The Phantom Pain, The Helen Keller Simulator, and Disability in Games
—Ad Reinhardt, “Twelve Rules for a New Academy”
One who gains the eye of truth will be able to see what is hidden in the darkness.
—Shadow Temple Fake Wall, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
No avatar, no enemies, no combat, no collectables, no collision, no momentum, no motion, no map, no menu, no text, no cutscenes, no story, no sequels, no series, no franchise, no company, no copyright, no property, no publication, no distribution, no sale, no strategy guide, no review, no critique, no consumption, no input, no output, no controller, no console, no platform, no mechanics, no rules, no goals, no players, no game. And yet, there is a metagame. Not a game-as-platformer or game-as-shooter or game-as-simulation or game-as-puzzle or even a game-as-videogame, but a game-as-game—a metagame without explicit preconditions or predefined constraints (and, as such, a metagame representing the sum total of all preconditions and constraints). Not an inversion, but the absolute negation of the game in the form of a timeless, scoreless, ruleless, goalless, fieldless, equipmentless, playerless game-as-game. This a-game, anti-game, de-game, dis-game, im-game, il-game, ir-game, no-game, non-game, not-game, and un-game is also the only game there is. Certainly playful, although not explicitly addressing a game design philosophy, Ad Reinhardt explored this aesthetic philosophy of absolute negation in his writing, comics, and art throughout the twentieth century.
In 1966 Reinhardt exhibited his life’s work at the Jewish Museum in New York. That winter and into the next year, gallery after gallery was filled with black squares (see Figure 3.1). Almost a hundred artworks hung in the museum but no one saw them. Reinhardt’s five-by-five-foot black abstractions are not paintings, but conceptual art designed within the familiar idioms of painting in order to plumb the depths and test the limits of the ontology of art through a process of negation. In the words of Reinhardt (1991, 85), for every “tradition of abstract art, and previous paintings of horizontal bands, vertical stripes, blobs, scumblings, bravura, brushwork, impressions, impastos, sensations, impulses, pleasures, pains, ideas, imaginings, imagings, imaginations, visions, shapes, colors, composings, representings, mixtures, corruptions, exploitations, combinings, vulgarizations, popularizations, integrations, accidents, actions, texturings, spontaneities, ready-mades, stylizations, mannerisms, irrationalities, unawareness, extra-and-unaesthetic qualities, meanings, forms of any traditions of pure, or impure, abstract-art traditions” there is an “extreme, ultimate, climactic reaction to, and negation of” painting in the form of a black painting. For there to be a painting of something, there must also be paintings of nothing—a paradoxical painting both about painting and without painting. Not an art-as-painting or art-as-object or art-as-institution or art-as-market or art-as-history or even art-as-concept, but an art-as-art—Reinhardt’s curmudgeonly term for the general, universal, ontological being of art in and of itself. At the Jewish Museum, just a few months before he died on August 30, 1967, Reinhardt offered these black paintings as one possible limit point of art—a representation of art-as-art in the idiom of abstract painting: painting in the form of its blackest negation.
Of course, Reinhardt could never fully practice the art-as-art dogma he preached. Just as the magic circle, black box, white cube, and commodity form function as ideological avatars haunting the contemporary cultural imaginary, tech industries, art institutions, and global market, art-as-art can never fully materialize. Reinhardt’s black paintings function pedagogically, alluding to the philosophical concept of art and operating in explicit contrast with the historical, material, institutional, or political definitions of the term. Of course, formalism in mid-century American art was political. In the 1950s Clement Greenberg curated art against Russian Socialist Realism; Jackson Pollock and the New York School of abstract expressionism were weaponized across Europe after the war; and Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings were positioned were positioned against the vulgarization of art as nationalist propaganda and capitalist commodity. As Joseph Kosuth (1991, 191) notes in his short essay “On Ad Reinhardt,” “Painting itself had to be erased, eclipsed, painted out in order to . . . make art itself visible through that ‘other’ which his painting then constituted.” Since the language of art in the 1950s and 1960s was a painterly one, “draining” paintings of all their definitive qualities rendered the parameters of the discourse itself visible. In this sense, Reinhardt’s black paintings function as a tool or barometer to measure the superfluous elements surrounding art-as-art and not as the construction of art-as-art in itself. Kosuth (1991, 192) argues, “assertions about art can only be made negatively; in this way, [Reinhardt’s] assertion of art itself was the positive by-product of those acts of negation.”
To this end, Reinhardt’s (1991, 82) black paintings were meticulously constructed, stroke by stroke—“brushwork brushed out to remove brushwork.” Their composition and coloring were carefully measured, almost scientifically adapted to the human eye. The five-by-five-foot Vitruvian squares were not propped up on easels or hung on walls but positioned face up on short benches to absorb the sunlight of Reinhardt’s New York studio. Kosuth (1991, 191) elegantly summarizes that “the different colored blacks of Reinhardt’s paintings presented an internal structure which described the square of the whole painting in relation to its larger context and discourse”—a metapainting meant to reveal the nature of painting even as it erased itself. Despite the cosmic indifference espoused by Reinhardt’s art-as-art dogma, these black paintings are tuned to the perceptual capacities of the human viewer, tempered to the human body, and adjusted to the human eye (and reminiscent of the embodied operations of memento mortem mortis in chapter 2). Reinhardt’s strategy, then, was not to render art-as-art visible, but to practice his philosophy through the medium of painting. The monochrome speaks.
Occupying a privileged relationship to language, Reinhardt’s monochromes foreground the textuality of all images. In his “how to” series of newspaper comics for PM, Reinhardt preaches that “a painting is not a simple something or pretty picture or arrangement, but a complicated language you have to learn to read” (Reinhardt 1946). It is no surprise that many examples of language art take the form of the monochrome, and, specifically, the black painting. As Mel Ramsden notes in a letter to Charles Harrison (2003, 20–21), “It had seemed necessary, finally, that the ‘talk’ went up on the wall.” The work of the would be members of the conceptual art collective Art & Language—such as Ramsden’s Guaranteed Painting (1967) and Secret Painting (1967–68)—were black paintings directly influenced by Reinhardt’s late practice. Likewise, Joseph Kosuth reproduced the size, scale, and form of Ad Reinhardt’s paintings when he mounted black photographs of white dictionary definitions of words like “definition,” “meaning,” “idea,” “art,” “blank,” “square,” and “nothing.”
Historicizing this approach, Kosuth (1991, 13) begins his 1969 essay “Art after Philosophy,” with the proposition that “traditional philosophy, almost by definition, has concerned itself with the unsaid. The nearly exclusive focus on the said by twentieth-century analytical linguistic philosophers is the shared contention that the unsaid is unsaid because it is unsayable” (emphasis original). For Kosuth, the emergence of both Ludwig Wittgenstein’s linguistic philosophy and Marcel Duchamp’s readymades at the turn of the century indicated “the end of philosophy and the beginning of art” (1991, 14). In this sense, Kosuth’s idea of conceptual art coincides with the linguistic proposition. Considering the relationship of metagames to prepositions—a form of Wittgenstein’s “language games”—could Reinhardt’s ultimately linguistic maneuver be applied to a discussion of games and play? What is a videogame without video? Or, for that matter, without audio, without interface, without computation, and without play? What is a non-video game? A non-videogame? A metagame?
For the past thirty years, and especially since the popularization of real time 3D graphics processing in the mid-nineties, the computer and videogame industry has been caught up in a graphical arms race: a dogged pursuit of ocularcentric spectacle culminating in the hypertrophy of the visual economy of games like Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (2015). As considered in chapter 2, alongside the cinematic extravagances of well-funded, widely promoted AAA games, a generation of players and designers has internalized the logic and codes of videogames to produce games and game practices that engage the nonvisual conditions of the medium. These non-video games have attenuated visual gameplay as a form of critical game design resulting in examples of ludic atrophy like The Helen Keller Simulator (2005–), an unpopular Internet meme that consists of a black (or blank) image with no audio, promoted as a first-person videogame. Whereas the prologue of The Phantom Pain is intercut with unplayable cutscenes, The Helen Keller Simulator deploys the restriction of vision to an uncannily similar effect. In contrast to this hypertrophy of cinematic spectacle and the atrophy of minimal mechanics, this chapter will examine a little-known metagaming practice in which both blind, low vision, and sighted players navigate videogame spaces without the use of video and invent new ways of playing according to alternate sensory economies. Considering Steven Connor’s (2011, 18) Philosophy of Sport in which he claims that “disabled sports are the only sports there are,” these blind and blindfolded metagames hold a critical lens up to not only the games industry but the design, dissemination, and consumption of software in general. By turning to questions of disability, this chapter investigates ludic experiments that challenge contemporary models of videogame production to reveal new modes of play.
