God sees from the perspective of all monads at once and is therefore omniscient.  This coheres with the usage of ‘Monado’ within “Xenoblade”:  Klaus uses a system administrator to facilitate the construction and maintenance of his own universe; as its creator and the progenitor of the Monado, he knows the totality of its causal structure, and is able to inhabit whatever perspective he wishes — as when he inhabits Shulk’s body.  When Zanza first exits Shulk’s body and reveals himself, he speaks to this effect:  “Do not be surprised,” he tells Shulk’s friends, “everything in this world is dictated by the passage of fate.  As all that exists is interconnected, time can only flow toward the inevitable.  That is the vision of which I, the Monado, am the origin.”  By equating himself with the Monado, Zanza is describing himself as the first mover in the causal chain — which, as the universe’s creator and god, he is.  We can say that Zanza is the dominant monad when the entire universe as conceived by the game is taken as a closed system.

If the metaphysics of Leibniz were imposed on the universe of a film or book, then this would be the end of the story:  there is nothing beyond a god who is the causal chain of the universe.  But we have already seen that games have a different set of narrative mechanisms in their toolkit, and it is player agency that allows this story to end with the death of a god, as opposed to his conquest.

The Monado that can fell a god

What can fell a god?  When Alvis reveals himself as Monado, he speaks to Zanza about the limitations of gods.  Zanza exclaims in fury that “the power of a god cannot be overcome”; and, given my analysis, he has every reason to believe that this is categorically true.  Alvis replies that “even gods are merely beings restricted to the limited power determined by providence.  That power, although great, is not unlimited.”  Returning to Figure 2.1, notice the distinction between the universe as conceived by the game, and the domain of the game beyond that universe:  it is readily apparent that Zanza is limited in precisely the way described by Alvis, because he is bound within the system of the very universe he created.  The player is not.  By controlling Shulk and his friends, the player is able to perceive the future and change it, by looking and acting upon the universe’s system from a vantage point external to the game itself — a vantage point which renders Zanza a mere character in the causal chain, rather than an omnipotent metaphysical agent.  The reason Shulk is able to persist, challenge, and defeat Zanza after the god tosses him aside is that the player continues to engage with him, and with his world.  The third Monado, for which Zanza cannot account, is actually identical to the player’s agency within the universe of “Xenoblade.”

There’s an even stronger claim that we can make about “Xenoblade” at this juncture, which drives home just how well-composed its story is:  from the beginning of the game, the only possible outcome is the destruction of the current universe.  Of course, the player has no way of knowing this at the start of the game, but it is clear in hindsight:  the universe, as conceived within the game, operates in accordance with Leibniz’s metaphysics.  This entails a closed, determined causal structure, of which God is omniscient.  The instigation of another metaphysical entity with the capacity to alter this causal structure — namely, the player — breaks the deterministic causality of the universe as previously conceived.  It follows that the only outcome for the universe, once the player is introduced to it, is decomposition; so, besides oblivion, the creation of a new universe at the end of the game is the only logically possible conclusion.

“Xenoblade” does something remarkable on the level of second-order narrative:  it shows how video games can be used in aesthetically powerful ways to create a universe with a complete metaphysics, and then perturb those metaphysics with an external agent.  A universe of Leibniz’s metaphysics leaves all being subordinate to god, which reflects the structure of games as a program, the path of which is determined prior to the player ever finding it; yet the design of the universe as something that can be externally observed allows the player to disturb the universe’s determined structure, and tell a story whose narrative arc is only valid by virtue of the player’s interference.  This feature, then, reflects the value of the player acting upon the program of a game to bring its narrative from the realm of possible paths into the reality of a single path from start to finish.

How does this deal with the death of the author?  Well, with the analytic work in place, a generalization of Figure 2.1, shown below as Figure 2.2, has an answer for us.

Xenoblade Diagram, Generalized

The game designer, or ‘architect’, designs a universe through and within the confines of a game system.  Also through the game system, a character is instantiated through which the player is able to enter the game’s universe (the ‘avatar’).  The game’s architect is in a position to establish a world with a particular metaphysics, which can be as complete as a gloss of Leibniz’s theory; and in this way, the internal structure of the game’s world is a remnant of its designer, who is analogous to the world’s ‘God’.  Yet the player, by virtue of connecting with the avatar, is able to exert agency from outside of the universe’s closed system, and is thereby able to perturb the world’s initial structure, as architected by its designer.  In this way, the narrative of a game can be described as the perturbing of the world’s prior structure by introduction of a metaphysically external agent.  We saw “Majora’s Mask” metricized a certain way in terms of Termina’s metaphysical dependency on the player; “Xenoblade” shows us that this can be generalized, and that, as Alvis says, it can be described well as a “phase transition.”  An effective way for games to tell stories, we see, is by setting up a world so ordered as to have been designed by a god, and then introducing a being with the power to kill that god by subverting the world’s metaphysics.  This is precisely how games, to paraphrase Klaus, allow their players to give birth to a universe — a miracle that was once reserved for gods.


I generally agree today with the analysis I initially put forward about Xenoblade Chronicles. However, there are several points which warrant elaboration and clarification.

Leibniz and Gnosticism

I should first point out that my work on Xenoblade has often been referenced and discussed alongside work that interprets Xenoblade in terms of Gnosticism. I am not going to comment on this at length because theology is far from my area of expertise. I will, however, make two brief remarks. First, it seems to me obvious and undeniable that much of Xenoblade‘s lore is inspired by Gnosticism. Yaldabaoth, Egil’s Faced Mechon, shares its name with a Gnostic demiurge; various characters in the game bear resemblance to figures in Gnostic scripture; some strands of Gnosticism are also monadic (this bears no relation to Leibniz–it means merely that the Gnostics posited a first being from which the universe emerged). Second, I see no reason why such an interpretation, if one wishes to pursue it, would be incompatible with my own analysis. My philosophical analysis of the game’s aesthetic dynamics are primarily concerned with how the game’s story works, not “what it means” in some interpretive sense. So one can accept the dynamics that I propose and still acknowledge Gnostic influence without contradicting oneself.

Here is a somewhat different example making the same point: regular readers may recall that, during my extended analysis of Majora’s Mask, I wrote a piece analyzing the apparent influence of Buddhism on the game. This bore no immediate relation to my much larger project of analyzing the aesthetic dynamics inherent to the game: rather, I was applying an external tradition in order to interpret the meaning of the game in a certain way. This is exactly what we have in the case of Xenoblade and Gnosticism: if you buy into my work on the game, then you can take or leave the Gnostic interpretation in good conscience.

“We can say that Zanza is the dominant monad when the entire universe as conceived by the game is taken as a closed system. If the metaphysics of Leibniz were imposed on the universe of a film or book, then this would be the end of the story:  there is nothing beyond a god who is the causal chain of the universe.”

In my original work on Xenoblade, I only gestured at the idea that its kind of death-of-the-author narrative — i.e. narratives in which a character, whose existence is determined by some other “author” character, interferes with the author and interrupts the course of his own story — only makes sense in the narrative medium of video games. Some time later, I returned to Xenoblade in order to flesh out a much more robust explanation of why this is the case. You can read that explanation in full here. I compare Xenoblade to the film Stranger than Fiction (Zack Helm, 2006), and argue that Stranger than Fiction, in trying to to present a death-of-the-author narrative, actually has an incoherent plot because films (and novels) lack the representational resources necessary to coherently represent such a narrative. (Actually, at the time, I said that Stranger than Fiction’s narrative was coherent, but inherently paradoxical. I now think that the paradox renders the narrative incoherent.)

The problem is this: suppose the “author” in a death-of-the-author story to be some agent x. In Xenoblade, this author is Zanza, god of the universe that he created; in Stranger than Fiction, the author is Karen Eiffel, a novelist whose characters, unbeknownst to her, come to life in her world and live out lives that are determined by the stories that Eiffel writes. Now, there also exists some agent y, which is a character created by the author, whose actions are determined by the author. In Xenoblade, the relevant agent is Shulk; in Stranger than Fiction, it is Harold Crick, portrayed by Will Ferrell. By the definition of death-of-the-author narratives, y is able to impact x and thereby change the course of events in the world. But this is a problem for Stranger than Fiction, as well as for similar stories in novels and films, because their plot then takes the following form: ‘the choices of x are affected by the actions of y, which were determined by choices made by x‘. This is irreducibly circular and therefore incoherent.

Xenoblade, however, shows that video games have a special method by which they can tell the same story without falling into the trap of incoherence. Because the player extends her agency to her avatar, controlling the avatar and dictating its actions, she can determine the actions of a character that was initially created and controlled by an author character. This is exactly what we see happen in Xenoblade: Shulk is able to confront and kill Zanza, his creator and god, because of the agency of the player. The player is external to Zanza’s universe and therefore not bound by Zanza, meaning that Shulk is, by extension, also able to ultimately act independently from Zanza. If we call the player a third agent z, then we can reformulate the death-of-the-author plot for video games as follows: ‘the choices of x are affected by the actions of y, which were determined by choices made by z‘. There is nothing circular about this, and video game narratives like Xenoblade‘s are thereby able to remain coherent. Because this coherence depends on the player as an agent external to the universe of the author character’s control, I take it to be the case that video games are uniquely able to render death-of-the-author narratives coherent.

“By controlling Shulk and his friends, the player is able to perceive the future and change it, by looking and acting upon the universe’s system from a vantage point external to the game itself — a vantage point which renders Zanza a mere character in the causal chain, rather than an omnipotent metaphysical agent.”

This is a trickier claim than I initially supposed. The issue is that we typically take it to be the case that entities lacking spatial extension in a given world cannot exert causal influence upon that world. The player obviously lacks spatial extension in Xenoblade‘s universe–that is precisely how, on my account, she is able to perturb the universe’s deterministic structure and bring about the death of Zanza. But, you might respond, I have already offered an obvious solution: the player’s agency is extend through Shulk and his friends, and Shulk+friends act as the player’s spatial extension within the universe of Xenoblade. Yet this only relocates the same problem: just how is it that the player is able to causally influence Shulk and his friends, given that the player lacks spatial extension within the universe of the game? I see two ways to go here, one of which I find much more plausible than the other.

The first way to respond is to simply say “That’s just the way things work in video games.” All artistic media, we might say, have conventions–for example, even though actors in a theater can obviously see the audience, we take it to be the case (except when indicated otherwise) that the characters in a play do not actually see the audience. We may even suppose that these characters do not exist in the same “world” as the audience, even though the audience can obviously see what is happening within the world of the play. It is therefore perfectly in keeping with the tradition of artistic convention to suppose that players can influence the worlds of video games despite not being a part of those worlds.

I don’t find this line of reasoning convincing. Even if we grant that some aesthetic conventions don’t make sense when taken literally, the case of players causally impacting video games is problematic for reasons that go beyond cases like actors ignoring an audience. In some video games, I have argued, we must understand the player as part of the game’s narrative in order to make sense of that narrative–again, this is the only way I see in which we can understand Shulk’s ability to kill Zanza. There is no analogous way in which the narrative of a play, for example, depends upon the audience in order to cohere. Because of the interactive nature of video games, questions of player-instigated causation are of immediate concern in aesthetic analysis, and so we had better hope that there is a better response to the problem available than “That’s just the medium’s convention.”

do think that a better response is available, although the response is far from orthodox–so, bear with me. The literal answer to the question of how the player can causally influence events within the game, obviously, is that the controller acts as a mechanism by which the player can input commands that are processed by the game system and influence how it runs the program that constitutes the video game. I think that this answer can also serve to resolve the issue of the player’s causal influence within the context of the narrative.

This is a particularly perspicuous explanation in the case of Xenoblade. By stipulation within the narrative, the universe that Klaus created was computer-generated–this is why Alvis, the metaphysical arbiter of the universe, described himself as “the administrative computer of a phase transition facility.” If we already need to recognize the player’s agency in order to make sense of Shulk killing Zanza, and the basis for this player agency is that the player exists in the same universe to which Klaus originally belongs (I argued this in my original work on the game, above), then it seems reasonable to make the further inference that the game system itself is what allows the player to access and exert her will upon the universe, using the avatars of Shulk and his friends as proxies for herself. We have now solved the problem of causal influence without physical extension: the “universe” of the game, conceived as the program that the game system is running, is directly influenced by the real-life, physically extended player, through the intermediary of the game system’s controller.

Is it utterly bizarre that we have to conceive of the universe of the game as a literal computer program in order to understand its narrative? I don’t think so–at least, not as bizarre as it may initially seem. Consider these analogous cases: many novels are written in the form of diaries or journals (e.g., Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). When we read these narratives, we are supposed to imagine of the literal book that we are holding that it is a journal or diary, written by whichever character that the story tells us wrote it. Likewise, in the “found footage” genre of film, viewers are meant to imagine, within the conceit of the narrative, that the literal film they are watching was recorded by whichever character in the movie had the video camera. In ways such as these, narratives include facts about their literal representational vehicles all the time. Though understanding game consoles in this way is unintuitive, it makes good theoretical sense, and, as I have just argued, it allows us to solve the problem of how a player can causally influence a game’s narrative.

Moreover, seeing game consoles in this way allows us to think clearly about the aesthetic effects that result from video games being played on particular consoles. For example, I think that there are aesthetically meaningful differences between games that are played on stationary consoles (i.e. consoles that are connected to televisions) and games that are played on portable consoles. I will not go into the details of these differences here because I have yet to play the 3DS version of Xenoblade–however, if you’d like to read more about this, I have written about it extensively in relation to Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Check out this article, written prior to the release of Majora’s Mask 3D, in which I hypothesized how playing the game on a portable console might change the aesthetics of the game; and, check out my analysis of Majora’s Mask 3D, in which I analyze how playing the game on a portable console actually does change the aesthetics of the game.