[FADE IN FROM BLACK:] The Hypertrophy of Games
Fade in from black. Framed by a grid of white ceiling tiles, a perfectly rendered prosthetic hook extends upward, away from the virtual camera affixed to the face of the in-game avatar. Floating above, just out of reach, and buffeted by the parameters of whatever particle system is synced with the spinning ceiling fan, a flower petal drifts downward. Whether a hallucination brought on by medication, the piece of shrapnel protruding from the protagonist’s prefrontal cortex, or some cinematic form of magical realism, the white lily petal is impossible to grasp. Carefully modeled, textured, lit, and animated within the mathematical constraints of perspectival space, the flower petal stands in for a form of naturalism which continues to propel the central desires of the videogames as a mass medium and cultural commodity: technological mastery, graphic realism, and player immersion. This petal appears as a utopian vision—a white whale to our Ahab avatar—promising a reality that can be simulated, controlled, exchanged, and consumed. That is, until another reality startles the player from her stupor: the fact that no amount of technological innovation—neither 4k displays or virtual reality headsets—will immerse anyone other than the digital subject seen on screen. As discussed in chapter 2, the mathematical abstractions necessary for this form of visual spectacle remain formally estranged from the phenomenology of the human player, although not the virtual veteran in the videogame. This digital body, with its single, cycloptic camera-eye and prosthetic controller-hand stands in for videogames as the ideological avatar of play. The hospitalized hero here is not disabled but rather perfectly adapted to the constraints of this specific visual regime, his single eye a metonymy for single-point perspective and his hook-hand recalling the limited mobility of a game controller as the dexterity of digits is replaced with digital inputs (see Figure 3.2). Although framed in terms of missing limbs and limited vision, this representation of a disabled body is actually defined not by what is absent but by what is present in overabundance: the hypertrophic product of cinematic excess—a visual overload that weighs the camera down on the gurney.
Fade in from black. “Please try to relax.” Between the rhythmic gasps of a medical ventilator and the faint beeps of a heart rate monitor, a Soviet doctor stationed at the Royal Air Force hospital in Cyprus begins to explain, “You’ve been in a coma for quite some time.” It’s 1984 in a world where special forces units like “FOX” and “FOXHOUND” wield cybernetic prosthetics and magical realisms interchangeably, where private military companies like “Militaires Sans Frontières” are pawns within in a war economy driven by a hundred-billion-dollar cache called “The Philosopher’s Legacy,” and where bipedal nuclear-armed tanks like “Metal Gear” walk the earth. But before the postcomatose patient can equip a red, bionic arm for a Spaghetti Western-inspired, open-world special op in Afghanistan, the game must fade in from black. Premiered at the Spike Video Game Awards (VGAs) on December 7, 2012, the first trailer for Metal Gear Solid V, which mysteriously debuted as just The Phantom Pain and featured footage of a disabled vet’s escape from the RAF hospital, was intercut by a series of vague questions:
What happened? Where am I? Why can’t I move my body? Am I in a dream? Is this real? Something is coming! What is going on? Do they want me dead? What are they after? Do they want us all dead? Why is this happening to me? No escape? Have I gone to hell? Open your eyes. Open your eyes, already.
From the patient’s first-person perspective (lying in a prone position on the floor after all hell breaks loose at the hospital), a split-hook prosthesis stretches toward the illusory lily petal. The movement from darkness to light initiates a scene of visual excess, a spectacle that disables both the player and player character while simultaneously revealing a blind spot in the logic of what Terry Harpold calls the “upgrade path” (Harpold 2009, 3). “Because technical innovation in popular computing is driven more by the allure of expanding markets,” Harpold (2009, 3) points out, “commercial discourses of the upgrade path will inevitably promise consumers new and more satisfying interactions, and encourage them to see the older ones as outmoded or no longer relevant.” As videogame consoles and personal computers alike evolve from 8-bit to 16-bit to 32-bit to 64-bit processors and videogames balloon from megabytes of cartridge or compact disc data to gigabytes of downloadable assets, the overabundance of graphic spectacle institutionally and phenomenologically disables other forms of sensory engagement, allegorized by the beginning of The Phantom Pain in which an amnesiac amputee lies paralyzed on the hospital bed.
About a year later, on March 27, 2013, Hideo Kojima unveiled that The Phantom Pain was in fact another entry in the Metal Gear Solid series (1998–) of “tactical espionage” games in a panel presentation titled “Photorealism Through the Eyes of a FOX” at the annual Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco. In the hour-long talk, Kojima and his production team focused on the Fox Engine, their latest proprietary platform built to develop the “next generation” of videogames not only on consoles such as Sony’s PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One, but also, for the first time in the history of the series, personal computers via digital distribution services like Valve’s Steam. Not merely part of an animation or rendering pipeline, the Fox Engine includes the editors and interfaces Kojima Productions would use to build levels, direct cutscenes, produce effects, design user interfaces, and trigger sounds—everything needed to make the next Metal Gear. The team spoke exhaustively on their engine’s ability to simulate linear space lighting and physically based rendering, and their demos were populated with complex polygonal assets produced with techniques like photo-based scanning and photographic texture mapping. The presentation culminated in very convincing renderings of an old man’s face, a shirtless Congolese boy, a wet leather jacket, and a hyperrealistic, slowly rotating stone (see Figure 3.3). Within the contemporary videogame industry (as within the flattened New Mexican landscapes enveloping the Black Mesa Research Facility at the beginning of chapter 2), all assets are equal and even the most banal subjects require graphical overkill. Technical advances in computer-generated imaging—from the original 2D Metal Gear in 1987 to the rebooted 3D Metal Gear Solid in 1998 to Kojima’s last Metal Gear game in 2015—necessitate finer and finer divisions of labor, and within this granularization of game development even granite gets its fifteen milliseconds of fame (slipping out from beneath the foot of the protagonist, forever codenamed Snake, and tumbling toward the camera as he scales a cliff face at the beginning of the GDC demo).
Months before their GDC presentation, Kojima Productions released two nearly identical pictures of a conference room from their company headquarters in the Roppongi district of Tokyo: one photograph and one Fox render. Accompanying these images, the text invited viewers to determine “Is it REAL, or is it ‘FOX?’” (see Figure 3.4). Like Zeuxis’ birds pecking at painted grapes or ancient artists attempting to pull back curtains, Kojima claimed that the Fox Engine’s graphic output “looks real” and that there is “virtually no difference when compared to the photograph”—a Turing Test of graphical realism (Kojima et al., 2013). As with Pliny’s myths of mimesis, detailed at the beginning of chapter 2, and in the case of many mainstream videogames, photorealism not only refers to the ability to accurately represent mimetic details like detailed textures and dynamic lighting but also implies the ideological desire for both mastery over and subjection to these tricks of light. Whereas Butades’ indexical portraiture was designed to comfort his lovelorn daughter, and Zeuxis and Parrhasius’ painterly illusions were each perpetrated on an unwitting subject, photorealism in contemporary videogames requires complicity on the part of the player in their own sensory and cognitive deception. Realism is not, as Joseph Witek (1989, 116) writes, “an essential relation between certain texts and the world of experiences” but is instead “a conspiracy between writer and reader” or between designer and player. In this respect, the contemporary gamer is more like Pygmalion (who tricks himself) rather than Zeuxis and Parrhasius (who attempt to trick each other). We are each implicated in the construction of our own gamic Galateas.
In Rules of Play, Katie Salen Tekinbaş and Eric Zimmerman (2003, 450–51) call this cultural logic the “immersive fallacy,” or the “idea that the pleasure of a media experience lies in its ability to sensually transport the participant into an illusory, simulated reality. . . . so complete that ideally the frame falls away so that the player truly believes that he or she is part of an imaginary world.” Lying along the contour of the magic circle, Salen Tekinbaş and Zimmerman’s immersive fallacy (like Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s [2000, 31] analysis of the fantasy of “immediacy” in Remediation) not only critiques the very possibility of immersion as such, but also diagnoses a widely held historical desire for an escape into an autonomous zone of free play. Rather than a linear march toward absolute similitude, the graphics industries (as well as their customers) do a dialectic dance that two-steps between the science of simulating light and the superstition in an engagement so sublime that the medium becomes immediate, the body immaterial, and the representation real. Art historian Martin Jay (1988, 2, 6) describes this “resolutely ocularcentric” focus on the “alleged objective optical order” as one of the “scopic regimes of modernity,” and the use of computers has only intensified the drive to produce a mathematical, rationalized space that translates three-dimensional objects onto two-dimensional screens. How has this ocularcentric conflation of graphics and realism become a fixed point around which the standard metagame orbits? Why is the ideological avatar of play so resolutely focused on the visual? Is there a nonvisual, non-video game hovering somewhere in the blind spot of twenty-first century play?
In Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, Alexander Galloway (2006, 73–74) differentiates between “realisticness” as a form of representation in which “images (or language, or what have you) are a faithful, mimetic mirror of reality thereby offering some unmediated truth about the world” and—following Fredric Jameson and the discourses of social realism in film—“realism” as a “technique to approximate the basic phenomenological qualities of the real world.” Whereas the Fox Engine may yield higher polygon counts and more complex lighting simulations than other games, Kojima’s games may nevertheless be less “real” than “those games that reflect critically on the minutiae of everyday life, replete as it is with struggle, personal drama, and injustice” (Galloway 2006, 73, 75). Although not a representation of reality, there is however another kind of correspondence between the Fox Engine and “the minutiae of everyday life”: not the photorealistic representation of war, but the appropriation of the tools and techniques of Hollywood cinema. It is not a coincidence, for example, that Metal Gear Solid V employs motion capture and the surprisingly minimal voice acting of Kiefer Sutherland (instead of loquacious fan-favorite David Hayter). Despite the PR spin, these innovations and expenses are in no way an attempt to produce a more “realistic” or “authentic” Solid Snake, but are signifiers that Metal Gear (and, by extension, Kojima Productions) aligns with the cultural capital, star text, and special effects standards of the global entertainment industry—a form of militarism that Tim Lenoir and Henry Lowood (2005) call the “military entertainment complex.” Although videogames continue to struggle toward photorealism, the Fox Engine successfully represents one social reality of war in the twenty-first century via the appropriation of the bureaucratic, budgetary, and technologies of Hollywood.
Shortly after releasing Metal Gear Solid in 1998, Kojima (Kent 1999) remarked, “The human body is supposed to be 70 percent water. I consider myself 70 percent film.” The latchkey son of a single, working mother, Kojima spent his youth writing short stories and shooting original scripts in Western Japan (Edge 2003). Though these early interests never panned out, the influence is obvious, and Kojima has reported that he still watches a new movie every day (Parkin 2012). From sly references and direct citations of 1980s American film in Metal Gear on the MSX2 computer to what many have regarded as an egregious use of cinematic cutscenes in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (2008) for the PlayStation 3, the videogames that Kojima directs have always been implicated in the logic of film. Metal Gear’s primary protagonist, Solid Snake, was originally named after Kurt Russell’s one-eyed, mullet-sporting Snake Plissken from John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981). Released first for the MSX2 and then the NES, the game’s 1987 cover art is lifted directly from promotional photographs of Michael Biehn from his role as Kyle Reese in The Terminator (1984) (see Figure 3.5). The direct citation of American film and science fiction is not simply a feature of the first Metal Gear, but common to many other Japanese games from the era like Contra (1987) and Ninja Gaiden (1988) which feature Geiger-esque monsters and other poached imagery from movies like Predator (1987) and Alien (1979). But what started as a derivative yet straightforward stealth game, an early progenitor of an entire genre of videogames based on sneaking and spying, would become a platform for Kojima’s cinematic ambitions.
Since 1987, Hideo Kojima has been making Metal Gear. When the series turned twenty-five in 2013, Kojima was celebrating his fiftieth birthday—half his life had been spent working on the games despite his own persistent claim that each Metal Gear was his last. With the promise of each new console generation (and additional funding from Sony in return for console exclusivity), Kojima’s perpetually concluding saga always finds itself rebooted, revisioned, and retconned as he makes, remakes, and eventually demakes Metal Gear. Released for Sony’s PlayStation consoles starting in 1998, the Metal Gear Solid portion of the series is best known for its complex and recursive story full of retroactive continuities and political commentary told through cutting-edge graphics, lengthy cutscenes, and professional voice acting. Set in a near future of bioengineered clones of super-soldiers and billion-dollar tanks with nuclear payloads, each title in the series expresses Kojima’s fears, from nuclear proliferation to genetic cloning to the surveillance state and the war economy. Like the hyperreferential games about games discussed in chapter 1, Metal Gear Solid is also Meta Gear Solid: a self-conscious remake that literalizes the nostalgic tropes of retro gaming as a both fan service and a form of magical realism within the high-fidelity graphics and melodramatic acting of twenty-first-century Japanese videogames. The tension between platform and plot reached its cinematic apotheosis on the PlayStation 3 with Metal Gear Solid 4, which features over eight hours of in-game cutscenes and a DVD-style interface for pausing, playing, rewinding, fast forwarding, and even saving player progress in each animated sequence. Here input is dramatically attenuated to a form of remote control. Nevertheless, pressing play is still play.
Considering these moments in which human input is put on hold, in Gaming Galloway (2006, 12) describes the cutscene as a “grotesque fetishization of the game itself as a machine,” and the record number of cutscenes in Metal Gear Solid 4 is perhaps one of the most extreme examples of this cinematic grotesque. Adopting terms from literary and film theory to address the “semi-autonomous space that is removed from normal life,” Galloway discusses two kinds of processes that occur in videogames: “diegetic machine acts” and “nondiegetic machine acts.” Whereas cutscenes function diegetically to tell a story, nondiegetic machine acts include not only mechanics like “power-ups, goals, high-score stats, dynamic difficulty adjustment, the HUD, [and] health packs” but also “software crashes, low polygon counts, temporary freezes, server downtime, and network lag” (Galloway 2006, 28). Never completely separate, diegetic and nondiegetic orders overlap in Metal Gear Solid 4. In what little game is left outside Kojima’s cinematic excesses, miniature cutscenes also proliferate throughout the gameplay, as small animation sequences not only represent the disability of the player’s avatar but also enact a form of disability.
As “Old Snake” squirms through the gutters, bunkers, alleyways, and trenches within a series of undisclosed locations in the Middle East, South America, Eastern Europe, and the Fox archipelago in Alaska, he occasionally flinches or groans, stopping to rub his aching back unless the player applies a soothing compress or provides hot ramen. Autonomous actions on the part of the aging avatar disrupt gameplay through the injection of short animations—computer processes that temporarily disable play. In these instances, diegetic machine acts border on nondiegetic machine acts as the representation of impairment also impairs the players’ performance within the game. The coughs and spasms of Old Snake are reminiscent of CD skips or network lags, one example of what Galloway (2006, 31) calls “disabling acts.” Here representations of disability also disable player control, as is the case in the prologue of The Phantom Pain in which “Punished Snake” struggles to crawl across the floor of the RAF hospital in Cyprus. As with Old Snake, action no longer correlates to input.
Five years after Old Snake’s debut in Metal Gear Solid 4, an unknown Scandinavian game development team calling themselves “Moby Dick Studios” released a trailer for their first game, The Phantom Pain, at Spike TV’s VGAs. With familiar themes, graphical excess, and “tactical espionage action” that immediately recalled the Metal Gear series, The Phantom Pain’s teaser begins with the perspective of a patient struggling to regain consciousness from his prone position on a hospital gurney. Explosions rack the room as a man in full facial bandages approaches, warning “[I’ve] been watching you for nine years. You can call me Ishmael.” As the player’s one-armed, one-eyed avatar struggles to stand and see, crawling painfully through the hospital corridors, Ishmael takes point in their two-man army. After a laborious escape on all fours as other wounded soldiers are corralled and executed in the burning building, the entire structure ignites in hellfire as a gigantic whale bursts from the ruins of the hospital, soaring across the sky and toward the patient, mouth agape. Whether the whale is the patient’s drug-fueled hallucination, a trick of the light, a VR training simulation, a form of magical realism, or all four is unknown.
Players immediately knew The Phantom Pain was the next Metal Gear. The trailer, for example, not only features a protagonist that resembles Snake, with his signature mullet and ad hoc eye patch, but also recalls the graphic tropes of Kojima Productions’ Fox Engine. The fiery hallucinations flickering at the ends of the hospital’s dark hallways appear to take the form of Stalinist GRU colonel Yevgeny Borisovitch Volgin in his rubber, anti-static combat suit and FOXHOUND’s Psycho Mantis wearing his signature gas mask and floating through level geometry at will. Beyond the game’s graphics, the first name of Moby Dick Studios’ lead director, Joakim, is an anagram for Kojima. His last name, Mogren, includes the word ogre, an in-house code name for one of Kojima’s forever-forthcoming projects. Finally, only two hours after the trailer first screened, fans discovered that characters spelling “METAL GEAR SOLID V” could be interleaved into a series of indentations in the game’s logo (see Figure 3.6).
Despite the flurry of detective work that resolved the mystery in the early hours of December 8, Kojima continued to perpetuate the farce throughout the spring leading up to the Game Developer’s Conference during the last week of March in 2013. Fans played along as games journalist Geoff Keighley booked an interview with Joakim Mogren in an undisclosed location on March 15. An odd exchange by all standards, uncertainty around The Phantom Pain was actually reignited when Mogren appeared on camera. Like H. G. Wells’ Invisible Man (1897), Humphrey Bogart in Dark Passage (1947), and, most obviously, Ishmael in The Phantom Pain trailer, the Swedish man’s head was completely entombed in cotton gauze as if he was disfigured in an accident, recovering from cosmetic surgery, or concealing his identity. A form of what some disability activists and theorists have labeled “disability drag” or, more aptly, “crip face”—the phenomenon of able-bodied performers acting in disabled roles—Mogren donned bandages in order to mimic the mysterious, masked guide from the hospital in The Phantom Pain and to disguise himself (Hadley 2014, 153).
What began as an ill-conceived PR stunt, however, took on renewed significance when multiple communities across the Internet began to speculate that the Swedish videogame director was not in fact a human, but an elaborate, computer-generated prank perpetrated by Kojima. Forum posters wondered “Is it REAL or is it FOX?” and began to document evidence of modeling, texturing, lighting, and animation errors occurring within Mogren’s bandaged face (see Figure 3.7). A long list of possible problems included the following:
- • The upper eyelids only half drop. The attached skin doesn’t move at all (i.e., the eyebrow, the recess below the eyebrow).
- • The lower eyelids simply don’t move. I don’t know about you, but I can’t move my upper eyelids independently of the lower. More-so, when you are shocked or taken aback by something, the natural is to winch/squint [sic].
- • The point of light in his pupil doesn’t move in relation to his head movement. In fact it’s static within the pupil at all times.
- • The shadows around the bandages on the right of the image are not consistent with the head. (Guiberu 2013)
Whether fans were in on the joke or being strung along as part of the playful advertising campaign is unclear, but online polls at Game Trailers, Giant Bomb, and NeoGAF indicated that thousands of people at least fascinated by the idea that Joakim Mogren could be computer generated. Inverting the conventional logic of mimesis, players’ eyes were not deceived, but desired deception. Instead of being tricked, maybe Zeuxis was just playing along with Parhassius; maybe Pygmalion only fantasized about Galatea. This strange inversion was the product of three coinciding factors: a desire for an exponential leap in graphical similitude promised by the Fox Engine, an apophenic suspicion inspired not so much by the success of Kojima’s viral marketing campaign but its failure to fool anyone, and the dehumanizing discourse around disability brought on by Mogren’s unsettling mask. Although controversy fueled debate over the ontology of Joakim Mogren, a stranger mask was about to be revealed at the Game Developers Conference.