“[the Monado] is able to tap into the flow of ether, the fundamental element of the universe; as ether constitutes the world, its flow, by extension, is numerically identical to the causal chain of the universe as it moves forward in time.  This turns into a plot point and game mechanic because, by virtue of viewing the future as it presently stands, one (Shulk / the player) is able to take actions to change the future, altering the causal chain as the universe proceeds in the forward direction.”

This piece of analysis would work well if Shulk were the only avatar in the time–i.e. if the player controlled him and no one else–but the fact is that the player controls Shulk and his friends. So the ability to change the future of Zanza’s deterministic universe cannot be grounded in Shulk alone, because the player’s agency is extended to characters other than Shulk.

Thankfully, introducing the game console to the narrative analysis, as I just did above, solves this problem in an easy way that would not have been available to my original analysis. The player’s agency is directly able to allow Shulk and his friends to change the future by virtue of the player’s ability to control them through the game system.

Of course, this analysis is not yet satisfactory. Even if we have an accurate causal explanation of how the player extends agency to Shulk and his party, it would still be nice to have an explanation that grounds this causal explanation in the content of Xenoblade‘s narrative. Why exactly is it the case that Shulk and his friends are connected to the player’s agency? I propose to answer this question using Shulk’s Monado III in combination with general observations about dynamics underpinning the way in which Shulk and his friends associate.

I said in my original analysis of the game, above, that “[the] third Monado, for which Zanza cannot account, is actually identical to the player’s agency within the universe of ‘Xenoblade’.” I still think that this is the case: it grounds Shulk’s ability to kill Zanza, and makes plausible how he is able to continue his quest after Zanza ceases to control him from the inside. But I also think that the player’s agency, in its form as the Monado III, is “shared” amongst Shulk’s companions. Let me explain what I mean.

One of Xenoblade‘s basic mechanics is an ‘affinity system’, whereby various characters become more or less fond of each other based on various interactions that they have with each other. High affinity between party members is required to unlock a variety of things, such as ‘Heart-to-Hearts’ in which party members speak one-on-one and deepen their bonds with one another. So we have grounds to assume that party association has meaningful consequences within the universe of the game, as represented by the gameplay.

One of the primary ways in which affinity is strengthened between party members are in the player’s ‘active party’: this is the group of characters the engages in battle, undertakes quests, and so on. In other words, the active party is the group of characters most directly controlled by the player. I don’t think this is coincidence: rather, it seems to me that party characters are most predisposed to gain affinity in the active party because this is when they act most dynamically with one another, and they act most dynamically with one another in virtue of the player’s agency.

This tight connection between affinity on the one hand, and player agency facilitating dynamic action on the other, leads me to believe that the Monado diffuses its agency amongst those who bond with Shulk. Of all beings in the game, Shulk’s party companions are undoubtedly closest to him. And those who spend more time in the active party both develop greater affinity and are more directly controlled by the player’s agency. And this coheres deeply with the game’s theming of friendship: the stronger Shulk’s friends are bonded to him, the greater the extent is to which they, too, can change the future.

There are, of course, difficulties with this argument, but I don’t think they are enough to overshadow its plausibility. There are select moments in the same during which Shulk is not in the party at all, and the player need not always have Shulk in her active party. Yet the game’s proper narrative begins with Shulk, and all characters join the player’s party after meeting Shulk–in a substantive way, Shulk is the central focus of both the narrative and the player’s experience engaging that narrative. (I say “proper narrative” because the player controls Dunban in the introduction. But Dunban also holds a Monado here, which can plausibly explain the player’s short-lived relation to him in the introductory scene.) Because he is the focal point through which the player meets other character that later join the party, it also makes sense that he is the nexus through which the player’s agency is generally disseminated to other party members. So I think that the argument is in good shape–in fact, when one considers how difficult it generally is to explain how a player can extend her singular agency to multiple avatars in party-based RPGs (e.g., Final FantasyNamco Tales), I think we should be impressed with the extent to which Xenoblade‘s affinity system and Monado concept combine to give us a plausible account of a mechanism for the extension of player agency to an entire party.


I contend to this day that Xenoblade is one of the most interesting, complex, and well-articulated game narratives in recent years. I don’t doubt that I will return to analyze it further in the future.

And don’t be surprised if you see an analysis of Xenoblade Chronicles X from me in the coming months.

“Listen to My Story”: The Problem of Storytelling in Virtual Reality.

The August 17, 2015 issue of TIME featured a cover story detailing the current state of virtual reality, along with its projected future trajectories. Author Joel Stein throws the term “storytelling” around a decent amount in the article, tracking the current efforts of virtual reality (hereafter ‘VR’) pioneers to develop a methodology for conveying narrative through the medium of VR. Stein’s own prose reflects the seeming contradiction in how VR best ought to go about telling stories: at one moment he observes that, “unlike movies, virtual reality can make you feel dumb or successful by reacting to you”; a moment later, he points out that, despite VR sharing this interactive element with video games, “the storytelling rules of video games don’t work” when it comes to VR on account of danger feeling much more emotionally “real” in VR than in modern video games.[1]

TIME on Virtual Reality

The stakes here are non-trivial in terms of where digital narrative goes next. The title of Stein’s article from which I quote is “Why Virtual Reality is About to Change the World”; last spring at PAX East, a panel of user interface designers from various game development studios expressed the standard thought that user interface development is progressing with the goal of ultimately achieving the “total immersion” of virtual reality.[2] What, then, are we to make of the tension that Stein highlights between VR and video games? Is it simply that the technology is new and we do not yet know how to use it effectively – that, as Gil Baron of Visionary VR told Stein, “[it’s] like you went back in time and gave a caveman a video camera?” Or could the tension perhaps be something deeper – that there is a difference in kind that precludes VR from serving as the “next evolution” of modern video game narrative?

My own view is that, not only there is certainly a tension in VR between being interactive and having different “rules” than video games, but it is also a tension far more fundamental than purported by articles such as Stein’s. Namely, the project of VR seems essentially at odds with our ordinary conception of narrative, whereas video games refine and enhance that same conception. I will offer a defense of this claim by showing that our agency in the actual world, which is what VR aims to emulate, determines a course of events that we experience prior to making any meaning out of that course of events, whereas narrative consists of chains of events composed in order to effect some didactic end – where ‘didactic end’ roughly means ‘a particular meaning or message’. I will then review motivations independent of this for the user interface dynamics of video games being valued on their own terms, rather than being seen as imperfect precursors to “total VR immersion.” Lastly, I will review some of the ways in which I believe VR will be useful, barring the misconception of it serving as an evolution in video game narrative.

I. VR, qua evolved video games, requires full-immersion agency.

I take it to be the case that one of the primary goals of virtual reality – not one that has been realized yet, but which VR developers aim to ultimately realize – is to emulate, within a virtual world, one’s experience in real life of ‘full-immersion agency’. Roughly, this refers simply to the feeling we have of really being able to make choices and affect the real world in which we exist; I will articulate the finer points of the term shortly. First, for the sake of clarity, I should point out that I certainly do not take this to be the only goal of VR: as I will consider in the final part of this paper, there are many other promising ends for which it can be used. Yet it seems that this goal is necessary if we wish to assume the intuitive and popular view that VR is the next evolution of video games. I will not pursue an extended proof here as to why this is the case; suffice it to say that the primary motivation behind this view of things (I take it) is the idea that video games are handicapped by the artificial distance separating player from avatar – the medium would be in some sense more consistent with its goal of dynamically engaging a virtual world if the player were fully subsumed by that virtual world.

‘Full immersion’ in ‘full-immersion agency’ refers to a phenomenology sufficiently similar to that of the player’s real-life phenomenology that the player feels as if she really is an entity within that world. I will not attempt to map necessary and sufficient conditions for this being the case, but we can point to a number of defining characteristics of the concept. For example, the player would have to experience the world from a first-personal perspective, such that it really seems as if they were seeing the world from a perspective internal to that world; this would most likely need to involve all five of the player’s senses. On the other hand, we would presumably want it to not be the case that full-immersion is so immersive that the virtual world is impossible to qualitatively distinguish from reality – such a situation would open the analysis to a whole host of complications that are beyond the scope of the goal currently in consideration.

‘Agency’ in ‘full-immersion agency’ refers to the capacity for the player to act upon the virtual world in such a way as to influence the causal chain of events in the virtual world. This is in many ways an extension of the sort of agency that players have in video games through the proxy of their avatar – the difference being that in this case, there is no proxy. Rather, the player perceives herself as directly being able to exert causal influence on the world. This factor, when conjoined with full immersion, makes the requirements for agency in VR somewhat more robust than the concept of agency in video games: whereas the controls through which a player controls an avatar are indirect and unintuitive (there is no intuitive reason why pressing a button labeled ‘A’ would result in a character jumping, for example), control in VR must be absolutely intuitive: the actions we take in a virtual world, in order to meet the full immersion requirement, must be effected by the same means as those same actions in real life. If we say that all we need to do in real life to jump is to tense our leg muscles, crouch, and propel our legs off the ground, then that mechanism must track with the experience of how the player makes herself jump in a VR world.

A succinct way of capturing the essence of full-immersion agency is to say that virtual reality, fully realized, ought to allow the player to experience her actions upon the virtual world in a way that tracks with her capacity to act upon the real world. If she sees an unlocked virtual door, then she ought to be able to open that door in a way that experientially resembles her opening a door in real life; if she chooses to sit down and do nothing, then any NPCs in the area ought to react to her as analogous people would in a real-life situation of her sitting down and doing nothing; if there is a virtual wall, then she should be able, mutatis mutandis, to at least in principle discover what is on the other side. It is from this requirement of realistic action that problems for VR narrative arise.

II. Total freedom of choice is at odds with didactic chains of events. 

A different way to describe the above thesis is that VR, like real life, contains functional representational content. When we perceive objects in real life, there is a tacit assumption that we could, at least in principle, interact with that object: we can approach things, touch things, use them for particular ends, and so forth. Even when considering space, far away from our usual locale of earth, we know it is at least possible for us to be there (say, as an astronaut) and interact in some way with what we find there (I bracket fringe cases here, such as the capacity to interact with dark matter, because nothing crucial in my argument depends on how such cases turn out). Based on our capacity to interact with the various elements of our environment, we are able to bring about a variety of disparate events that are contingent on how we choose to interact with our environment – an ability which allows us in principle to freely choose events to an enormously – indeed, perhaps incalculably – high degree.[3]

The problem with this exceedingly high degree of freedom to, in principle, choose to experience various events, is that it is directly at odds with a traditional goal of narrative: didacticism. When we consider what it means for something to be a ‘narrative’ in the literary sense, a full account usually involves some didactic element; that is to say, we assume that the author of a narrative designed it in such a way as to convey a certain message or elicit a certain response from its appreciator. This didactic element of narrative can be conveyed through a variety of literary elements: word choice, subject matter, and, particularly relevant for the argument at hand, the chain of events constituting the narrative. Which events in the world of a story the author chooses for his particular narrative, the order in which he arranges these events, and so on, are all in part constitutive of the overall meaning of the story. When we think of examples, this is almost trivial: the Odyssey, for instance, would not be the same sort of triumphant revenge story without the chain of events culminating in Odysseus killing his wife’s suitors. A chain of events, in short, is one of the basic building blocks with which an author conveys a narrative’s meaning to the reader.

Dishonored Title Art

I have spoken at length in my various analyses of story-based video games about the ways in which they uniquely allow a player to influence chains of events, leading to different narrative outcomes; while this is certainly a crucial feature of video games that goes beyond the fixed chain of events featured in a film or novel, note that even choice-based games are typically fairly linear – that is to say that, while the story may “branch” in different places based on the choices of a player (e.g., Dishonored), this typically just means that a video game features a few possible chains of events based on player choice. A writer can just as easily be didactic with a branching series of events as with a single series of events, providing she knows her craft well – there will certainly be novel considerations such as what didactic content manifests from the interrelations between the various branches of the storyline, but this added nuance does not in any way make the didactic narrative process impossible (again, games such as Dishonored are testament to this). However, games with fairly linear storylines are only one type of game: many others privilege player choice over a traditional storyline, up to the point where some games offer huge, interactive worlds, with numerous choices for the player to make but without any overarching narrative (e.g., a traditional game of Minecraft, in comparison to a story-based mod thereof). At the extreme, these “sandbox games,” in which a player can do virtually anything but has no strict overarching narrative to follow, are an extremely scaled-down example of the problem faced by VR: more choice means more potential chains of events, which makes it more difficult, up to the point of impossibility, to design a didactic narrative.

We can draw a comparison here between the high degree of freedom in VR and the difficulty to model complex physical systems. For example, in her book The Dappled World, philosopher of science Nancy Cartwright discusses a case first made popular by Otto Neurath: the question of where a thousand dollar bill, swept up by the wind, will land. “Mechanics,” Cartwright says, “provides no model for this situation. We have only a partial model, which describes the thousand dollar bill as an unsupported object in the vicinity of the earth, and thereby introduces the force exerted on it due to gravity […] [There is also] in principle (in God’s complicated theory?) a model for mechanics for the action of the wind, albeit probably a very complicated one that we may never succeed in constructing.”[4] Cartwright’s point here is that the number of variables required to accurately construct a mechanical model of a flimsy dollar carried by the wind is so large as to appear virtually incalculable – the complexity of the situation cannot be effectively described by classical mechanics. The point in the case of VR is that a similar breadth of complexity arises if we introduce the number of variable branching events necessary to model a world where a player can act as freely as they act in real life. An author of video may be able to craft a didactic, branching narrative with three or four player-choice-contingent outcomes, but crafting a coherent and didactic set of chains of events for some large number n required by full-immersion agency seems, for the purposes of aesthetic narrative, practicably impossible.

Now, it would be unfair to say that the events of real life cannot in some sense be didactic. People construct narratives out of their real-life experiences all the time; the crucial distinction is that this type of didacticism is only possible after one has already experienced the events in question. Most of us, I take it, do not suppose that all the events we experience in life were pre-designed in order to articulate some particular meaning – rather, we retroactively make meaning out of whatever events we have experienced in life.[5] Such a dynamic as this may well be theoretically possible in VR: imagine something like a complex world with a particular physics, designed to respond to a player in patterned ways. The problem of not being able to design events didactically would remain, yet one could still ascribe meaning to the overall chain of events after the fact – imagine, by way of analogy, something like a tabletop game of Dungeons and Dragons with a very flexible, lenient, versatile dungeon master; or, if you prefer, imagine playing some sandbox game like Minecraft for several hours, and thereafter trying to construct an overall narrative of the events that took place. You might look back on these series of events and formulate some kind of meaning based on them, yet there seems to be no sense in which the series of events were designed for that meaning, prior to you engaging with the game. To reiterate, this is a process and type of engagement fundamentally distinct from the didactically architected narrative we expect from novels, films, and story-based video games.

This is the fundamental friction between VR and traditional narrative that I doubt can be even theoretically surmounted: a realistic degree of agency on the part of the player is directly at odds with a chain(s) of events designed for some didactic ends. Any attempt to use VR to improve upon video games’ model of narrative will have to find some way to solve this problem.

III. Video games can do things that VR cannot.

Beyond the problem of didacticism, another motivation for not conceiving of VR as a step “beyond” video games is that video games, in their current forms, can achieve unique aesthetic effects that do not seem possible in VR. I have examined such effects before, and in this section I will therefore largely recapitulate my earlier work on this topic.

PAX East

At a panel I attended on user interface/experience (‘UI’/’UX’) design at PAX East last spring, the panelists remarked that “the sign of an effective, sleek UI is that no player actually comments on or notices the UI.  When the future of UI was discussed, motions were made toward the promises of virtual reality to eventually develop games in which UI is ultimately seamless.[6] I questioned whether it ought to be the case that UI/UX categorically aim towards seamless immersion of the player in the world of the game:

“With so many options available [for UI design], it seems naive to claim that the ultimate goal of UI is to be as unnoticeable as possible.  In my own work, I have aimed at articulating how the different relationships between player, avatar, and game world can establish unique aesthetic effects (e.g., the embedded narratology of “Assassin’s Creed,” or the player-dependent metaphysics of “Legend of Zelda:  Majora’s Mask”); the most immediate facilitator of these interactions, by virtue of being the conduit between player and avatar, is the UI.  So I think it follows that UI ought to explore as many permutations of aesthetic principles as possible, rather than mere design permutations, such that we can explore the broadest boundaries of what sort of stories video games as a medium are capable of telling.  Perhaps a counterpoint to immersive UI could be intentionally alienating UI that make the player feel like an utter stranger in spite of controlling the avatar within the game; such a model could be the foundation for an aesthetic of estrangement that, by virtue of being interactive, could be much more successful as a video game than as art in another medium.

“What’s more, my intuition is that it’s an artifact of the current state of UI design that we see a conceptual difference between physical space and narrative space in a video game, as the Fagerholt/Lorentzon model [of UI design] suggests.  As we develop a more comprehensive theory of video game aesthetics, I think it will become increasingly clear that physical game space and what’s called “narrative” are two different ways of seeing the same aesthetics.  Already, the lines between [various types of UI] are blurry at best:  we may say that directional markers pointing the player towards a goal are “merely spatial”; yet if we extend the concept of game narrative to include the player as a fundamental, as I have argued that we must, then is this not also a narrative element?  And this is the crucial point:  for once we accept the player as a part of the game’s narrative, and the totality of the game as its world, then it seems as though all UI, while still aesthetically differentiable, is intrinsically diegetic.

Batman and the Joker

A few months after I theoretically rejected the dogma that UI ought to trend toward full player immersion, Batman: Arkham Knight was released, providing a vivid example of the precise point I was trying to make. I quote the case at length from my review of the game (this, of course, constitutes a spoiler for those who have yet to play through the game):

“At one point in the game, Alfred tells Batman that Lucius Fox has not been responding to communications for a while. The player can then choose to go to Wayne Tower, where Lucius has been stationed during the events of the game, to check on his status. Batman enters the elevator up to the top of the Tower, where Lucius presumably is, and is seen in the elevator dressed as Bruce Wayne – ostensibly because Lucius’ staff, who does not know Batman’s secret identity, are still in the building, the player directs Wayne into Lucius office, only to find it empty. Searching the office, there is once prompt available to the player: to use the retinal scanner on Lucius’ computer. Wayne sits down in the chair, does this, only to have the computer reject his retinal scan. At this point, Lucius enters the room, approaches the desk, and asks Wayne is anything is wrong and whether there is anything Lucius can do for him. The UI prompt for the player is to press a button to again “Use Retinal Scanner.” However, when the player pressed the button, rather than merely looking into the computer’s scanner again, Wayne grabs Lucius, slams his head against the table, presses his eye up to the scanner, and then begins transferring funds out of Wayne Enterprise’s bank accounts. At this point, the screen is revealed to be security camera footage that the real Batman is watching in the elevator up to Lucius’ office: although the player presumably did not realize it at the time, he was previously playing as Hush, who had surgically engineered his face to look like Bruce Wayne’s in order to break into the Tower.

“The “what-have-I-done” horror of the player upon “using the retinal scanner” is a direct result of UI not being transparent: although the player expects his agency to be extended through the avatar in one way (that is, merely putting one’s eye up to the retinal scanner), his agency ends up effecting something vastly different than what was expected (that is, brutalizing Lucius). This also makes vivid the completeness of Hush’s transfiguration into Wayne: in the game, the source of Batman’s agency is the player, who directs how he ought to act; the player also knows that Batman and Bruce Wayne are identical. Hush was so successful that he tricked the actual source of Batman’s agency into mistaking him for Bruce Wayne, indirectly making Batman responsible for Hush’s attack on Lucius. This makes the standard guilt of Batman for the actions of evildoers grounded in a very strong theoretical way with respect to game mechanics: in this case, Batman’s dual identity, an explicit theme throughout the game, ends up hurting those around him because an enemy is able to convince the player, the agent who most wants and is able to make Batman a hero within the universe of the game, to unwittingly help Hush in his wicked machinations. This grounds the guilt of Batman for the evil that happens in Gotham in a way that only video games could ground it: not only does that evil happen in spite of him, but, in cases like this, it actually comes about because of him.”[7]

Bionis and Mechonis

The point here is that many of the special aesthetic features of video games come about from the very fact that the player controls an entity in the game’s universe that is not identical to herself – something that cuts against the grain of full immersion. Some video game narratives actually only make sense because the player is able to act upon the game’s universe while remaining separable from it: for example, in the case of Xenoblade Chronicles, I have argued that the only way to make sense of the protagonist (Shulk) overcoming a god (Zanza) that has knowledge of the universe’s total causal structure is to attribute Shulk’s agency to the player, who is not bound within the programmed universe of the game, and can thereby perturb the evolution of its causal chains in ways that the god cannot anticipate:

Xenoblade does something remarkable on the level of second-order narrative:  it shows how video games can be used in aesthetically powerful ways to create a universe with a complete metaphysics, and then perturb those metaphysics with an external agent.  A universe of Leibniz’s metaphysics [such as Xenoblade’s] leaves all being subordinate to god [Zanza], which reflects the structure of games as a program, the path of which is determined prior to the player ever finding it; yet the design of the universe as something that can be externally observed allows the player to disturb the universe’s determined structure, and tell a story whose narrative arc is only valid by virtue of the player’s interference.  This feature, then, reflects the value of the player acting upon the program of a game to bring its narrative from the realm of possible paths into the reality of a single path from start to finish.”[8]

So we cannot conceive of VR, even when it is refined in the coming years, as an evolution and improvement upon video game narratives. Such a conception could only reasonably rest on the goal of the player being fully immersed in the narrative, because the other special aesthetic ends of video game narrative fall out of the separateness of the player and avatar – something that is lost in the case of VR. And, as I showed in Parts I and II, this goal of full immersion, when combined with player agency, makes our most fundamental notion of narrative implausible in VR. When we look to the future of VR, it cannot be in the form of the “ultimate video game.”

IV. VR could be the next evolution of film.

As I mentioned at the outset of this article, the above considerations are not intended to success that VR is an industry with no future or meaningful place in society – such a position would be misguided and naïve. I have only been concerned with blocking the intuition that VR can advance the storytelling of video games in a way that many people find intuitively plausible. In this last section, I wish to close by pointing to one of the many other areas in which I think that VR holds tremendous promise: further developing the notion of film.

In his August article on the VR industry, Stein nods repeatedly to the apparent potential for VR to allow people to experience events with a greater degree of intimacy than in other media. He describes the work of Xavier Palomer Ripoll, who designs VR simulations that “allow therapists to use immersion therapy with clients who have anxiety disorders, letting them virtually sit on a plane or ride in an elevator, for example.”[9] Jaunt has developed an app that can gives its users “a good sense of what it’s like to be backstage at a Paul McCartney concert.” Felix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael are “documenting nomadic tribes around the world so you can sit in a Mongolian yurt while a family cooks.” The element of experience that VR has the potential to provide can make people feel as if they are “really in,” say, the events of a movie, or a nomadic tribe’s home.


Such an enhanced degree of intimacy and immersion, without the complications of agency, has tremendous potential. Not only will people be able to experience film-like narratives more vividly, but they will also be able to experience places in a nearer-to-life way that might not otherwise be available to them. Dreamporte, for example, is a non-profit organization that focuses on using VR to bring underprivileged youth educational experiences that would otherwise be inaccessible to them. VR has the potential to hugely decrease the barrier of access to world travel (virtually experience sitting in a café in Paris), to classrooms (sit in a virtual classroom and listen to lectures), and so on. Particularly as the technological quality increases and cost decreases, VR will have an opportunity to very much change the lives of everyday people.

I call this an evolution of film because, as I argued above, extended agency in VR would render narrative virtually impossible. I therefore see film, with a fixed narrative or series of events, as a better model upon which VR can improve. VR can turn the passive experiences we observe in a film into felt experiences with which we can, in some limited capacity, engage; and, as Stein rightly says, this is enough to change much about the state of the world.Tidus

Yet with VR’s potential we must also acknowledge its limitations, and that, no matter how much we may wish for it to do, there will be some things it cannot do. Tidus famously opens Final Fantasy X with the injunction, “Listen to my story.” Video games toe a fine line between between the authority of authors and the authority of players; they manage (some more effectively than others) to architect didactic plotlines while also allowing the player to explore and sometimes determine the plot of her own accord. That VR could improve upon this may seem intuitive – but I believe, in the review, that this is one domain best left to video games.


Cartwright, Nancy. The Dappled World: A Study of the Boundaries of Science. Cambridge University Press, 1999. Print.

Fagerholt, Erik and Lorentzon, Magnus. Beyond the HUD: User Interfaces for Increased Player Immersion in FPS Games. Chalmers University of Technology, 2009. Web. 15 October 2015.

Monolith Soft. Xenoblade Chronicles. 10 June 2010.

Nintendo. Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. 27 April 2000.

Rocksteady Studios. Batman: Arkham Knight. 23 June 2015.

Square Enix. Final Fantasy X. 19 June 2001.

Stein, Joel. “Why Virtual Reality is About to Change the World.” TIME. 6 August 2015. TIME. Web. 15 October 2015.

Suduiko, Aaron. Various. With a Terrible Fate. Web. 2015.

Ubisoft. Assassin’s Creed. 13 November 2007.

[1] From “Why Virtual Reality is About to Change the World.”

[2] This panel featured Vicki Ebberts [UX, Undead Labs], Alexandria Neonakis [UI/UX Designer, Naughty Dog], and Kate Welch [UI/UX, Freelance]. See “From the Floor of PAX East, Part II: The Aesthetics of User Interfaces.

[3] What I am claiming here does not depend on a metaphysical claim that we have free will; all that is required for the argument is that we have the experience of having free will, which may just as well end up being epiphenomenal or otherwise superficial with respect to metaphysics.

[4] Cartwright 27, italics mine. Cartwright uses this argument in the context of objecting to those who take a fundamentalist stance towards physical laws; the details of her overall dialectic are less important than the thought experiment itself.

[5] One might disagree with me by taking the stance that, in life, “everything happens for a reason” in the sense that events are in some way pre-designed to serve some purpose. While I would deny such teleology for unrelated reasons, note that such a view actually does not speak against my case: for if one believes that events are pre-ordained for a certain end, then it is very difficult to also commit to any sense of free will in one’s life, even as an epiphenomenon; one is therefore committing to a Weltanschauung that very much resembles a traditional narrative without branching, choice-dependent elements – and there is obviously no problem with designing narratives such as these didactically. This view of real life therefore does nothing to mitigate the difficulty of representing freedom to choose in VR – it merely denies that any such freedom exists in the real world.

[6] This quote and the following come from my March 24, 2015 article, “From the Floor of PAX East, Part II: The Aesthetics of User Interfaces.

[7] For my full review of Arkham Knight, from which this is excerpted, see “What is it like to be a Batman? Reviewing Arkham Knight.

[8] Excerpted from a longer analysis of the game, “Finding your Monad: Xenoblade and Leibniz.”

[9] This and subsequent quotes in this paragraph come from “Why Virtual Reality is About to Change the World.”

“Bloodborne,” Lovecraft, and the Dangerous Idea.

(A word of caution:  spoilers for “Bloodborne” abound here; while I do not normally give such warnings, much of the very aesthetic that I discuss can be lost by knowing the particulars of the game prior to actually experiencing it for yourself.)