A few weeks later, Keiley interviewed Mogren on site at 2013’s GDC. As with his previous on-camera appearance, the Swede appeared with his face fully bandaged, only his mouth and eyes visible to the viewer. During this second interview, however, there can be no doubt as to whether or not Mogren is computer generated. “It’s great to see you again. It’s only been a few weeks since we chatted,” Keiley begins, apprehensively noting that “you look a little bit different.” While his mouth moves to answer, Mogren’s 3D-printed, blue eyes stare out from the carefully wound bandages, unblinking (see Figure 3.8). After a few awkward moments, Hideo Kojima removed the computer-generated and rapid-prototyped Ishmael mask and put his glasses back on. By donning this uncanny mask and pretending to be a Swedish programmer cosplaying as an injured Ishmael, Kojima aligns his own subject position with that of the Melville-inspired narrator and Virgilian guide who shepherds Snake through the hospital’s phantasmagoric inferno. Like the many iterations of Snake, Kojima has been enabled (and disabled) by his own white whale, the three-decades-long leviathan that is the Metal Gear series. Metal Gear has not operated like a game as much as it has been a platform, simultaneously enabling and disabling certain possibilities.
When the masked figure walked onto the GDC stage to begin “Photorealism through the Eyes of a FOX” and revealed both his identity and the identity of The Phantom Pain, the only surprise was how anticlimactic, insulting, and poorly conceived Kojima’s publicity stunt actually was. Whereas companies like Microsoft and Valve have successfully produced elaborate alternate reality games to advertise new titles, here, the videogame industry itself becomes an alternate reality in which the hypertrophic pursuit of graphic realism short circuits other forms of play. Kojima’s mask is not simply evidence of poor taste and insensitivity, but signals the larger, disabling effects of a series like Metal Gear Solid. Following the advertising campaign centered around the fake, Scandinavian game development team and Keiley’s interviews with various blue-eyed and bandaged men, Hideo Kojima finally revealed his Phantom Pain.
As Vivian Sobchack (2010, 65) notes in her essay on the “phenomenology of bodily integrity,” phantom pain was recognized as early as 1551 by Ambrose Pare and the term phantom limb first appeared in print in the work of British neurologist John Hughlings Jackson based on Silas Weir Mitchell’s earlier reference to the phenomenon in 1871 as a “sensory ‘ghost.’” The term was included in the Index Medicus in 1954 and was then popularized by V. S. Ramachandran in his book Phantoms in the Brain, written with Susan Blakeslee in 1999, which details his invention of novel treatments like mirror visual feedback in which a patient relieves phantom pain by placing an arm or leg in a mirror box in order to visualize its corresponding phantom and regain control of that which is no longer there—a kind of photorealism through the eyes of a BOX. More recently, Cassandra Crawford’s 2015 study of the history of phantom limbs articulates the term as both a medical condition and a biological concept that has structured the experience of limb loss since the Civil War, in which a large number of survivors with amputated limbs were offered prosthetic technologies for the first time.
After having her leg amputated above the knee in 1993, Sobchack (2010, 52) describes her own experience of phantom pain as an “ambiguity not only of the reduction of my body’s boundaries and articulations of itself but also of its surprising and radical expansion” (emphasis original). As Sobchack (2010, 52) wryly explains, “My lived body became for me an intimate laboratory in which I could examine, test and reflect phenomenologically not only upon the sensations and dynamics of my so-called ‘phantom’ left leg, but also those of my ‘real’ leg—dare I say, in a pun that will be telling, the right leg that, now, was left.” What stood out to Sobchack (2010, 56) was the contrast between her conscious experience and the psychic presence of her amputated, left leg—a phenomenon she calls “dys-appearance,” based on the work of Drew Leder—and, perhaps more disconcerting, her general lack of awareness and the proprioceptive transparency of her intact right leg. So immersed and familiar was she with the geometry of her body, Sobchack (2010, 58) remembers, that she “began to focus, with as much phenomenological specificity as possible, on my transparently ‘absent’ (rather than ‘dys-appeared’) right leg” and “had to explicitly force myself to sense my right leg even as I could clearly see its objective location and shape.” Just as Sobchack’s phantom pain signals a constitutive lack that, paradoxically, cannot be experienced until it is absent, in the Ahabian drive from one Metal Gear Solid to the next, Kojima enacts his own kind of disabling act that, like Sobchack’s (2010, 56–57) dys-appearing amputation, reveals the “absence of an absence” that makes games possible in the first place.
Although Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain promises to outdo all previous iterations of the Metal Gear Solid series, Kojima signals a deep ambivalence toward this project by both deploying a disabled man as the protagonist of his game and assuming a position of disability himself. In one respect, this Ahab figure with his eye patch and prosthetic hook is a welcome contrast to the able-bodied white men typically cast in the leading roles of AAA games. However, the figure of disability here marks not an absence, but, like Sobchack’s dys-appearance, the hypertrophy of the culture and technology of videogames oriented toward an upgrade path of endless sequels, graphic spectacles, and greater and greater sales. A term for the expansion of muscle and organ tissue, hypertrophy can describe a medical condition and impairment, but it is also the process exploited by bodybuilders in order to inflate and sculpt their muscles. Kojima’s Phantom Pain, then, is not the ache of a missing limb or felt absence, but the pain that comes with the overextension and specialization of one faculty to the detriment of all else. The decades-long investment in spectacular and cinematic game design technologies comes at the expense of other sensory and financial economies. In the same way that Melville deployed Ahab as a figure of nineteenth-century transnational capitalism, so too does Kojima’s Ahab avatar signal contemporary cognitive capitalism and the overinvestment in a particular model of game design. Marked by the avatar’s hook-hand and cycloptic eye, Kojima’s pursuit of the game industry’s white whale ends with the hypertrophic exceptionalism of the perfectly rendered, cinematic cutscene disabling all other nonocular forms of sensory engagement.
[FADE OUT TO BLACK:] The Atrophy of Games
Fade out to black. Before the screen goes dark and gameplay all but ends, an emaciated Russian psychic, clad in black leather and wearing a gas mask, floats in midair, suspended in the center of the commander’s office at the U.S. military base on Shadow Moses Island. In contrast to the florescent lights, grated catwalks, and steel panels of the larger Alaskan compound, the officers’ quarters are comfortably furnished with decorative lighting, marble floors, and wood trim. Here Psycho Mantis demonstrates his “true power”: reading the player’s mind (or, in other words, ascertaining personality traits based on gameplay analytics). In Metal Gear Solid, the player may be “very methodical . . . the type who always kicks his tires before he leaves,” “a highly skilled warrior, well suited to this stealth mission,” or “extremely careful with traps . . . either very cautious or . . . a coward.” Probing more deeply into the player’s “soul”—ludic fingerprints with which Mantis builds his “psychic” profile—the ex-KGB, ex-FBI, FOXHOUND operative may discover that “you like Castlevania, don’t you?” or the fact that “you have not saved often, you are somewhat reckless.” Transitioning from a psychic to a psychokinetic demonstration, Mantis orders the player to “put your controller on the floor. Put it down as flat as you can” before moving the controller “with the power of [his] will alone.” As the player watches their PlayStation controller rumble and shake on the ground, Psycho Mantis asks, “Can you feel my power now?” The most memorable boss fight in the Metal Gear Solid series, the Psycho Mantis battle begins in earnest only after the screen suddenly goes black and a faux video warning (spelling “HIDEO”) flashes in the upper right-hand corner (see Figure 3.9).
Fade out to black. After eight and a half hours of in-game cutscenes depicting high-heeled, cyborg ninjas taking down lizard-legged, bipedal tanks, Metal Gear Solid 4 is interrupted by a discussion of storage capacity, CD-ROM swapping, dual-layered Blu-ray discs, and the affordances of the PlayStation 3. After a tour through a series of photorealistic warzones around the globe, there is a low-poly dream sequence in which posttraumatic stress manifests as retro graphics and low-res textures ripped directly from the original Metal Gear Solid on Sony’s original PlayStation. The pursuit of graphic spectacle is always interrupted by cracks, fissures, deficiencies, and supplements that break the illusion and highlight the medium specificity of videogames as technical objects. As a series, Metal Gear Solid both camouflages and highlights the gaming apparatus and its relation to the larger videogame industry upon which it depends and through which it circulates. Hideo Kojima is not just writing a vast metafiction but is also producing a metagame that self-consciously intervenes on issues of genetic engineering, virtual reality, nanotechnology, global surveillance, and the war economy by implicating the videogame itself within the world of Metal Gear. The diegetic machine acts that disable play through cutscenes are always in opposition to the nondiegetic machine acts that disable play through material metagames. This kind of metagaming points the way not toward hypertrophy, but toward atrophy.
As much as Kojima’s games participate in a naive desire for realism, the fantasy of immersion, and the promise of technological mastery, the Metal Gear Solid series complicates this hypertrophy of games by including medium-specific metagames that perform the opposite gesture: an atrophy of games. Breaking the fourth wall like a kind of Brechtian metatheater, the defamiliarizing moments in Metal Gear foreground the platform and larger media apparatus of videogames. There are passwords hidden in the game’s packaging, mind-reading mini-bosses who mock memory card data, psychic trauma in the form of fake input warnings that flash on the televisions screen, future-proofed solutions that require players to change controller ports, rapid-fire button mashing followed by controller vibrations for optional arm massages, a compromised commanding officer who orders the player to power down the console, Sony and Apple electronics that function diegetically within the game, and more than a few references to virtual missions, combat simulations, cloned combatants, cyber warfare, and games within games.