The influence of H.P. Lovecraft, modern father of horror by most accounts, transparently dominates FromSoftware’s latest work, “Bloodborne.”[1] This is not, in and of itself, a new observation – at this point, only a few months after the initial release of the game, you can throw a stone in any direction and hit a piece pointing out that the game pays due homage to Lovecraft. FromSoftware knew what they were doing with the Lovecraftian aesthetic, and they knew it to a meticulous extent. To wit: the game’s global release was organized between March 24th and March 27th, 2015; in Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu,” this interval at the end of March encompasses the time of madness when Cthulhu awakens from its subterranean tomb, driving sensitive minds beyond the pale of sanity. Lovecraft’s mythos radiates from “Bloodborne.”

Cthulu Rises

While I do not wish to disparage previous critics and analysts who have pointed out the Lovecraftian elements of “Bloodborne,” I must confess that I find Lovecraft-oriented analyses of the game up to this point has been largely superficial in nature. Certainly, the design and origins of the Kin mirror those of Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones; certainly, the interplay between Insight and Frenzy reflect the Lovecraftian aesthetic of cosmic knowledge countervailing sanity; but to equate such features as these with the Lovecraftian motif in “Bloodborne” does justice to neither the author nor the game. To that end, I wish in this paper to defend the claim that “Bloodborne,” by virtue of being a video game instead of a novel, actually extends the notion of Lovecraftian horror beyond the domain that was available to Lovecraft himself. “Bloodborne,” I will argue, exposes the essence of Lovecraftian horror by bringing into focus the total inefficacy of agency – that is to say, it makes us question why it ought to matter at all that we seem able to make choices in our real lives.

Follow me down a rabbit hole to find the dangerous idea that sits at the heart of the Lovecraftian horror in “Bloodborne.”

The Amygdala

First, I will provide a baseline of what I mean by ‘Lovecraftian horror’ before we begin. Lovecraft was famously quoted as saying that “[the] oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” In broad strokes, Lovecraftian horror is this “fear of the unknown”; but this does not mean “unknown” merely in the sense of, say, not knowing that a serial killer is waiting to jump out at you from behind a corner. Rather, Lovecraftian horror isolates the fear-of-unknown as it relates to the outmost bounds of what it is possible for us to know. Imagine, for example, that you are a sunflower. Insofar as one can imagine this in the first place, it stands to reason that you qua sunflower would lack the faculties necessary to acknowledge or understand the existence of humans: plants lack the consciousness and complexity to comprehend (and perhaps also to apprehend) that humans exist right alongside them. Lovecraftian horror takes this argument and applies it to our position qua humans: it asks the question, “What if extremely advanced beings exist right alongside us, and we lack the perceptual faculties or sufficient complexity to comprehend their existence?” This is the inspiration for his Cthulhu and Great Old Ones, beings that lived on earth far before humans, that still exist in the earth’s recesses, and the very knowledge of which can drive humans mad. Some beings may exist just outside our door while also being far beyond the scope of our reason, Lovecraft suggests – and there may be no cause for these beings to be friendly toward us.

Besides ancient, tentacled, extra-dimensional beings, Lovecraft is also known for his usage of dreamscapes as an outer bounds on the human capacity to experience the cosmos. “Bloodborne” is also set in various levels of dreams and nightmares; but again, to offer this observation as the game’s Lovecraftian legacy does justice to neither the game nor the man. As it happens, considering the dream-state of the game is a useful path into what makes “Bloodborne” a compelling extension of Lovecraftian horror, but for reasons much subtler than the existence of “The Hunter’s Dream” as a central hub, or “Nightmares” as late-game areas. In fact, we need go no further than the game’s opening sequence to dig into what makes it interesting as a framework of dreams.

The Blood Minister

Note that the game actually begins in the first-person perspective, with the Blood Minister providing the player with a blood transfusion and prompting character creation before reassuring him that “Whatever happens, you may think it all a mere bad dream”; only then, after the player’s vision fades, does the player’s character awake, with the player adopting a third-person perspective on that character. This frames the entire story of “Bloodborne” as a dream, extending the analogy through game mechanics by making the player shift from a first-person perspective, which is how we see the world in real life, to a third-person perspective, which is how we frequently “see ourselves” in dreams.

This isn’t the only element that “Bloodborne” shares with dreams; in fact, it shares several key characteristics with lucid dreams in particular. By ‘lucid dreams’, I refer specifically to dreams of the kind in which one is fully aware of one’s dream surroundings and is able to perceive oneself as taking actions that yield consequences on the environment of the dream, without being aware that one is actually dreaming.[2] Beyond the third-person perspective and fantastical imagery that the game shares with such dreams, one crucial element unites the experience of playing “Bloodborne” with the experience of having a lucid dream: the perception of agency, on the part of the player in the former case, and on the part of the dreamer in the latter case. This sense of agency – the capacity to take actions that yield changes in one’s environment – is, I take it, the primary phenomenological reason for lucid dreams “feeling real”: as in reality, we perceive ourselves in the lucid dream as agents, rather than merely passively being part of a dream narrative, as is typically the case in non-lucid dreams.

“Bloodborne,” then, is in many regards like a lucid dream – but, again, this insight alone invites the “So what?” question. What makes this analogy remarkable is a crucial aspect in which the game is disanalogous to lucid dreams: namely, the player of a game knows that he acts as an agent constrained within a fictional universe, whereas the lucid dreamer does not necessarily recognize the fictional, constrained nature of the dream-world in which he acts. Although both the video game and a dream are ‘fictional worlds’ in some loose sense of the term, the dreamer is actually more similar to the player’s avatar in “Bloodborne” than the player himself; for, just as the dreamer is bounded by the dream, with no knowledge of the waking world beyond it, so, too, is the avatar’s existence bounded by the dream-universe of the game. The avatar acknowledges no world beyond the game because, to the avatar, there is no world beyond the game.

What ties this framework together and turns Bloodborne into the most innovative piece of modern horror is a single line, which marks the liminality between first-person and third-person perspectives in the game, signaling the end of the game’s introduction and the beginning of the game proper:

“Ahh, you’ve found yourself a hunter.”

Consider the context of this, the first words of the Doll of the Hunter’s Dream: the first-person perspective by which the player experienced the introductory blood transfusion immediately precedes these words, and the third-person perspective by which the player engages his avatar immediately follows these words. Given this context and the overall dream framework of the game, I find the most plausible explanation of this line to be that the Doll is speaking to the player: she is remarking that the player has found a proxy by which to engage the lucid dream analogue that is “Bloodborne.” Besides intuitively tracking with the ‘you’ the Doll addresses, this explanation also has the advantage of promoting the most thoroughly Lovecraftian interpretation of the game that I have seen to date: namely, as I said at the outset, that our apparent capacity to act as agents in the real world could be entirely meaningless.

Recall that the dreamer in a lucid dream, ex hypothesi, lacks awareness that he is in a dream. Just so, if we analyze the player’s avatar not as an avatar, but merely as a character within the world of the game, it is most plausible to suppose that, like the dreamer, he has no recognition of the world external to the limits of the game. Therefore, the avatar is not aware of the player, who is ultimately responsible for the agency and choices of the avatar. The avatar may very well think that he is making his own choices, although they are all the result of the player’s exertion of control on him. This is the dangerous thought in “Bloodborne”: it is not merely that the world constantly expands and reveals new constituents in order to reveal the miniscule limitations of the avatar’s epistemology; rather, it is the subtle indication that the very source of what the avatar as his own free will is entirely outside of himself, beyond the scope of his epistemology. In other words, his actions are not his own, and he can never be in a position to apprehend this fact.

The dynamics of the video game, by which the player extends his agency into the game through a proxy (i.e., the avatar) is uniquely suited to subsume the matter of agency under the domain of the Lovecraftian unknown, thereby accomplishing something that not even Lovecraft himself could do. When one picks up a Lovecraft story, as is the case with most written works, one treats it as an artifact, an account of various agents who discovered beings far greater than themselves, and thereby suffered for it. Although the agents may be rendered impotent by this discovery, the question of whether the free will of the agents actually belonged to them was never raised – print media is not amenable to such questions in the same way as video games, which trade on matters of agency and choice.

The dangerous idea that “Bloodborne” invites you to consider, thereby extending Lovecraftian horror to new dimensions, is that there may be no way to prove that we are not utterly powerless. Not only may the world be complex in ways entirely unavailable to our epistemic apparatus, but the very sensation of free will – the capacity to choose – may be epiphenomenal – that is, our ‘actions’ are brought about by something external to ourselves, like the case of the avatar and the player, though we experience these actions as the results of our will, and will never be in a position to know otherwise. These are not new ideas philosophically, but, within the aesthetic domain, “Bloodborne” is able to break new ground by using the player’s own unique power within the story – the ability to make choices – in order to turn the tables on the player and suggest that, in their own lives, that very own power may be baseless.  Traditional Lovecraft asks the question, “What if humans are so small that our actions make no difference?”; the new Lovecraftian horror of “Bloodborne” starts here and then poses the further question, “What if humans are so small that we have no power over our own actions?”

It is in this way that “Bloodborne” steps up as the true inheritor of Lovecraft, extending his hallmark “fear of the unknown” to our very self-concept as agents in the world. For, if our capacity to act cannot ground us in reality, then on what ought we to base the “realness” of our existence? This is the lingering question that “Bloodborne” plants in your mind before leaving you, which puts a sinister, taunting spin on what is seemingly the most innocuous of the Doll’s lines:

“May you find your worth in the waking world.”

[1] This is not to say that Lovecraft is the only influence on the aesthetic of “Bloodborne” – Van Helsing and Dracula have also been cited, for example. However, such other influences, by my estimation, are far-and-away secondary to the scope and relevance of Lovecraft’s influence.

[2] While I recognize that some lucid dreamers do in fact realize that they are inside of a dream, I have in mind instead lucid dreamers who exhibit agency and awareness inside of a dream without recognizing that it is a dream. This encompasses only one subset of what are colloquially termed ‘lucid dreams’.

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.

Video Games versus Cinema: Comparing “Xenoblade Chronicles” to “Stranger than Fiction.”

Updated analyses of “Dishonored” and “Majora’s Mask 3D” are still forthcoming, friends.  For the moment, I wish to offer an academic paper which I penned, in which I offer an example of how video games are uniquely equipped to tell stories that other media fundamentally cannot.  Interested?  Read on to find out what makes “Xenoblade Chronicles” work where “Stranger than Fiction” comes up short.

Bionis and Mechonis

Comparative critique of nested narratives in “Stranger than Fiction” and “Xenoblade Chronicles”

With a Terrible Fate, Spring 2015


            A useful way of framing discussion of narrative is the degree to which the aesthete and author (read: writer) interact to create the story in question. I take this interaction to exist on a continuum. On one end, media such as books, though leaving the reader with agency on the level of interpretation, vest the responsibility for actual creation of the story in the author: that it to say, the content of the story is fixed by the words produced by the author, and these words remain the same irrespective of the particular aesthete who reads them. On the far other end of the spectrum, one might say, is our actual world considered aesthetically, in which the aesthete perceives (or may actually have) free will and fully realized agency, and the presence of a creator is so obscure as to constitute an entire discipline of theological and cosmic debate.[1]

Video games fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum; we can support this claim by the fact that video games, while still clearly representing a mimetic world without total immersions, do have the potential to take the agency of the aesthete (henceforth ‘player’) as a fundamental in their narrative. “Xenoblade Chronicles” (Nintendo, 2010) offers an example of how a video game can situation of their narratives being designed by both author and player to tell stories that other media cannot. In Section I, I define what I call the “death of the author” motif as it is used in literature (not as it is used in literary theory), and explain how it theoretically falls short in the movie “Stranger than Fiction” (Zach Helm, 2006). In Section II, I explain the metaphysics and general narrative structure of “Xenoblade,” and show why it is equipped to theoretically back the death of the author motif where “Stranger than Fiction” fails. Finally, in Section III, I conclude by arguing that the mechanics crucial to achieving this motif are only in fact available to video games, which is an example of a type of story that can only be meaningfully told in this particular medium.

  1. The problem of authors killing themselves off

            I will immediately clarify what I mean by a ‘death of the author motif’, because the term, though borrowed from literary theory, means something distinct from the “death of the author” approach to textual interpretation. It is sometimes the case, particularly with respect to stories with nested or self-referential structures, that one level of narrative is stipulated as having a particular author, who, within the larger narrative, is killed off or otherwise robbed of agency.[2] From this point, the overarching narrative must explain this substratum of narrative in a post-authorial context: perhaps it cedes control to the characters of that narrative, or perhaps it demands the reader to account for it using her own interpretive faculties. We might describe the motif I have in mind as the narrative analogue of the literary theoretical understanding of the death of the author: as the latter treats aesthetic objects as art independent of howsoever they were created, so the former tells the story of a narrative world put in the situation of existing without its stipulated creator and authority.

But there is a problem: even though this motif seems to be comprehensible, not all stories deploy it in theoretically compelling ways. We should note, of course, that stories implementing these structures will (hopefully) never be fully theoretically realizable in terms of Leibniz’s identity of indiscernibles – otherwise, killing Poe in a story would have immediately and causally lead to the death of Poe, the historical figure. Putting this aside, however, I contend that there are still methods of analysis within narrative theory to assess whether or not a story deploys this technique in a justifiable way. To explain what I mean, I offer a quick sketch of “Stranger than Fiction” and why it fails to use this motif in a compelling manner.

The film begins with a voiceover of the day in the life of Harold Crick. Soon, however, Crick becomes aware of the narrative voice, which leads him to enter a frenzied state in which he is seen by observers as schizophrenic, yelling back at a voice that no one else can here. The viewer learns that the voice is of an author (Karen Eiffel) who is writing a book about Harold, and Harold soon learns through the narration that the author plans to kill him off. Seeking advice from a literature professor, Harold takes strides to uncover the nature of his story, and tries (in vain) to escape the plot, until he ultimately locates Eiffel. At first he tries to convince her to change the ending; yet after reading it, he comes to believe that there is no other way she could possibly end the book; he therefore asks her to finish the book as planned. Yet Eiffel decides to spare Crick in an ending where he pushes a boy out of the way of an oncoming bus and is gravely injured, yet not killed – thanks to the sacrifice of his watch, which has been anthropomorphized throughout the narrative.

This is actually a rather high quality movie as far as I’m concerned, and the plot can obviously be “told” in so far as I can write it down and recount it to you in comprehensible terms; yet all the same, there is something theoretically out-of-joint afoot in this story when we actually sit down and try to parse out how the narrative functions. Here are the relevant features that together, I think, draw a contradiction, in spite of composing a coherent plot.

  1. Eiffel, in writing her story, inexplicably instantiates humans in her actual world.
  2. The humans instantiated in [1] are numerically identical to Eiffel’s characters, and their lives evolve in accordance with the narrative she writes (her typewriter, apparently, is the apparatus responsible for this. Because they are by definition characters, those with whom they interact are also characters by virtue of being part of their narrative.
  3. One of the humans from [1] (viz. Crick) gains awareness of the narrator describing his life, and engages with it as though it were a disembodied voice speaking to him.
  4. In spite of being aware that a narrator presides over his life, Crick’s life continues to evolve in accordance with [2] and be mostly narrated by the voice; however, he appears to have a limited range of leeway from the narrative in that he can: discuss the narrative in a second-order sense with a literary critic; assess whether his narrative is a tragedy or comedy; etc.
  5. In the leeway stipulated by [4], Crick is able to pursue the voice observed by [3], meet Eiffel, and discuss his narrative with her.
  6. From [5] and [2], Eiffel necessarily becomes a character in her own story, although she also must continue as the author of the story, because the story is not yet finished.
  7. Because of [5], Eiffel changes the ending of the story she is writing, claiming that the ending of Crick dying only worked if he did not expect it, and that a person who knowingly jumped in front of a bus to save a child could not be killed off; she instead lets him live.
  8. When lauded by his girlfriend that he risked his life to save a child, Crick claims that he “had no choice,” implying that his action was a result of [2].

Coherent though the plot may be, we can see that its various features stand in opposition at several points. [6] reads like a paradox: how can Eiffel write herself into a story which she then must also finish writing? But the aesthete might object here that this sounds like a complaint derived from Leibniz’s identity of indiscernibles, because the trouble is that Eiffel the character and Eiffel the author do not seem numerically identical – and we have taken Leibniz’s identity of indiscernibles off the table.

That’s a fair complaint, but the narrative trouble to which I point is actually ontologically prior to this paradox: the issue, I contend, arises from the fact that it’s not at all clear what principles we ought to use to understand [4]. It seems to me that there is no way, within or without the explicit narrative, to pin down what I pick out as ‘narrative leeway’; yet a concept such as this must be stipulated within the logic of the narrative, because it is the only move by which to explain Crick examining and interacting with the narrative descriptor on a second-order level. It is unclear how Eiffel could substantiate a character that, while still operating within the confines of the story that she architects, also appears to be privileged to a similar sort of agency that Eiffel herself has. We can understand this “half-agency” of Crick on the level of brute plot, yet it remains ontologically mysterious within the scope of the narrative, so that the viewer cannot find traction on the issue of precisely how Crick ends up moving beyond the authority of his author in the first place (and we know from [4] that he must move beyond that authority in some way).

It may well be that a clear explication of [4] would lead to a clearer conception of what is meant by the seeming paradoxical results in [5]-[8]; however, I will argue in Section III that this is precisely what a film is incapable, by limitation of the medium, of achieving. Presently, I wish to turn to “Xenoblade” to offer readers an example of how a similar narrative structure can present with less mysterious ontology.

  1. One solution to seeming half-agency[3]

“Xenoblade Chronicles” is superficially similar to “Stranger than Fiction” in that both stories deploy a causal framework that is instantiated by an entity with “creator” status – in “Stranger than Fiction,” this entity was an author vested with peculiar metaphysical authority; in “Xenoblade,” this entity is a scientist who literally creates a universe, in which he is the god. What I will argue is that this framework of understanding ‘authorship’ in the nested-narrative context is useful for explaining why “Xenoblade” theoretically succeeds where “Stranger than Fiction” falls short. To use this framework, we first need a provisional sketch of the narrative and metaphysics of “Xenoblade.”[4]

A note on terminology before we begin: “Xenoblade” is a complicated game to parse because it stipulates multiple universes occurring across history. As such, I will be differentiating between the ‘worlds’ of the game – i.e., particular universes stipulated within the scope of the game – and the ‘universe’ of the game, referring to the totality of space-time as defined within the game’s outermost parameters.

In the original world of “Xenoblade” – call it ‘W0’ – two scientists, Klaus and Meyneth,[5] are involved in a “phase transition experiment” in which Klaus creates a new world, collapsing their own world in the process. This experiment takes place on a space station orbiting Earth – that is to say, it is stipulated within the universe of the game that W0 is the world of the player (we will return to this later). In the new world created by this experiment, Klaus and Meyneth are gods – Meyneth’s name is “Lady Meyneth” (see footnote 5), and Klaus is called “Zanza.” Zanza, in particular, has total knowledge of the causal structure of the universe (presumably by virtue of being its creator), so we can say in this sense that divine predestination obtains. The universe so created was comprised of two colossi: the Mechonis, a mechanical colossus; and the Bionis, a biological colossus. The Mechonis is representative of Meyneth, and the Bionis is representative of Zanza; in particular, the gods are described as the “souls” of these colossi. Diverse life forms, created by Zanza and Meyneth, populated both the Mechonis and Bionis, and took the colossi to be their home. This describes the most basic ontology and metaphysics of a particular world within the game’s universe following W0.

Zanza, however, was apparently a lonely god who feared the creatures of his world forgetting his status as their god. As such, he would periodically destroy the current world and give rise to a new one. Eventually, Meyneth took up arms in an effort to stop him and protect the creatures of the world; the two colossi, harboring Zanza and Meyneth as their souls, did battle, and eventually fell dormant as Meyneth was weakened and forced into stasis, and Zanza was imprisoned on the Bionis, falling dormant as well.

The setting for almost all of the game’s playable narrative is an nth such world. The player typically controls a party of multiple characters, but the narrative is focalized on one particular character as the player’s main point of access into the world: Shulk. Shulk is crucial as a character because of his relationship to Zanza, and to a sword called the Monado. When Shulk was young, he and his family came across a cave sheltering the Monado; all perished but Shulk, and Shulk developed a “bond” to the sword. Though the player doesn’t know at the beginning of the game, this “bond” is actually the fact that Zanza’s spirit, contained within the blade, came at that time to rest dormant within Shulk, waiting until late in the game to cast Shulk off as an empty shell and return in his full-fledged god form. In fact, it is within the conceit of the game that Shulk died along with the rest of his family in the cave; according to Zanza, only his (i.e., Zanza’s) spirit was animating the boy. Yet somehow Shulk returns from the dead to confront Zanza with his friend, ultimately killing the god. We will have to explain how the game can justify such a resurrection – but first, a brief digression into the Monado and Leibniz is in order.

Within the conceit of the game, the Monado is most immediately understood as a sword with the ability to perceive the future and alter reality in various ways. The game is unclear about precisely how this happens, but we can take what is happening roughly as follows: the world at bottom is a wave function in the medium of ether (“ether” is in fact explicated within the game as the world’s fundamental constituent; the wave function formalization is left implicit). The Monado is able to read this function, which is identical to the world’s causal structure as it evolves over time; and, in so doing, the wielder of the Monado (read for the moment: Shulk) can perturb the wave function so as to change the course of future events (more on the specifics of this in a moment).

However, there are other claims explicated within the game as to what the Monado is. When Zanza the god first appears after freeing himself from Shulk, he says the following to Shulk’s friends: ‘“Do not be surprised. Everything in this world is dictated by the passage of fate. As all that exists is interconnected, time can only flow toward the inevitable. That is the vision of which I, the Monado, am the origin.” Here, Zanza identifies himself with the Monado, which makes sense in so far as we have seen divine predestination obtain: the notion at this point in the game is that, even though Shulk thought he was able to change the future, he was actually being lead through a series of events foreseen by Zanza, a god who is both responsible for the causal chain of the world, and also omniscient with respect to it.

Yet after Shulk comes “back from the dead” and confronts Zanza with his friends, the concept of the Monado seems to evolve. The physical sword Monados were, after Zanza’s exposition, taken to be articles of gods, representative of their causal omniscience and omnipotence (Meyneth and Zanza both had Monados; but in the aftermath of Zanza’s reappearance, Zanza struck down Meyneth and took her Monado for himself); however, Shulk summons his own, third Monado in the final confrontation, which allows him to see the future and counter Zanza himself. Thereafter, we see the game’s final explanation of the Monado concept: a mysterious character who has guided Shulk at crucial points in the narrative, Alvis, reveals that he is actually “the system administrator of [the] phase transition experiment,” and that he is numerically identical with the Monado.

In order to gain traction with the game’s conception of Monados, which is crucial to its narrative structure, I propose a move to Leibniz’s monadology. Of course, the explicit reference to the ‘monad’ could just as well hearken back to the Greeks as to Leibniz’s metaphysics; however, I think we have good reason to believe the intended reference was Leibniz, and also contend that his metaphysics offers us a generally useful mode of thought with which to analyze the narrative. I will offer my analogy and interpretation of Leibniz (as explained by Jeff McDonough, in particular) as a way into analysis.

Leibniz’s mature metaphysics held that organic beings were essentially ‘machines with souls,” and that inanimate objects were comprised of a multitude of organic beings. Taking such a view, one can reduce reality ultimately to a collection of ‘souls’, by repeatedly taking the souls out of organic beings, and then analyzing the machines left over as a collection of organic beings. The souls, on Leibniz’s view, are monads, simple mind-like substances with perception and desire but without extension. This mode of representation is pervasive in “Xenoblade” and forms the basis of what I would call a fractal kind of reality: the same conflicts and relationships played out by the Mechonis and Bionis are played out by Meyneth and Zanza, and are also played out by Shulk (Zanza’s vessel) and Fiora (Shulk’s friend, and Meyneth’s vessel). More literally, the Bionis is a being that is comprised of a soul (Zanza) and a corpus, constituted by all varieties of living creatures. The same analysis holds on a variety of other levels in the game, but this will suffice to make the point.

Consider also the causal structure of the world, as initially stipulated: the world evolves from an initial state as ordained by its omniscient god. While this variety of divine predestination is not unique to Leibniz, it is in accordance with his metaphysics. The name of the swords themselves is misleading, because I see no way to reconcile them directly as mind-like fundamentals; nonetheless, I think this is sufficient to stipulate that even if the finer points of Leibniz’s metaphysics are not articulated, then its general shape is present in the world constituting most of the main narrative; and Monados, too, have a place in this. Where this framework is most useful, however, is in the places where the world’s ontology breaks with Leibniz.

Recall the words of Zanza when he manifests himself independently of Shulk for the first time: “As all that exists is interconnected, time can only flow toward the inevitable. That is the vision of which I, the Monado, am the origin.” This is a strange thing for a god in Leibniz’s world to say, because the predestined evolutions of monads are causally independent from one another; rather, the monads only perceive themselves as causally related, a sort of misconception referred to by Leibniz as ‘pre-established harmony’. I don’t take this as a reason to dismiss Leibniz’s influence on the world’s metaphysics; rather, I see it as a clue explaining how the narrative describes the collapse of a world by the introduction of an external agent: the player.

In my previous work on “Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask” (Nintendo, 2000), I defended a view that the agency of the player can serve a significant role in the narratives of video games, and I think the explanatory work such agency does in this case is an increasing amount of control over the world’s causal chain as the narrative progresses. I describe the narrative in this light as a four-stage progression.

In Stage 1 (from entry into the game until introduction of the Monado’s vision mechanic), the player enters the narrative and is presented with a rote script. She must follow the objectives laid out by the game, and has no conception of how to meaningfully alter that script. This stage is similar to the act of reading a book, as described in this paper’s introduction.

In Stage 2 (from the introduction of the Monado’s vision mechanics through Zanza’s differentiation from Shulk), the player has the false perception of influence over the narrative. The mechanics of the Monado imply to her that she is able to meaningfully alter the world’s causal structure by deciding how to act on visions presented; yet Zanza’s exposition reveals that the unfolding of all events up to that point were part of his plan, thereby declaring the player impotent with respect to narrative impact.

Yet in Stage 3 (from after Zanza’s manifestation up to killing Zanza), Shulk returns independently of Zanza and challenges what the god describes as ‘inevitable fate’. I argue that Shulk’s return is explicable by the same reason why he ultimately generates a third Monado: the player acts as his soul, and perpetuates him in a world where he has been used and eschewed by a god. This is where the player begins to make a difference: by reconstituting Shulk independently of Zanza, the player has the opportunity to utilize the Monado’s mechanics so as to actually change the causal structure of the world; a degree of freedom which culminates in killing Zanza. Zanza unwittingly forecasts this agency in moment of his causal confusion, which describes him as part of the monadology rather than its omniscient origin (we will return to Zanza’s place in all this in a moment).

I pause to clarify what I mean by “changing the causal structure of the world.” I don’t mean to imply that the player, in choosing how to act on an event forecasted by the Monado, instantiates a new universe via a collapse event, or anything so complicated. I find it more parsimonious to explain this in terms of counterfactuals: suppose a view of possible worlds such that the nearest possible worlds are those with the ‘smallest miracles’ necessary to alter the chain of events in the actual worlds. So we might say that the player does, in fact, have the ability via exercising her agency through the mechanic of the Monado to move the narrative to other, relatively local, nomologically possible worlds; but I flag for the reader that these are, relatively speaking, small jumps between possible worlds.