In light of Kojima’s relationship with Sony and the waning power of Japanese games in the era of the massively multiplayer online game (e.g., World of Warcraft ), the popular military shooter (e.g., Battlefield [2002–], Call of Duty [2003–]), and the rise of social games and mobile apps (e.g., FarmVille , Angry Birds , Candy Crush ), games journalist and critic Leigh Alexander has proposed that Metal Gear Solid is not actually about legendary heroes, proxy wars, child soldiers, and military technology, but a commentary on Kojima’s personal battles in the ongoing console war. In an interview with Tom Bissell (2010, 187) Alexander argues that “the war in the game is the console war” and that Metal Gear 4 represents “the journey of a game designer whose methodology is out of date” (emphasis original). Although the Metal Gear series has historically been at the technical forefront of the videogame industry, showcasing the capacities of each new console generation, and although Kojima’s storytelling style is deeply informed by the logic of photorealism inherited from the Hollywood film industry, the series is also defined by its self-reflexive embrace of videogames as a technical medium. Metal Gear’s fate is deeply entwined with the evolution of gaming platforms, specifically the Sony PlayStation. The movie is interrupted by the menu. The immersive experience is short-circuited by electrical circuits. The cinematic spectacle is halted by the load times, frame drops, texture resolution, and soft locks of the Sony PlayStation as a material platform.
Alexander Galloway frames these kinds of nondiegetic machine acts in terms of disability. For Galloway (2007, 31) disabling acts are “any type of gamic aggression or gamic deficiency that arrives from outside the world of the game and infringes negatively on the game in some way. They can be fatal or temporary, necessary or unnecessary. . . . crashes, low polygon counts, bugs, slowdowns, temporary freezes, and network lag.” Whereas the hypertrophic cutscene disables interactivity as a means to immerse the player in a diegetic storyworld, the disabling act terminates in a conceptual practice in which the player is invited to contemplate the materiality of videogames as technical media. Rather than regard disabling acts as limitations (what Galloway negatively labels “aggressions” and “deficiencies”), some games have made use of these forms of gameplay as affordances rather than constraints within a critical game design practice.
Imagine a Metal Gear without cutscenes, without photorealistic models, without complex terrain, without complex enemy AI, without a vast arsenal of weapons, without an inventory of Japanese sundries, without customizable camouflage, without tactical espionage action, without Metal Gear. Before completely fading out to black, these negations form a kind of design philosophy that challenges the never-ending progression of more processes and more polygons and more products and more payments (although not always more play). The player is left with those disabling acts that previously seemed to interrupt play. Before Psycho Mantis was born via matricide, before he burned down his village and killed his father in a telekinetic primal scene, before he became an FBI profiler and inherited the personalities of the criminals he investigated, before he encountered a one-eyed and hook-handed veteran at a military hospital in Cyprus, before he was recruited by FOXHOUND to stop Solid Snake on Shadow Moses Island, and before he faded the screen out to black, another Snake on another mission on another continent in another era encountered another kind of enemy: a ladder.
After slithering through the jungles of Southern Russia on a “virtuous” mission to assassinate “The Mother of the Special Forces” and his beloved mentor, The Boss, midway through Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2004), “Naked Snake,” must ascend a seemingly endless ladder (see Figure 3.10). The third release in the series but the earliest entry in the game’s narrative chronology, Snake Eater features the first Snake in a Vietnam-inflected, Bond-inspired jungle scenario set in 1964. As Matthew Weise (2012) aptly puts it, “Snake Eater’s deep, convoluted, irreverent world is a magical assault on the Western spy genre, dismantling the mythological universe of 1960’s James Bond and reassembling it according to the logics of Japanese post-Hiroshima pacifism.” During an encounter that subverts the player’s expectation of the (usually) short tunnels and climbs punctuating the game’s levels, Snake’s stamina meter is put to the test. These interstitial areas typically operate as loading zones to obscure the levels and manage the game’s geometry (a technique pioneered in Half-Life) but, as Snake begins to climb the ladder in Krasnogorje Tunnel to get from the verdant jungles of Sokrovenno North to the stark and rocky base of the Krasnogorje Mountain, the next level does not immediately appear. Gripping rung after rung as footfalls clink rhythmically on metal, a whispery vocal track begins to waft through what must be the longest vertical duct in Southern Russia:
What a thrill
With darkness and silence through the night
What a thrill
I’m searching and I’ll melt into you
What a fear in my heart
But you’re so supreme!
Building slowly, an a cappella version of the game’s title soundtrack, “Snake Eater,” becomes stronger as Naked Snake continues to climb the ladder. Written by Norihiko Hibino and performed by Cynthia Harrell, the theme song parodies John Barry’s lounge singer ballads that appear at the beginning of Bond films. The song is barely audible at the start of the climb, but increases to full volume as Snake ascends:
I give my life
In my time there’ll be no one else
Crime, it’s the way I fly to you (Snake Eater)
I’m still in a dream, Snake Eater
For over three hundred steel rungs, the only action the player can take is to sit back and push up on the analog stick for a couple of minutes, listening to the music and reflecting on the central operations and experiences of playing videogames. In a piece of software that usually lasts around sixteen hours, two minutes may seem trivial, but the time spent climbing the ladder feels like another game altogether—a game inside a game or a game without a game.
By stripping the game down to the barest gameplay, this protracted moment of climbing in Metal Gear Solid 3 calls into question the multiplicity of material supports that both make the algorithmic operations of games possible and are also eclipsed by the spectacle of Snake’s stealth missions. Ascending the ladder pulls back the curtain of cutscenes to reveal the illusion of teleological progress that level-driven and quest-driven videogames present to the player—the moment not only suggests the futility of climbing an endless ladder, but hints at the Sisyphean endeavor of the entire game. Just as Brecht’s epic theater challenged the aesthetics of illusionism in order to make spectators self-conscious, Metal Gear defamiliarizes the gameplay experience by removing many of the standard interactive features of the series. In this moment, the ladder reduces gameplay to a form of cinema as the action of climbing begins to operate like a cutscene—but one that cannot be skipped. As the player cranks the projector step by step there are no enemy soldiers, no codec calls, no in-engine cutscenes, no CQC, no COBRA Special Forces unit, no nuclear tank—just a ladder.
Apart from Metal Gear there are numerous videogames that selectively deploy a minimalist aesthetic to limit the gameplay, foreground disabling acts, and reveal the medium specificity of videogames as technical media. In Super Paper Mario (2007), for example, when Mario re-enters World 6–1 he discovers that the level has been completely destroyed and there is nothing but empty white space and a black line running through the world (see Figure 3.11). Recalling Émile Cohl’s Fantasmagorie (1908) or Osvaldo Cavandoli’s La Linea (1971–86), which featured cartoon characters animated out of the gestures of a single horizontal line on the frame, the effaced world distills Super Paper Mario to its core gameplay as Mario walks through a monochromatic side-scroller. Another minimal moment in the same game occurs earlier in World 2–3 when Mario must run on a hamster wheel for over five minutes in order to earn 10,000 rupees (a reference to the currency used in The Legend of Zelda ). This setup gently mocks the process of grinding that is such a common feature in roleplaying games (RPGs)—and the grinding wheels of capitalism more generally. Apart from Super Paper Mario, many other games have scenes where the player must climb long, seemingly endless stairs, such as Super Mario 64 (1996), Final Fantasy VII (1997), and even the original Metal Gear Solid.
Beyond the serial repetition of minimal level design, other games have selectively deployed an aesthetic of long duration to highlight the ticking timers and flashing frames specific to computational media. In order to enter Master Belch’s secret base under Grapefruit Falls in EarthBound (1994), your team must “say the password!” But, as one helpful Mr. Saturn reveals in Saturn Valley, the password is “stand still, wait for three minutes,” forcing the player to wait patiently instead of responding with a codeword. In a similar vein, one of the infamous “8 Star” challenges at the end of Braid (2008) requires the player to wait for a slow, leftward-floating cloud platform to carry the protagonist, Tim, across the entire level at an almost imperceptible speed—an exercise in long duration and obsession that is significantly more intense compared to either the three minutes of waiting in EarthBound or Metal Gear Solid 3’s ladder. Elsewhere in the third Metal Gear, simply waiting for the aged assassin codenamed The End to die in the vast forests of Sokrovenno is a valid way to complete the boss fight. Players may also advance the clocks on their PlayStation’s operating system to speed up the process in a moment typical of Metal Gear’s material metagaming.
A history of this kind of minimal gameplay begins with the loading screens, pause states, idle animations, and repetitive gameplay of all videogames. Whereas mainstream games judiciously deploy moments of aesthetic minimalism and metacommentary, over the past decade, publicly available development tools and open-source modding frameworks have allowed independent and experimental developers to produce videogames that are not necessarily targeted toward commercial markets and can be dedicated entirely to exploring minimal mechanics that attenuate gameplay. Exercises in literalism like You Have to Burn the Rope (2008), Close Range (2009), and Cow Clicker (2010) expose the underlying procedural operations of their respective genres—shooters, platformers, and free-to-play social games—by distilling the gameplay down to a single interaction or operation. You Have to Burn the Rope is a one-level platformer by Kian “Mazapán” Bashiri in which the player must walk through a level and burn the rope of a chandelier to kill the only boss—the Grinning Colossus. The level takes less than a minute to complete, but the player is rewarded with a delightfully catchy credits track celebrating your accomplishment by ironically declaring “Now you’re a hero, you managed to beat the whole damn ga-ame” (a smug sentiment that echoes Portal’s famous ending song, “Still Alive,” by Jonathan Coulton). Close Range is a first-person shooter released by the satirical newspaper The Onion in which the player does nothing but shoot a revolving series of heads at close range, from an array of human faces to the heads of a horse and an ostrich—each click is automatically a bullseye. Cow Clicker, a Farmville-like parody by Ian Bogost, was initially intended as a critique of the free-to-play genre of social media games that offered little challenge but was built on a Ponzi-like structure of acquisition in which the player could either pay money for items or recruit other social media users in order to generate virtual goods. Apparently clicking cows to generate “mooney” was something players really enjoyed because Bogost’s game garnered enough of a following that he had to kill it off in a “Cowpocalypse” in which the cows vanished and players were left with empty green fields. Other minimal games like Penn and Teller’s Desert Bus (c. 1995), Neil Hennessey’s Basho’s Frogger (2000), RRRRThats5Rs’ Don’t Shoot the Puppy (2006), Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn’s The Graveyard (2008), Marcus “Raitendo” Richert’s You Only Live Once (2009), anna anthropy’s queers in love at the end of the world (2013), Darius Kazemi’s Zeno of Elea (2014) remove conventional game mechanics to make minimal metagames. These are games without games because they strip away the verbs and vocabulary to leave only the syntax.