This matter of small jumps contrasts sharply with Stage 4 (from the killing of Zanza to the end of the game’s main plot), in which Alvis intercedes as the Monado, explains the universe’s ontology to Shulk (and, by extension, to the player), and tells Shulk that, by virtue of killing Zanza, he has ended this world, and must now choose a new world to create, as its new god. Shulk opts for “a world without gods.” The player’s agency, through this extension of the endgame, has undone the world in which the entire narrative thus far has taken place, leading to the instantiation of a new universe without gods – precisely what I had in mind with the ‘death of the author’ motif. Killing Zanza, therefore, constitutes the narrative’s apex of authority being vested in the player’s agency as opposed to the author, as represented by Zanza: in his death, the entire framework of the game is cast away and replaced with something new, at which point the game concludes.

The position of the player as an external agent relative to the game is crucial to why this death of the author motif is aesthetically consistent, in contrast to the more problematic model of “Stranger than Fiction.” By the game’s stipulation, Klaus is from the same world in which the player currently exists – Earth – and Klaus, through his phase transition experiment, has created a universe that, by virtue of his role in creating it, takes him as its god. Yet this also subordinates Klaus to the role of Zanza, bounded by the universe that he created. If this was the entire existential domain, then that would not be a problem for him; but the player exists in the world from which Klaus first engaged in his phase transition experiment, and is therefore able to affect the universe as an agent positioned to view the entire causal structure of the universe, including its god. This is the crux of why Zanza is able to be killed in a way that doesn’t feel problematic to the narrative: like Eiffel in “Stranger than Fiction,” he renders himself a character in his own world, but unlike Eiffel, authorship is narratologically transferred to the player and Shulk, who override Zanza and render him null.

III. The unique capacity of video games to kill the author

It seems to me, in closing, that the difference in structure that allows “Xenoblade” to avoid the ontologically mysterious aspects of agency troubling “Stranger than Fiction” is a direct result of the story’s status as a video game. To see what I mean, consider the problem framed as followed: if the characters created by an author within a broader narrative are to take control of the story away from the author, than they must be vested with agency at least equivalent to that of the author; otherwise, it is mysterious how entities whose existence is totally determined by another entity could surmount that entity. It isn’t clear how the author could design characters with the same amount of agency as her, while still dictating the story in which those characters exist; and, if the author creates agents without dictating the story, then these agents seem more like automata than characters as typically understood.   So it seems like the only option to traditional media is to stipulate something metaphysically clunky – e.g., “God decides, for some reason, to transform these characters into full-fledged agents, on the same level as their author.” Yet even this doesn’t map directly onto what happens in “Xenoblade,” because such a state of affairs effectively liberate the characters from the story, without the characters themselves acting against the author in order to destroy or reshape the story. We can keep adding metaphysical qualifications, but the account will continue to lose parsimony.

Video games, however, offer a compact and intuitive way of facilitating just this sort of narrative: characters in a video game, such as Shulk, can at once be ontologically related to a god or author, like Zanza, and can also derive their agency from an external source: the player. In this case, a narrative telling a variation of the death-of-the-author motif amounts to a shift between the relative authority of the author and player within the scope of the plot. This is why I posit that stories like “Xenoblade,” in spite of having plots that can be conveyed in the written word, can only be understood in a sound theoretic lens when represented through the vehicle of video games. We may well find in future studies that other motifs are similarly limited to video games, just as novels, for example, can represent things in ways that other media cannot.

[1] If the real world is a troubling example, then one might instead imagine a total immersion virtual reality experience a la “The Matrix” (Andy Wachowski & Lana Wachowski, 1999), in which the aesthete is fully emerge in a universe that, while designed by someone, is perceived by the aesthete to be without a definitive, foregrounded creator.

[2] For a discussion of this structure as exemplified by Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym, see Umberto Eco’s Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, pp. 17-20 (Harvard University Press, 1994).

[3] I am indebted in this section to Professor Jeff McDonough for clarifying Leibniz’s metaphysics for the purposes of my analysis. Note that no views offered here are meant to reflect Professor McDonough’s views.

[4] Unlike the sketch of “Stranger than Fiction,” this sketch will not be chronological with respect to the narrative. The reason why is because “Xenoblade” offers a story in which the beginnings of the universe, along with its general ontology, are revealed at late stages in the game, such that the player must effectively play through the narrative a second time in order to understand the ontology of the events in the early parts of the story. While intrinsically interesting, this is all peripheral to the matters at hand.

[5] A technical note: it is unlikely that “Meyneth” is actually the name of the second scientist. She is only named this because, as I will explain, a character from within a later world is relating her to her analogous form in his own world – a form named “Lady Meyneth.” We never hear her referenced by name in our one glimpse into W0, and therefore do not have confirmation on her actual name; on the other hand, we see in this glimpse that she refers to the other scientist as “Klaus,” and we can therefore assume this to be his actual name.

When are Dunwall and Scotland like your School? Throwback Analysis of “Dishonored,” Part III.

Today, I offer readers the final piece of my older comparative analysis of “Dishonored” and “Macbeth,” published for the first time online.  If you haven’t read the first two parts, you can find the first here and the second here.  If you missed my first publication from this older works, which explains the overall project, defines terms, and analyzes “Majora’s Mask” alongside “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” you can find that here.  If you follow the analysis to the end, you might just find a new perspective on the education system, and on system dynamics more generally.

Readers can expect a thrilling new take on “Dishonored,” as well as With a Terrible Fate‘s adventures at PAX East, this coming week.

(A reminder that this work is not entirely faithful to my current views on “Dishonored,” nor to my approach to video game analysis more generally — however, note also that it is not altogether incompatible with them.)

Corvo on Samuel's Boat

D: The Prophesied Role

The prophesied role, as described above, is generated by the potentiating body and resonates with the formative trait of the operative role. In our diagram, this is indicated by the prophesied role taking the same shape as the formative trait (in the diagram’s case, triangularity). Its form suggests the potential for actualization of the formative trait’s ends, graphically depicted by the way in which its form, though identical in shape to that of the formative trait, is not solid – though it eventuality may come to be perceived as a certainty, this certainty is still contingent upon the perceptual beliefs of the operant role. Because it can only become real in the future, its existence is indeterminate in the present.

While we have already taken steps toward establishing how the prophesied role comes into being, the prophesied role’s nature can be further understood by assessing the psychical ways in which the operative role perceives and approaches it. The relationship between operative role and prophesied role is critical, because the prophesied role, by virtue of its existence depending upon to the operative role’s perception thereof, is necessarily dependent of a level of psychical investment on the operative role’s part. Because of the genesis of this investment from without (i.e., from the potentiating body), this relationship between roles has the interesting quality of an impressed vision of the operant role’s self, which the operant role then comes to see as belonging to itself. In other words, what we have here is a classic instance of internalization, where the internalized content is actually a self-concept.

The Freudian implication of such psychical mechanisms is neurosis – indeed, given the magnitude of what we have been discussing, one might even expect a measure of madness to accompany such objective internal impressions of prophesied self-knowledge. Fittingly, “Macbeth” illustrates just such madness. We have already discussed Macbeth’s unwanted regicidal thoughts upon hearing the witches’ initial prophecy; from that point on, his mind slowly frays as he becomes more closely bonded to the prophesied role. The classic moment of this descent into madness is his “dagger soliloquy,” delivered immediately before slaying King Duncan.

Is this a dagger which I see before me,

The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.

I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.

Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible

To feeling as to sight? or art thou but

A dagger of the mind, a false creation,

Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?

I see thee yet, in form as palpable

As this which now I draw.

Thou marshall’st me the way that I was going;

And such an instrument I was to use.

Mine eyes are made the fools o’ the other senses,

Or else worth all the rest; I see thee still,

And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,

Which was not so before. There’s no such thing:

It is the bloody business which informs

Thus to mine eyes. Now o’er the one halfworld

Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse

The curtain’d sleep; witchcraft celebrates

Pale Hecate’s offerings, and wither’d murder,

Alarum’d by his sentinel, the wolf,

Whose howl’s his watch, thus with his stealthy pace.

With Tarquin’s ravishing strides, towards his design

Moves like a ghost. Thou sure and firm-set earth,

Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear

Thy very stones prate of my whereabout,

And take the present horror from the time,

Which now suits with it. Whiles I threat, he lives:

Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives.

A bell rings.

I go, and it is done; the bell invites me.

Hear it not, Duncan; for it is a knell

That summons thee to heaven or to hell.[1]

In various productions of the play, this scene has been played with a literal floating dagger projected before Macbeth, or the dagger being a figment of Macbeth’s imagination, unseen by the audience. Thematically and psychodynamically, however, these are interchangeable situations: both demonstrate an increased reality-distortion on Macbeth’s part as he approaches realization of the prophesied role.

The rational for this is as follows: if the dagger is projected before Macbeth by the witches, we may infer with little doubt that it is only perceived by him due to its phantasmal nature, by which we can establish it as an analogue to the ghost of Banquo, which similarly haunts Macbeth and is clearly only perceived by him – Lady Macbeth, in fact, draws this comparison herself when she tried to bring the Banquo-haunted Macbeth back to reality, saying that “This [ghost] is the very painting of your fear. This is the air-drawn dagger which you said led you to Duncan… When all’s done, you look on but a stool.”[2] If the dagger is only a figment of Macbeth’s own imagination, it is even more evident that none but he can see it. So, the only apparent difference seems to be that in the former case, the witches are the direct generators of the image, whereas, in the latter case, it is a creation of Macbeth’s own psyche.

Yet this difference is not as striking as one might think. After all, we have already seen that the witches have impressed upon Macbeth a concrete goal for his formative trait. In this sense, Macbeth’s psyche projecting the image of the dagger indirectly amounts to the witches projecting it, because he does so based on the internalization of the prophecy they have imposed upon him. Considering the conflict between the id-rooted sublimated drive and the superego, it is logical that increased power of the id over the drive would cause the content of this desire to seep into Macbeth’s consciousness. The ego, of course, would seek to distance itself from the increasingly conscious desire of the id for fear of retaliation by the superego; in this case, such distance is effected by imaging the desire as an external hallucination, thereby projecting the id’s desires and freeing the psyche of responsibility. Thus, Macbeth in either case is coping with the increasingly powerful drive of his formative trait, as effected by internalization of the imaged prophesied role, by creating artificial separation from his desire, even as he approaches fulfillment thereof. This coalesces with Macbeth’s interpretation of the dagger as an artifact of “pale Hecate’s” witchcraft: he is distancing himself from his drive by blaming the potentiating body, even as he actively makes the choice to continue forth with his regicidal plan. Note that this is precisely the same juxtaposition of responsibility we discussed earlier, regarding the case of Daud in “Dishonored.”

It is also worth noting that the point at which Macbeth appears to finally make his decision is at the tolling of a bell – an objectively real, natural occurrence, in contrast with the supernatural prompt of the dagger. In so doing, he is effectively delocalizing the external influence of the witches’ prophecy: he is artificially distancing himself from his id-driven drive by blaming the entirety of his external environment for compelling him to fulfill the ends of that drive. In this way, Macbeth actually effects the internalization of the prophesied role by projecting the formative trait from which it is derived onto his greater external world. This process is the heart of Macbeth’s descent into madness, because it is through this projective mechanism that he loses perceived-control over his world. This is supported by two instances later in the play: Macbeth’s decision to murder Banquo, and his actions taken against Macduff.

Macbeth’s soliloquy prior to the arrival of the murderers whom he has commissioned to eliminate Banquo and Banquo’s son son, Fleance, reveals to us both his rationalization of the need to exterminate Banquo’s lineage, as well as the greater picture of how Macbeth’s psychic state has steadily deteriorated after realization of the prophesied role of king.

To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus.

Our fears in Banquo stick deep,

And in his royalty of nature reigns that

Which would be fear’d: ’tis much he dares;

And, to that dauntless temper of his mind,

He hath a wisdom that doth guide his valor

To act in safety. There is none but he

Whose being I do fear: and, under him

My Genius is rebuked; as, it is said

Mark Antony’s was by Caesar. He chid the sisters

When first they put the name of king upon me,

And bade them speak to him. Then, prophetlike,

They hail’d him father to a line of kings.

Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown

And put a barren scepter in my grip,

Thence to be wrenched with an unlineal hand,

No son of mine succeeding. If ‘t be so,

For Banquo’s issue have I filed my mind;

For them the gracious Duncan have I murdered;

Put rancours in the vessel of my peace

Only for them; and mine eternal jewel

Given to the common enemy of man.

To make them kings, the seed of Banquo kings.

Rather than so, come fate into the list,

And champion me to the utterance.[3]

Macbeth’s mounting paranoia is epitomized by his assertion that “to be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus.” His sense of powerlessness, a result of his projection of his formative trait outwardly, results in his inability to feel at peace in the prophesied role even once it is realized.

Macbeth’s turning against Banquo, once his friend, also underscores an important dynamic of this paranoia: he fears the very forces that empowered him to become king (i.e., the witches). The potentiated body, which could be anyone, can also convey prophesied roles unto anyone. Both “Dishonored” and “Macbeth” have several examples attesting to this: Daud and Granny Rags in the former, Banquo and Macduff in the latter. In Macbeth’s case, the danger is that the potential for anyone to be led to a prophesied role by the potentiating body effectively reinforces the standing social order. Macbeth’s capacity to fulfill his prophesied role is contingent upon his capacity to be the only one supernaturally informed, as this grants him an immense advantage over the standing social order – an advantage necessary for usurpation and subsequent rule. However, as soon as the prophetic knowledge is conveyed onto someone else, Macbeth’s advantage becomes immensely limited. The prophesied role of Banquo as begetter of kings suggests that Macbeth’s rule will be brief, which renders the fulfillment of Macbeth’s prophetic role null and void: the witches, as Macbeth says, “hail’d [Banquo] father to a line of kings. Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown and put a barren scepter in my grip, thence to be wrenched with an unlineal hand, no son of mine succeeding. If ’t be so, for Banquo’s issue I have filed my mind.”[4] Importantly, Macbeth reflects on Banquo’s future and comes to fear his own pursuit of a prophetic role as paving a path for actualization of Banquo’s prophetic role. And this actually seems like a rational fear. Though outside the scope of the text, it is entirely possible that Fleance’s witnessing his father murdered is what set him on the path to regency – after all, Banquo’s final words to his son are a call to vengeance.[5] Thus, we see a tendency of the presence of multiple prophetic roles to conflate individual prophecies, which, in Macbeth’s case, aggravates the psychical tension between his superego and id by increasing the perceived external danger to his personal security.