Examining the work of artists experimenting with this negative relation to videogames, Galloway labels Jodi’s Untitled Game (1996–2001) and SOD (1999), Anne-Marie Schleiner, Joan Leandre, and Brody Condon’s Velvet Strike (2002), and Cory Arcangel’s Super Mario Clouds (2002, 2009) “countergames.” For Galloway (2006, 115–18, 107), countergaming “replaces play with aesthetics, or perhaps something like the play of signification” and, through its subtractive approach, deliberately “ignores all possibility of gameplay.” Unlike the cinematic games that disable play in the service of spectatorship and visual plenitude, these types of games that labeled art games, alt games, anti-games, not games, non-games, no games, null games, and “countergames” follow in the tradition of abstract painting by ignoring or removing game mechanics in the interest of expanding the conceptual field of play. Yet Galloway (2006, 125) remains skeptical of countergaming practices, calling for an “avant-garde of video gaming not just in visual form but also in actional form” and “radical gameplay, not just radical graphics.”
One work that takes minimalist and monochromatic gameplay to its limit while still subsuming it within the logic of an “actional form” is 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness (2009). Designed at the Nordic Game Jam in 2009 by Petri Purho, Heather Kelley, and Jonatan “Cactus” Söderström and inspired by John Cage’s 4′33″ (1952), 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness features a black, monochromatic background that slowly fills from left to right with white as time passes (see Figure 3.12). Recalling Cage’s infamous composition written for David Tutor which consisted entirely of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of “silence” (designated by sheets of rests), in Purho, Kelley, and Söderström’s game the player must wait for exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds for the screen to fill. 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness is like a loading bar, but nothing is loading. There is no data being prepared in the background and there are no files downloading from the Internet. The bar, like Cage’s sheet music, is simply a measure of time.
If another player begins the game at any time during the process, however, the application will immediately close. In the same way that Cage’s performance tunes the listener to the ambient noise of the orchestral space, 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness draws attention to the ambient interactions and alternative forms of interactivity that are the precondition for playing most videogames. This minimal metagame critiques the serialized conditions of network culture and fantasies of connectivity, as the player can only “win” or “complete” the game if another user does not log on while a playtime is in session. Only one player in the world can ever be playing this game at any one time. John Cage (1961, 102) famously described Robert Rauschenberg’s white, monochromatic paintings as “airports for the lights, shadows, and particles.” A similar effect is produced by staring at the slowly moving progress bar in 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness. By stripping the videogame to all but the act of waiting for a loading bar to turn from black to white, 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness does not simply excise gameplay, but it also opens the player up to the different kinds of play that are always taking place.
Much like Cage’s work in which the performance allows the audience to relocate their listening from the musicians on the stage to the ambient sounds produced while sitting in a “silent” concert hall, 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness not only creates a space for the player to contemplate the mental metagame of when to boot the software and how to avoid being interrupted by another player, but also redirects focus toward the broader experience of play that takes place in, on, around, and through the network. While most massively multiplayer online games emphasize connectivity and promote online communities, 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness delivers a less optimistic diagnosis that the serialized conditions of networks ultimately work to estrange individuals as much as they bring them together. In the same way Cage’s 4′33″ includes the suppressed coughs of audience members, uncomfortable shuffling of seats, and muffled sounds from outside the concert hall, 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness expands the field of play to include the microtemporal actions and exchanges that are occurring on and between the complex network of machines that make this game possible—the disabling acts that enable videogames as a medium.
Refining this concept by explicitly highlighting popups, loading errors, and plugin requirements—the computational equivalent of creaking chairs and intermittent sniffles in a crowded theater—4:32 (2010) by Jesper Juul is a playful response to Purho’s 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness. Rather than load up a game in which all the player must do is wait for a bar to fill or press up to climb a ladder (while, perhaps, taking note of the material supports that make videogames possible in the first place), Juul produces a game that is composed entirely around the metaleptic (and metaludic) practices of downloading software, installing applications, and refining user settings (see Figure 3.13). Upon loading the website Juul’s game first requires the Firefox browser to run then instructs the player to install a suite of plugins like Unity, Silverlight, and Java; change the language to Spanish/Spain es-es; reduce the screen resolution to 800 x 600 pixels; uninstall Flash, etc. Through this intense and ultimately frustrating process of adjustments, 4:32 not only represents black screens and failed loading processes but directly incorporates nondiegetic machine acts into the diegesis of the game (undermining the distinction Galloway makes between diegetic and non-diegetic elements of videogames). In 4:32 play takes the form of the anticipatory process of preparing to play.
Installing a piece of software and fiddling with runtime settings is a profoundly ubiquitous and necessary part of the gaming experience (especially in the case of accessibility), yet frame rates, screen resolutions, language specifications, and key bindings are rarely discussed as part of the central pleasures of playing videogames. As such, Juul’s 4:32 highlights the disabling acts that are constitutive of a player’s gaming experience, yet often conceptually bracketed and rendered invisible when playing conventional games. 4:32 is a metagame that incorporates all those actions that are imagined to take place outside the game, yet create the necessary conditions for play to occur in the first place. Works like 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds and 4:32 put pressure on Galloway’s claim that countergames are “progressive in visual form but reactionary in actional form” as they ask the player to reconsider what precisely constitutes the field of action in games—both experientially as well as mechanically. Not playing, it would seem, is also a viable form of play.
The videogame industry designs hardware and software not only around standard models of generalizable, able bodies, but around gendered bodies as well. As danah boyd (2014) argues in her considerations of motion sickness and virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift, if women are unequally affected by the vertiginous effects of headsets designed around the proprioceptive capacities of a team of mostly male engineers, these simulators are not for everyone. Thus, when The Helen Keller Simulator converts the figure of not only a blind and deaf person, but also a woman, into a meme, it reinforces not only the visual hegemony of games, but a culture of ability- and gender-based marginalization. As Susan Wendell (2006, 244) emphasizes, “To build a feminist theory of disability that takes adequate account of our differences, we will need to know how experiences of disability and the social oppression of the disabled interact with sexism, racism and class oppression.” Within videogame culture, none of these issues are separate from one another and comingle in a game like The Helen Keller Simulator.
Helen Keller’s gender is not incidental to the joke of The Helen Keller Simulator. Alongside Wendell, theorists like Rosemarie Garland-Thomson and the late Tobin Siebers have articulated some of the intersections between feminist theory and disability studies. Garland-Thomson (1997, 19) writes that “Many parallels exist between the social meanings attributed to female bodies and those assigned to disabled bodies. Both the female and the disabled body are cast as deviant and inferior; both are excluded from full participation in public as well as economic life.” Siebers (2008, 154) further notes that “the women’s movement radicalized interpretation theory to the point where repressive constructions of the female form are more universally recognized, and recent work by gay and lesbian activists has identified the ways that heterosexual models map the physique of the erotic body to the exclusion of non-normative sexualities. Disability studies has embraced many of these theories because they provide a powerful alternative to the medical model of disability.” Rather than pathologize individual bodies, the intersection of the social model of disability with issues of gender as well as class, race, sexuality, and age demonstrates how structural inequalities and ideological constructions not only privilege certain bodies at the expense and disenfranchisement of others but produce disability in the first place. This overlap is manifested in The Helen Keller Simulator’s sexist and ableist punchline. The Helen Keller Simulator manipulates this iconic figure by treating her as a tool for commenting on the ontology of videogames and not as a historical agent with a distinct subjectivity in her own right. In order to make their joke, the simulators reach for the lowest-hanging fruit: one of the most lionized “supercrips.”
In Feminist, Queer, Crip, Alison Kafer (2013, 90) offers a definition of this common cultural trope: “Supercrips are those disabled figures favored in the media, products of either extremely low expectations (disability by definition means incompetence, so anything a disabled person does, no matter how mundane or banal, merits exaggerated praise) or extremely high expectations (disabled people must accomplish incredibly difficult, and therefore inspiring, tasks to be worthy of nondisabled attention).” An inversion of the figure of the poster child whose mere existence makes her both a hero and subject of pity, the figure of the supercrip represents the ableist fantasy of individual perseverance, of mind over matter, and of where-there’s-a-will-there’s-a-way attitude. Responding to a culture that has exploited the story of Helen Keller to create unattainable expectations and an impossible role model for persons with disabilities, Georgina Kleege’s (2006a, 1) open letter to Keller, Blind Rage, argues that her “life story inscribes the idea that disability is a personal tragedy to be overcome through an individual’s fortitude and pluck, rather than a set of cultural practices and assumptions, affecting many individuals that could be changed through collective action.” Representations of Helen Keller often epitomize this pervasive ideology.
The reference to Helen Keller’s name in the game’s title is both a punchline and an illustration of how, in the case of the black monochrome, language fills the void. Without the name “The Helen Keller Simulator” there would be no game. Similarly, since no game is so immersive that it can ever articulate the complexity of human subjectivity (not to mention that of a blind and deaf woman born in the nineteenth century), The Helen Keller Simulator’s gameplay quickly migrates from the play of likeness to the play of language. Describing Keller’s complex relationship to language, in a New Yorker article Cynthia Ozick (2003) remarks how she was “at once liberated by language and in bondage to it, in a way few other human beings can fathom.” As a result, Keller’s language has been historically perceived as unmoored from the empiricism of the senses, a claim that lead to charges that her writing was not that of a human but of an automaton—a machine that recombines and remixes words into attractive combinations but is nevertheless incapable of producing “meaningful” descriptions rooted in “authentic” lived experience.
Considering Keller’s lifelong struggle against plagiarism and accusations of “substituting parroted words for firsthand perception,” Ozick (2003) recounts the moment when, at the age of twelve, Keller was put before an in-house tribunal at Perkins School for the Blind after being accused of plagiarism. According to Ozick (2003), Keller’s own response to such charges was to declare her detractors “‘spirit-vandals’ who would force her ‘to bite the dust of material things.’” In the wake of these accusations, Mark Twain (1917, 731) would become one of Keller’s most ardent defenders, protesting that plagiarism was not the exception but rather the rule that governs all human discourse: “as if there was much of anything in any human utterance, oral or written, except plagiarism! . . . For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them.” Despite the passage of a century, The Helen Keller Simulator is not only as quick to dismiss Keller’s agency as her early skeptics, but also foregrounds and then demeans the textual conditions structuring Keller’s experience.
As Ozick argues, Helen Keller engaged the world through language. And although neither the monochromatic painting nor the minimalist game capture this experience, these media nonetheless shift focus away from the sensual visual object toward the discourse of linguistic abstraction. The Helen Keller Simulator meme, across its many instances and iterations, does not effectively simulate or represent the phenomenology of being blind and deaf, but it highlights the insufficiency of contemporary videogames to offer access to this form of sensory economy. At the same time, as is evident in the comments section of the various Simulators, the most important aspect of these games is not the object itself (be it HTML or Java or YouTube video or bitmap image), but the conversation that circulates around it. The life of The Helen Keller Simulator is not discovered through the input and output of conventional gameplay, but through the discourse and language that always attends and supports play.
This move from kinetic play to conceptual, linguistic, or textual play mirrors the movement from abstract expressionism and minimalism to conceptual art in the late 1960s and early 1970s. When taken at face value, Ad Reinhardt’s black squares were as much paintings as The Helen Keller Simulators black screens are videogames. Both black paintings and black games attempt to empty their respective media formats in order to discover the underlying conditions that structure painting and play. In the process, they become increasingly conceptual—operating according to linguistic or textual rules rather than those of color, composition, competition, collection, or collision detection. They become blank slates, platforms for thinking about the ways we think about media as much as they signify the ends of media. In 1921, Alexander Rodchenko painted Pure Red Color, Pure Blue Color, and Pure Yellow Color as a way of announcing the end of painting. Despite claims that the monochrome was the final stroke, this end always seems to repeat. Artists like John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and of course Ad Reinhardt continued to end painting again and again; what was once declared an endgame strategy converted into serial practice, an art historical meme that continues to return in different contexts and conversations. In the case of the not games, non-games, no games, and null games represented by The Helen Keller Simulator, the end of gameplay is also serially reproduced—a poetic practice and genre of metagaming without videogames.
Cut to black. No longer viridian, now azure fingernails are featured alongside a white GameCube controller on the upside-down webcam footage accompanying live streaming video of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998) on Twitch.tv. As Link enters the vaguely Middle Eastern setting of Gerudo Valley, Narcissa Wright intones,
One, two, three, four, five. Grab the edge, climb up the edge! Target. Roll, roll roll. Side hop, side hop, side hop, side hop, roll. Side hop, side hop, side hop, side hop, roll! Side hop, side hop, roll, roll. Side hop. Backflip, backflip, instant shield drop, roll, backflip aaaand roll! One more. And hit back. And hit backflip. Aaah! Welcome to Ocarina of Time! (Wright 2012)
As mentioned in chapter 1, Wright is well known for her work on Nintendo’s classic 3D adventure game, Ocarina of Time, and for her articulate analysis and speedrunning commentary. She is also one of the great glitch hunters who discovered new ways to play games like Ocarina of Time by peeking and poking at memory addresses and studying the data structures of Nintendo 64 games.
After almost a decade of research, in 2013 Wright began using the iQue, a Chinese plug-and-play controller based on the Nintendo 64. As previously discussed, because the display rate of Chinese text is slightly faster than the Japanese and significantly faster than the English text, the Chinese version of Ocarina of Time on the iQue is advantageous for certain kinds of speedrunning. For speedrunners, the language in games is evaluated not according to its semantic value, but on its material and operational properties. Not only does Chinese text require fewer characters per word, conveying more content per pixel, but the iQue also displays text at a faster frame rate than the Nintendo 64. Beyond considerations of the text within the game, speedrunners collaborate to write “routes”—text-based instructions or directions detailing the fastest way to complete a videogame given what techniques and exploits are known at the time. For speedrunners like Wright, some of the most visually spectacular games (for their time) become reduced to sequences of input or text-based instructions.
Almost exactly one year before Wright was first beginning to make serious contributions to the Ocarina of Time metagame, when the game still took around four hours to beat in the winter of 2007 and spring of 2008, another player began to visit the Speed Demos Archive (SDA). After reading detailed descriptions of and technical advice about how to most efficiently navigate Ocarina of Time on the speedrunning forum, in 2006 Jordan Verner created a new thread titled “Can Someone Please Help Me with OoT?” Verner, who was born blind, recognized the relationship between his project and speedrunning and hoped to enlist the help of the community at SDA in order to complete one of the best known (and most complex) entries in the Legend of Zelda franchise. Initially, the responses on the forum ranged from skeptical and dismissive to flat out rude:
Odd, a blind man who can find this site, type nearly perfectly, plays video games . . . has OoT ‘for boss fights’, wants the map to be there (even though he can’t see it) and expects a video to help him learn the game . . . what? (Hitaro 2006)
I’m sorry, but there are way too many complications for me to believe that a blind person can play through OoT. (Zurreco 2006)
I wasn’t trying to make a useless post, but this is kind of a useless topic. (coolcwer2 2006)
A number of posters were unable to fathom that a blind person could successfully read, write, and interact on the Internet, let alone play videogames, particularly the vast, 3D world of Ocarina of Time. Although Verner’s initial request was met with some resistance, active leaders of the SDA community like Kari “EssentiaFour” Johnson (a prolific player who, at the time, was working on the first speedrun of Final Fantasy IX ), Andrew “andrewg” Gardikis (who had just become the world record holder for Super Mario Bros. at the time of Verner’s post), and Drew “Runnerguy2489” Wissler (a burgeoning Ocarina of Time speedrunner who would become one of Verner’s great allies) recognized the significance of Verner’s project and its striking similarity to the practice of speedrunning.
As Wright demonstrates on her Twitch channel, although the speedrunner may be sighted, speedrunning operates at the limits of visuality. Slowly perfecting her Ocarina of Time world record throughout 2014, margins for error became slimmer as Wright’s strategies increasingly relied on random events. As a speedrun becomes more and more optimized, play asymptotically converges with the speed and scale of digital media. When engaging in thousands of playthroughs, manual dexterity and psychological consistency become a scaffold supporting a game of chance. What are games of skill for the average player turn into a lottery as speedrunners must wait for an opportunity in which perfect execution aligns with optimal luck (usually structured by random number generators [RNG] within the game). Technical consistency is achieved by mapping the kinetic motion of thumbs on joysticks to memorized input patterns—mnemonic texts discovered within the game that, if performed correctly, produce predictable outcomes.
Echoing Verner’s process of creating mental maps, taking lengthy notes, and engaging in constant practice to memorize sequences and internalize haptic routines to play Ocarina of Time, so too does the speedrunner discover and engage, at some level, with a text-based game. Whereas many platforming games such as Super Mario Bros. rely on visual feedback, variable momentum, and frame-precise navigation, The Legend of Zelda series has always included a coarser, less granular model of movement mapped directly to discrete player input. In contrast to the dynamic movement in Super Mario 64, running and jumping in Ocarina of Time do not scale with speed. Link’s metric motion is easier to predict, plan, and consistently perform: “Side hop, side hop, side hop, side hop, roll!” (Wright 2012). Exploiting these metrics (as well as the stereo sound afforded by the Nintendo 64’s three-dimensional spaces), Verner first became adept at beating dungeon bosses then began to work on a reliable method for navigating the fields, towns, and dungeons in Ocarina of Time.
For players who require alternative interfaces or who have low or no vision, there has been stunningly little attention paid to the issue of accessibility and to the potential of videogames beyond those sensory economies that prioritize vision. Although there are many text-to-voice adventure games designed for a nonsighted audience and a few games that have been modified and redesigned to feature nonvisual play such as Shades of Doom (1998) and AudioQuake (2003), audiogames remain a remarkably minor genre of game design. One notable exception is Jeremy “Aprone” Kaldobsky’s software which includes accessibility applications like a mouse coordinate reader and a webcam color reader alongside a host of small, independently developed videogames. Swamp (2011), for example, is Kaldobsky’s relatively popular, squad-based, survival-horror game designed primarily for nonvisual play.