Macbeth seeks to regain his sense of security by returning to the witches for further reinforcement of his position through prophecy, and they summon three spirits, possibly of Hecate’s demonic tier, to outfit him with three opaque prophetic truths: that be must beware Macduff;[6] that he will never be harmed by one who was born of woman;[7] and that he will not be slain until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill.[8] This “bond of fate” which Macbeth takes reinforces his sense of security by providing him with knowledge of one apparently easily resolvable danger (Macduff) and two seemingly impossible preconditions for his defeat.[9] Yet, in the same way that Macbeth bonded himself to Banquo’s prophecy, he fulfills his own demise: he enrages Macduff by slaughtering his family, leading him to storm the gates of Macbeth’s stronghold at Dunsinane behind branches taken from Birnam Wood. It is Macduff who is fated to slay Macbeth, because Macduff is a man who was “from his mother’s womb untimely ripped” (i.e., delivered via C-section)[10] Once again, we see Macbeth playing into the hands of a broader, conflated sense of prophecy by trying to secure his own prophesied role of king. When he learns during his confrontation with Macduff that Macduff was not born of woman, he responds predictably by cursing the agents of fate, but simultaneously accepting their will.

   Accursed be that tongue that tells me so,

   For it hath cow’d my better part of man;

   And be these juggling fiends no more believed,

   That palter with us in a double sense,

   That keep the word of promise to our ear

   And break it to our hope. I’ll not fight with thee.[11]

Yet when Macduff mocks Macbeth, telling him to yield, he responds defiantly, saying, “I will not yield… Though Birnam Wood be come to Dunsinane, and thou opposed, being of no woman born, yet I will try the last.”[12] Macbeth thereby accepts the fate to which he has inextricably bound himself, yet conveys in his last words that fundamental, formative trait for which all his battles were waged: unyielding pride and ambition. In this sense, though he did not intend it this way, his formative trait really was actualized through prophetic fulfillment – the equivocating witches simply achieved this in a way completely unintended by Macbeth.

In contrast to the Shakespearean tragedy of a man driven mad by his own ambition, “Dishonored” tells the story of the choices a girl’s beloved guardian makes in attempting to save her. Consequently, Corvo’s relationship to his prophesied role is less of a paranoid grasping at security, but rather a definition of self-image through the pursuit of his prophesied role. Emily, whose recue is Corvo’s end goal, also serves as a barometer for the way his choices define him throughout the game. Earlier, we addressed the way Emily’s drawings – direct insight into her perspective of Corvo – differ drastically in high- and low-chaos playthroughs. An even more direct gauge of Corvo’s influence on his prophesied role is the way Emily ultimately turns out at the game’s conclusion. Upon finding Admiral Havelock at his island hideaway with Emily, Corvo faces his final choice as to how to deal with the Loyalist mastermind. Emily can emerge from the aftermath of the conflicts in one of three states:

  1. A wise and benevolent monarch, ruling with her beloved Corvo by her side.
  2. A ruthless tyrant, guiding Dunwall to its ultimate obliteration by the plague.

In the low-chaos scenario, Corvo enters the lighthouse apartment where the Loyalists were holed up and finds Havelock ranting to himself, his fellow Loyalists seated at a dining table, dead – poisoned by Havelock, who feared their betrayal. Emily is locked in a side room. Corvo must choose a way to neutralize Havelock and then let Emily out, after which she follows the Corvo’s example to lead Dunwall into a new age of prosperity.[13]

In the high-chaos scenario, Corvo navigates past the other Loyalists leaders on the island who are turning against each other, and eventually finds Havelock alone with Emily at the top of lighthouse scaffolding, threatening to push her off. If Corvo moves too close to Havelock, he grabs Emily and threatens to jump. Corvo can either incapacitate Havelock in some way and save Emily, after which she will become a tyrannical queen after the fashion of Corvo’s own merciless path taken in saving her; or, if Corvo either moves to close to Havelock or waits too long, then Havelock will jump, taking Emily with him. Havelock’s last, biting words at Corvo illustrate the overarching dynamics at work.

Stay where you are Corvo, or I jump. [Emily implores Corvo to save her] Quiet! He won’t. Will you, Corvo? You had your chance to be a hero. In a minute this will be just another bloody mess you left behind. Did you want your honor back? To rescue the lady in distress? Oh, no, Corvo. That’s not you.

Corvo’s purpose, his formative trait, is the reclamation of his honor and the rescue of Emily. Yet here, Havelock jeers at Corvo, saying that that’s “not [him],” and that this, too, shall be “just another bloody mess [he] left behind.” This is largely true: in the high-chaos scenario, Corvo has essentially bled Dunwall dry on the warpath to save Emily. Havelock points out the subtle, crucial truth that the path taken in actualization of the prophesied role affects the operative role, and, by relation, the eventual realization of the prophesied role. Corvo can hardly regain his honor if he clears his name through dishonorable means. This third ending of the game is therefore a powerful representation of the broader implications of this meta-role dynamic: just as Macbeth ended up dead in pursuit of the crown, the operative role can quite literally kill the sought-after prophesied role and conjoined formative trait merely by virtue of the pursuing that prophesied role. Corvo’s choices, therefore (largely enabled by The Outsider), have enormous implications concerning the realization of his end goal, as well as his self-understanding.

Synthesizing the dynamics of Macbeth and Corvo’s respective pursuits of and relationships to their prophesied roles, we now have a clearer notion of the prophesied role itself. It is, as we stated at the outset, a future-image contingent upon the operative role’s perception thereof; because it is generic insofar as any number of people could have prophesied roles, the nature of the prophesied role is often bound in opaque ways to other prophesied roles (though, judging by the apparent lack of this dynamic in “Dishonored,” we should rightly qualify this feature with some manner of moral inclination or ultimate goal on the part of the potentiating body – something which is present in the witches and absent in The Outsider); and the reality of the role, when it comes to exist in the present tense, is largely dependent upon the path the operative role has taken in arriving there. This is not to say the operative role makes the choices along its path without external forces impressing influence upon it; but, in the end, the architect of the prophesied role’s design seems to be the operant role.

E: The Actualizing Impetus

            Thus far, we have focused primarily on the development of the prophesied role within the context of mechanisms internal to the operative role; but the path of the operative role, as we have seen, is effected by both internal and external factors. While we have assessed the relationship between external impressions generated by potentiating bodies, we cannot forget to consider the more discrete, mundane forces influencing the path walked. This force, termed the actualizing impetus, is Lady Macbeth in “Macbeth” and the Loyalists in “Dishonored.”

We immediately find a curious juxtaposition: whereas the potentiating body was a hierarchical group in “Macbeth” (the witches and Hecate) and a singular entity in “Dishonored” (The Outsider), the actualizing impetus is a singular entity in “Macbeth” and a hierarchical group in “Dishonored.” Each story therefore appears to have one component of collective influence, and one component of individual influence. To examine the implications of this, we return to the basic affect of each type of influence.

We discussed earlier the way in which The Outsider’s freedom from hierarchy increased the intimacy of his relationship to Corvo. A similar dynamic is present in Lady Macbeth’s relationship to Macbeth: the personal nature of their bond by which Lady is Macbeth’s “dearest love” confers upon their relationship a level of trust not otherwise present in Macbeth’s life.[14] We see this in the way they engage in the plot of usurpation together, differentiating themselves from the societal whole in such a way that they actually share asides in several instances, such as when Lady tries to bring Macbeth back to reality when he sees Banquo’s ghost.[15]

The moment with Banquo’s ghost underscores the psychical stratification of the operative role within the prophesied role paradigm: Macbeth engages in asides with Lady Macbeth because they have established what might be called a ‘shared prophesied personal reality’ – that is, a way of seeing the future of their world (through usurpation) which is concealed from the greater collective reality. Yet, at the same time, Lady cannot see the ghost that haunts Macbeth. This is a primary characteristic of the actualizing impetus: it is intimately privy to the operative role’s reality, but still psychically discrete relative to the operative role.

Lady’s love-relationship to Macbeth puts her in the ideal position to emotionally manipulate the Thane into following the regicidal path, thereby furthering the ends of his ambition as well as her own. She does so by explicitly seeking to augment his formative trait’s psychical dominance, as she discusses in soliloquy after reading a letter Macbeth sent recounting the witches’ prophecies, before Macbeth returns from his first encounter with the witches.

   Glamis thou [i.e., Macbeth] art, and Cawdor, and shalt be

   What thou art promised. Yet do I fear thy nature.

   It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness

   To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great,

   Art not without ambition, but without

   The illness should attend it. What thou wouldst highly,

   That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false,

   And yet wouldst wrongly win. Thou’dst have, great Glamis,

   That which cries ‘Thus thou must do, if thou have it;

 And that which rather thou dost fear to do

   Than wishest should be undone.’ Hie thee hither,

   That I may pour my spirits in thine ear

   And chastise with the valour of my tongue

   All that impedes thee from the golden round

   Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem

   To have thee crown’d withal.[16]

Lady seeks to relieve Macbeth of the morality that makes him fear his ambitious drive, and takes it upon herself, using her special standing with him, to manipulate his already malleable character. She encourages him to assume a false countenance to effect the usurpation, which encourages an increased association between the two of them by virtue of their willful separation from the rest of the collective reality.[17] By so strengthening her own position, she is able to goad him into committing the act itself, mocking his manhood at his moment of hesitation before killing Duncan, and saying that his cowardice is reflective of the quality of his love for her.[18] Thus we see that the singular actualizing impetus bonds the operative role to it through object cathexis, thereby enabling the manipulation of the operative role’s psyche from without.

The Loyalists, on the other hand, do not exercise such intimate manipulation of Corvo – a nonissue, because Corvo does not need this sort of manipulation. Macbeth came into conflict with his formative trait by virtue of his superego, and Lady therefore manipulated his psyche in order to override this conflict; Corvo has no such internal conflict regarding his need to save Emily. His only sense of conflict comes from the choice of how to save her, which does not alter his determination to realize his prophesied role. Thus, the Loyalists need only to direct Corvo as to how he may achieve his internally motivated ends – a purpose for which an organization-based actualizing impetus is perfectly suited. They issue Corvo missions, offer him cursory reassurance as to the justice he is exacting through his actions, and send him further and further down the rabbit hole of achieving their own ends. Along the way, individual Loyalists request that Corvo further their own desires: for example, when Corvo must incapacitate the Pendleton twins, who are found to be holding Emily for the Lord Regent, Lord Pendleton, the twins’ brother and a Loyalist, implies that he would prefer Corvo to incapacitate them without killing him – and indeed, he handsomely rewards Corvo if Corvo does this. Interactions of this sort color the conglomerate impetus with a largely superficial sense of personal relationship, which furthers the impetus’s goal by downplaying its covert intention to manipulate Corvo through direction of his formative trait. Thus, via manipulation through less-overt means than Lady, the Loyalists are able to realize their goal through employment of Corvo, without Corvo getting wise to their endgame.

When the potentiating body is singular and unincorporated, so to speak, the dynamics of the projected prophesied role are much clearer cut, because the role’s design and intention are not handed down the hierarchy, as we see in the case of Hecate and her witches. Hierarchy appears to thereby obscure prophecy, which is no doubt part of why what is actually transmitted to Macbeth is so equivocal. When the actualizing impetus is singular and unincorporated, the operative role is much more vulnerable to manipulation by virtue of the close, intimate bond shared with this impetus; in an organization-based impetus, however, such a level of manipulation is largely mitigated by the fact that the composite members of the impetus body must put their personal inclinations aside (for the most part) in order to present a cohesive directive to the operative role. Synthesizing these, the Shakespearean dynamic of a hierarchical potentiating body combined with a singular actualizing impetus could be used to easily predict the hopeless path trod by Macbeth to bloodshed and self-destruction. The Bethesdian dynamic of singular potentiating body paired with organized actualizing impetus allows for the broadest conception of choice on the operative role’s part, as we have seen time-and-again infused within the narrative of Corvo. We are therefore able to understand the combinatory dynamics potentiating body and actualizing impetus as a matrix for determining the amount of choice available to the operative role.

Equally as compelling as this qualitative difference in the actualizing impetuses is the fact that they meet the same end: descent into the chaos of madness. Lady’s madness is exposed through her famous sleepwalking soliloquy, wherein she wanders the halls of her stronghold, with her eyes open, but their sense shut.[19]

Yet here’s a spot…

   Out, damned spot! out, I say!–One: two: why,

   then, ’tis time to do’t.–Hell is murky!–Fie, my

   lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we

   fear who knows it, when none can call our power to

   account?–Yet who would have thought the old man

   to have had so much blood in him…

   The thane of Fife had a wife: where is she now?–

   What, will these hands ne’er be clean?–No more o’

   that, my lord, no more o’ that: you mar all with

   this starting.

   Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the

   perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little

   hand. Oh, oh, oh!…

   Wash your hands, put on your nightgown; look not so

   pale.–I tell you yet again, Banquo’s buried; he

   cannot come out on’s grave…

   To bed, to bed! there’s knocking at the gate:

   come, come, come, come, give me your hand. What’s

   done cannot be undone.–To bed, to bed, to bed![20]

We enter this soliloquy through the Freudian theory of dreams as wish fulfillment: in this situation, Lady’s nightmare acts out that which cannot be consciously expressed: guilt over her actions (“hers” insofar as, as we just discussed, she compelled Macbeth to order Macduff’s family and Banquo murdered). Clearly, Macbeth is not the only one being haunted, though his ghost seems a more direct result of the witches than Lady’s ghost, which is a result of her own actions taken upon Macbeth. We ought not to be surprised by this: after all, at the outset of her machinations, Lady makes an appeal to the spirits that govern mortal affairs to “unsex her,” to fill her with cruelty and erase all remorseful inclinations.[21] In effect, she compels suppression of those traits that might mitigate ambition, such that she might be in a better position to induce the same in her husband’s case.

It appears, then, that the actualizing impetus affects itself severely in the very act of affecting the operative role – it is, in other words, not a one-way street. It is appropriate, then, that she is driven mad like her husband; yet, in many ways, her death is more tragic because it does not bear the insignia of fate. Hers was not an end fated by the witches – she simply doomed herself to it by seeking to manipulate Macbeth’s prophesied role for her own ends.

As one might expect of an organization-based actualizing impetus, madness in the Loyalists’ case takes the form of the breakdown of order, which takes different forms in low- and high-chaos endings. In the high-chaos ending, Loyalist leaders Lord Pendleton, High Overseer Martin, and Admiral Havelock all turn against each other on the island, grasping for control as the last semblance of order falls apart. Havelock, as we discussed earlier, seizes Emily and flees to the lighthouse; below, Lord Pendleton, shot, is holed up in the island gatehouse, shot and mortally wounded, as he exchanges hopeless fire with High Overseer Martin, attacking from below. The two power-hungry men, once united in their desire for control and authority over Dunwall, are now at each other’s throats. Samuel describes the breakdown of Loyalist power to Corvo as he ferries him to the island.

Looks like they fought, maybe over Emily, just after they landed. I bet the Admiral’s got her locked up in the lighthouse somewhere. If Pendleton’s lost the first round, he’s probably dug in someplace, doing his best to drink himself to death. I suspect it’s Martin who’s got the lighthouse under siege. They turned on each other, at last. So the Admiral is power mad, Martin’s a snake and *Lord* Pendleton is a coward. And you, Corvo… the things you’ve done. You could be the worst of us.

So it is that, in having achieved the goal of their design, the acquisition of Emily, the three men stab each other in the back, their own personal greed overpowering the bond they shared – a bond that, by having lead to the heiress’s abduction, has largely served its purpose at this point.

After Corvo dispatches Martin, he finds Pendleton crouched in a corner, bleeding out. Pendleton’s last words give his own account of what the Loyalist’s once-grand man has come to.

I’m dying, Ren [soldier siding with Pendleton]. That bastard’s done me in. I should have killed them all when I had the chance… First my brothers, now me. It’s my own fault. And now cousin Celia’s going to inherit. That’s the worst of it. *laughs, coughs.*…

[Ren “leaves,” in one way or another. Corvo enters.]

Corvo. I knew you would get here. (coughs.) Well you’re too late. I’m already dying without your help. A stray bullet; I’ll never know whose. What could I offer you, anyway? You want money? Well, I’m broke. Women, maybe? Everyone knows you were screwing the Empress. You like noblewomen? You should meet my cousin, Cilia *laughs, coughs.*

Pendleton is the picture of a nobleman whose stature was undone by his very pursuit of extending his power. Once a respected man, he dies a nobody, shot by a nobody, with nothing left to offer the man whom he had so long manipulated in pursuit of a selfish vision. In the end, he was made to recall that his reasons for joining the collective of the Loyalists were selfish advancement – a motive fundamentally in conflict to unity and common purpose. Thus, in the aftermath of the Loyalists success, he reverts to his individual, non-collective identity: “a coward.”

In the low-chaos ending, Havelock, speaking aloud alone before his slaughtered cohorts in the lighthouse, offers a testimony quite similar to Pendleton’s, albeit a bit more involved.

Remember when this was just a dream shared by a few angry, desperate men in the back room of a bar? Lord Treavor Pendleton, the neglected youngest son, bullied by your brothers. This is all Martin’s fault. If we hadn’t helped Corvo get out of prison. If Corvo hadn’t been so damned good at his job. If we hadn’t gotten greedy and afraid. If if if. Always too sure, that was my problem. Never hesitated. Too sure of what I wanted to do, when other men stopped to consider. Saw it as weakness. I know Corvo’s coming for me just like he came for the others. Crossing the island below like it was nothing. It’s only a question of how and when. But I’m lacking a countermove. It’s all fallen apart. All the steps that led us here made sense. When I was young I went to sea. Took command of a ship and made aimless men into sailors. Made a collection of boots into a navy. Then founded a conspiracy and almost led an empire. No comprise, never showed mercy, never showed weakness. I showed the world what mattered. Will and vision. And not being afraid of getting dirty. And now, I’ll lose it all to a man with a faster sword hand. Or is it that he has a slower sword hand? There’s something wrong with the world. It will make a good story for the histories. I’ll have a good epitaph: “In his time, he commanded a noble Lord [Pendleton], a High Overseer [Martin], and an Empress [Emily]. The man who brought down a tyrant.” Admiral Havelock, Son of the high Ocean.

From the Admiral’s last speech, largely detached from reality, an image comes into focus of a psyche fraught with rationalization, projection, and a frenzy that could be likened to Lady Macbeth’s. We must note too that Havelock largely blames the Loyalists’ manipulation of Corvo for the impending doom now upon him. This is largely true: it was the Loyalists’ pushing Corvo to success, while simultaneously suppressing their own individual identities and desires, that prompted the explosion of the suppressed Loyalist personalities upon acquisition of Emily. Havelock copes with his newly repossessed individual self by defending it, desperately seeking to maintain his sense of personal identity by offloading the blame for disintegration of the Loyalists’ common goal onto his former comrades – though he has a moment of acknowledging his own faults, he quickly returns to mere rationalization. Again, this is understandable: with his plans falling apart around him, his identity is all he has left.

Lady Macbeth succumbed to madness from the suppressive measures she undertook to effect her selfish advancement through her husband; similarly, the Loyalists met madness when they were forced to confront the individualism they had suppressed during the time in which they were acting as a singular actualizing impetus. Thus, each case is a picture of the actualizing impetus as a self-motivated manipulator who seeks to effectively direct the operative role single-mindedly to the ends of the prophesied role by suppressing parts of their (i.e., the actualizing impetus’s) own identity. This process, in a Freudian framework, leads to advanced neurosis, inducing acute pain when the self-imposed deceptive field of suppression is shattered. Defense mechanisms inevitably take over, to the point where any further action or resolution is absolutely precluded by psychical paralysis.

The actualizing impetus is a precariously perched self-advocate, entering into the suppressive paradigm of the prophesied meta-role for the purpose of self-advancement, but almost inevitably ensuring self-destruction in the process. In the low-chaos ending to “Dishonored,” if Corvo approaches Havelock, he will offer him the key to Emily’s locked room and stand before him, giving him the opportunity to kill or subdue him. Yet, whether Corvo takes the key or confronts him, the Admiral will immediately burst forth in a fit of furious swordsmanship, fighting Corvo tooth-and-nail to the death. This typifies the bizarre, overarching paradox of the actualizing impetus: to participate in the prophesied meta-role paradigm is to tacitly endorse and submit to the operative role’s destiny, upon which the paradigm is based; and yet to at the same time, to do so is to forfeit any stake in this destiny. There is no prophesied fulfillment for the actualizing impetus; it is only the greed within them that creates their envisioned future, which becomes dependent upon someone else’s fate and their own self-renunciation.


Synthesis: “I hope the days are near at hand that chambers will be safe”

To condense this treatment to a single point, we have uncovered a paradigm of pigeonholing: an operative role is redefined exclusively in terms of its dominant drive by the introduction of a realistic path to fulfillment of that drive’s ends; and external, selfish forces help the operative role along this path for their own ulterior motives, at the cost of pigeonholing or otherwise suppressing themselves. Particularly against the backdrop of “Macbeth” and the high-chaos endings of “Dishonored,” it may rightly feel difficult to conceive of a way in which this could at all relieve the image-evolution paradox – or, indeed, to anything else. In stepping back and considering this paradigm’s implications, however, we might come to see that our knowledge and implementation of the overall paradigm might be far less oppressive than its component pieces.

From our first assessments of perceptual dynamics in “Dishonored” to our final assessments of the functional range of the actualizing impetus, a constant consideration has been the matter of choice provided to the operant role within this paradigm. The actualizing impetus is clearly oppressed via self-renunciation, but, while a level of manipulation is always exerted on the operative role, the operative role is not necessarily oppressed as a result. After all, at the most fundamental level, the operative role is merely being offered and enabled to follow the path it is most driven to follow by its formative trait; the elimination of choice in how this path is tread is effected, as we have seen, by a moral potentiating body, a hierarchical potentiating body, or a singular, personal actualizing impetus. When viewed in this light, it is no wonder why “Macbeth” is so bleak: its paradigm has all three of these “negative types” tending to remove the operative role’s capacity to choose his own path.

In contrast, “Dishonored” offers a paradigm with all the “positive types” of these component dynamics: an amoral potentiating body, a singular, personal potentiating body, and an organization-based actualizing impetus. In a world just as bleak as Macbeth’s – a plague-beset city ruled by a usurping, curiously Macbeth-like tyrannical Lord Regent – a happy ending is possible for Corvo as well as a tragic ending. The locus of control for this difference in outcome is within Corvo himself. Yet given so many preconditions for this scenario, is this message an empowering one of the human capacity for choice, or a bleaker one of near-certain manipulation?

Let us abstract from the context of the game and consider the real-world applications of this paradigm. First, as we have already suggested, there is nothing requiring a literally supernatural force(s) within the framework we have developed – both “Macbeth” and “Dishonored” go out of their way to indicate that the specific entities serving as the potentiating bodies are in no way unique. In fact, the potentiating body can be any force which exists with some level of separation from the operative role’s commonly-understood and inhabited reality, and which offers the operative role a vision of future fulfillment in the manner of a prophesied role. So ‘potentiating body’ is a far more broadly applicable term than a moniker for god-figures. To demonstrate the usefulness in this understanding of the paradigm, we will take as a realistic example the concept of education, though any number of examples could be used here (systems, in particular, such as the judicial, governmental, educational systems, are particularly salient examples because they, by design, are separated from reality in the sense that they exert themselves upon the larger society/system).

We can read teachers as potentiating bodies. They are separate from the student’s (read: operative role’s) greater world insofar as they operate within the specific system of the school for the purpose of giving the student the knowledge (abilities) necessary to travel the path to where they see themselves in the future (the prophesied role, defined by the student’s formative trait). Along the way, the student may be pushed by any number of pressures: family, peers, society (examples of actualizing impetuses), all of which seek to force or guide him along the path, in large part due to their own interests or ideas of what is best for the student. Again, this analysis may be repeated with any number of examples, particularly with systems or institutions.

We can see by the method of analogy that the prophesied-role paradigm does mitigate the image-evolution paradox through an imperative or responsibility, much like our treatment of the platonic meta-role paradigm. Even if we contain our paradigm to a critique of institutional/systemic examples, we have just demonstrated that such systems by their inherent nature have the capacity to drastically influence the capacity for the participant’s choice in his or her own development, as described in terms of the path to the future self understood as the prophesied role. At their best, schools can enable students to walk into their future in any way they choose; at their worst, they pigeonhole them into an inescapable, suppressed, half-existence.

We have three criteria for the mitigation of this paradigm’s dangers: an amoral potentiating body, a singular, personal potentiating body, and an organization-based actualizing impetus. This, too, can be translated into a model for responsible systems. In our school example, our treatment theoretically demonstrates the need for the student to have a personal, one-on-one relationship with their teacher in the learning process, and the need for those who might pressure the student to be more aware of this and consider themselves a single component of a larger, collective pressure, such that their individual weight is reduced in the student’s eyes. Bracketing the question of whether an amoral education is possible, we will simply say that we have demonstrated the need for the teacher to teach as objectively as possible, and to assess one’s moral compass such that, where moral interference is unavoidable, the morals that interfere are at least defensible morals.

Such an approach to systems would theoretically empower the participant with greater choice in his or her ever-evolving sense of self. This would mitigate the image-evolution paradox because a large part of the issue in the paradox is a sense of conflict between the understood self at any given moment, and the dynamic nature of the self across time. Such a conflict is necessarily aggravated when the self does not understand why it has changed in the ways that it has over time. How is it ever to understand such change if the choice of how to change was never truly in the hands of the self as an operative role?

Before seizing the branches of Birnam Wood and marching on the tyrant Macbeth’s fortress, Malcolm turns to his fellows and declares that “[he hopes] the days are near at hand that chambers will be safe.”[22] In closing this treatment, we echo his words in hoping that the days are near at hand when the destructive influence of negative-typed components of the prophesied meta-role paradigm is no longer an issue. After all, how shall we ever be safe in our chambers, if we did not choose those chambers for ourselves?

[1] Ibid, II.1.34-65.

[2] Ibid, III.4.62-69.

[3] Ibid, III.1.48-72.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, III.4.21-22.

[6] Ibid, IV.1.95-96.

[7] Ibid, IV.1.101-103.

[8] Ibid, IV.1.113-117.

[9] Ibid, IV.1.106.

[10] Ibid, V.8.15-16.

[11] Ibid, V.8.17-22.

[12] Ibid, V.8.28-32.

[13] “Neutralizing Havelock” can be as innocuous as merely stealing the key to Emily’s room; Corvo does not need to render him unconscious or kill him, although these options are available to him as well.

[14] Ibid, I.5.58.

[15] Ibid, III.4.59-77.

[16] Ibid, I.5.14-29.

[17] Ibid, I.5.59-69.

[18] Ibid, I.7.35-39.

[19] Ibid, V.1 24-25.

[20] Ibid, V.1 31-67, excerpted.

[21] Ibid, I.5.39-53.

[22] Ibid, V.4.1-2.