Whether in film or digital media, sound often remains an ancillary, invisible aspect of production subordinate to visual media, especially in videogames. Some notable exceptions include Kenji Eno’s audio-based branching romance story Real Sound: Kaze no Regrets, released in Japan for the Sega Saturn in 1997; Thomas Westin’s award winning first-person sci-fi game featuring 3D sound design for the PC in 2002, Terraformers; and sound-based mobile games like Somethin’ Else’s Papa Sangre from 2010. Although these games exist, compared to the breadth of the catalog and depth of most AAA videogames, the current state of audiogaming leaves something to be desired. In many cases, contemporary audiogames appear to be decades behind in terms of production—small-scale, no-budget games made by volunteers in the idiom of arcade gaming but with audio instead of video feedback. But, as was the case with the indie game boom of the late 2000s, perhaps there will be an audiogame movement led by developers like Verner.
Before he began studying computer science and after he published video recordings of successful boss fights on YouTube, other speedrunners began to work with Verner by making audio records of their playthroughs, transcripts of specific button presses, and even specific RAM states for instant replay. The project exponentially expanded when Wissler, Mark “TurquoiseStar17” C., Roy Williams, and other runners began to work with Verner to produce a massive, hundred-thousand-word, collaboratively written plaintext file called MasterScript.txt. Along with a small AutoIt program that Verner developed in order to automate the otherwise difficult-to-predict angle of weapons like the bow and hookshot, Ocarina of Time’s visual interface was transformed into texts. To navigate the Forest Temple, for example, Verner consulted this passage:
Upon restarting, make your way forward to reach the main room. Take out your hookshot. . . . Save and reset . . . so you are facing forward when you reach the elevator. After riding it to the bottom, sidehop right twice, back flip once, sidehop right one more time, move forward. Grab the wall and push it up. Roll forward three times. Sidehop left 6 times, roll forward 3 times. Go into C-up view and start your hookshot automater. [sic] Move the view left 8 times then roll forward 5 times, you should land on the first switch. Wait a few seconds for the view to shift, Turn 180 degrees, wait again. Go into C-up view and move left 3 times. Roll forward 8 times, then sidehop left 2 times. Roll forward 5 times. Sidehop left once, then turn 180. Press Z. Grab the wall you’re now facing and push it up. Make a step forward if you’re not completely at it. Backflip 2 times, sidehop right once, backflip once, sidehop right once, backflip once, sidehop right once, sidehop left once, you will land on the second switch. Sidehop left 5 times, roll forward 7 times, sidehop left 2 times, turn 90 degrees left and push the wall. Roll forward 5 times, move a step up and grab the wall. Push it again. Sidehop left 7 times. Roll forward 8 times. Sidehop left 3 times, then hold Z and run up until you walk onto the third switch. Wait a few seconds for the view to shift, then turn 90 degrees left and press Z. Use the hookshot automater [sic] one more time and shift to C-up. Move right 5 times, then hold up and make your final triumphant run across the room to the boss door. (Verner et al.)
Through MasterScript.txt, Verner collaborated with the speedrunning community to transform a 3D action-adventure game back into a text-based adventure game. In doing so, he not only interrupted the competitive goals of those speedrunners working with him, but transformed assumptions around what videogames are and what they can do. With MasterScript.txt, the idea that Ocarina of Time is a stable object with a fixed author and an intended design is no longer obvious. Although the technical operations of the game’s ROM, the system’s RAM, and the serial pulses sent to and from the controller remain unchanged (there is no hacking involved in this hack), the reception and manipulation of the game occur according to an alternate logic, a different kind of game design philosophy. At the level of the material interface and the phenomenal experience of play, it was not the involuntary mechanics of videogames, but the voluntary rules of a community metagame that transformed Nintendo’s closed product into an open platform for making new games, sharing new experiences, and writing new texts.
Although a number of Speed Demo Archives community members worked with Verner to produce scripts, save states, and compile strategies for navigating The Legend of Zelda, there was one runner in particular who was drawn to Verner’s metagame. Drew Wissler, a record-holding Ocarina of Time player, not only assisted Verner with his project but also began to perform blindfolded speedruns of his own. Facing away from the screen, with a green pillowcase over his head, on March 7, 2008 Wissler videotaped himself navigating the virtual space without visual feedback (see Figure 3.15). Unlike Verner, Wissler relied on his memory and spatial intuition in conjunction with the sound cues and scripts he had helped Verner produce. The result is not a blind run but a blindfolded run. And Wissler is the first to admit that he and Verner are not playing the same game. When blind and blindfolded play are compared, the difference is obvious. Verner’s YouTube videos appear choreographed, meticulously performed and obviously practiced in advance through a careful reading of MasterScript.txt. As Link constantly vaults backward, the camera angle is inconsequential to his backflips and side hops through Hyrule. On the other hand, Wissler’s live attempts to navigate appear sloppy and ad hoc, based on muscle and visual memory, stereo sound cues, and frequent slashes on obstacles with Link’s sword cum cane. Here, Link stumbles around drunkenly, slamming into walls and getting stuck in corners for hours—a debacle that earned Runnerguy the nickname “Cornerguy.”
In Optics (1637), Descartes famously uses the metaphor of the blind man’s cane to conceptualize vision. For Descartes, the blind man taps the field to build an image, a mental map of the world through a tactile prosthetic. Georgina Kleege (2006b, 392) has challenged Descartes’ analogy for the way it reinforces an ocularcentric perspective by assuming the cane operates as a kind of haptic eyeball deployed for the purposes of mental imaging:
The stick serves merely to announce the presence of an obstacle, not to determine if it is a rock or a tree root, though there are sound cues—a tap versus a thud—that might help make this distinction. In many situations, the cane is more of an auditory than a tactile tool. It seems that in Descartes’ desire to describe vision as an extension of or hypersensitive form of touch, he recreates the blind man in his own image, where the eye must correspond to the hand extended by one or perhaps two sticks.
This distinction between the two models of a cane also illustrates the difference between Verner’s and Wissler’s play. Although, in both cases, the sword is tapped as an auditory tool, much of Wissler’s struggle is produced through the disconnect between the auditory information revealed by the cane and his mental map—a virtual visuality—of the space developed through years of sighted play. By contrast, Verner is not using the sword to build a mental map of the space in its totality, but to check and avoid obstacles he knows are coming. It is no coincidence that Verner transformed The Legend of Zelda a text-based adventure game by translating the actions into a series of textual commands.
Jeremy Parish (2012) once described the starting screen of the original The Legend of Zelda in terms of Will Crowther and Don Wood’s Colossal Cave Adventure (1975–76) writing: “You are standing in a clearing, surrounded by high rock walls on all sides. The cliff behind you to the south rises too steeply to be scaled. Winding dirt paths lead through the stone to the west, the north, and the east. Just ahead, the mouth of a deep, dark cave yawns from the rock to the north. What will you do? >_” (see Figure 3.16). More than ten years before The Legend of Zelda was released in 1986, Crowther’s original Colossal Cave Adventure made its way across PDP mainframes in 1975, eventually appearing at Stanford where it was updated and popularized by Don Woods before circulating as Adventure or ADVENT in 1976 (Jerz 2007). While Adventure inspired Infocom to make their own text-based game, Zork, for PDP-10s in 1979, Warren Robinett began tinkering on his own graphical version of the game published for the Atari 2600 the same year. As Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost (2009, 45) note in Racing the Beam, “The development of the text-adventure genre, on the one hand, and the action-adventure genre, on the other, forked off from Crowther and Woods’s Adventure at a very early point, long before the general public even knew that Adventure existed.” After Robinett’s Adventure, Nintendo refined the action-adventure genre into one of their most famous franchises: The Legend of Zelda.
Although Shigeru Miyamoto’s apocryphal story of childhood spelunking in the rural town of Sonobe has become, as Nick Paumgarten (2010) writes, “a misty but indispensable part of his legend . . . what the cherry tree was to George Washington, or what LSD is to Steve Jobs,” the graphic convention of using single screens to represent rooms, the pixel-wise motion of a player-controlled character, and the collision of that character with objects and enemies had perhaps more precedent in Robinett’s game than in the caves of Kyoto. Quoting Montfort and Bogost again, although “games have moved to 3D and programmers have become more concerned with polygons than pixels . . . movement and collision detection remain the primary building blocks of [action-]adventure games, and, indeed, of most video games.” But just because movement and collision detection function as the primary grammar of action-adventure games doesn’t mean that these mechanics don’t break down into discrete, textlike components.
Standing in a clearing, surrounded by high rock walls at the beginning of The Legend of Zelda, it appears as though Link has only four options. Whereas the dark green cliff faces block character movement due to nested rings of single-pixel collision detection embedded within each stony tile, the beige dirt paths lead left, right, and upward while the black mouth of the cave offers something to explore immediately upon starting a game. However, there is another way forward, or, more precisely, backward, due to the confluence between (1) the process by which Link’s smooth, single-pixel movement gravitates toward an underlying 8 x 8-pixel grid upon direction change (in order to avoid getting snagged on rocks or blocks), and (2) the single-pixel collision detection routine responsible for scrolling the screen to the next location on the map. Given these two intersecting processes, if the green-clad hero is first positioned exactly five pixels away from the pixel responsible for scrolling the screen, and then receives a single frame of input from a direction perpendicular to his current orientation, something unexpected will happen. Link will move toward the sub-grid, bypassing the single-pixel collider and allowing the hero to continue forward without triggering the scrolling screen. Upon wandering off the right side of the screen, Link will wrap from one side of the level to the other as his horizontal position rolls over from 255 to 0 (see Figure 3.17). Unlike the infinitely looping Lost Woods or Lost Hills that simply reload the same location over and over again, in this case, Link never leaves the starting screen, looping from dirt path to dirt path via a pixel-perfect and frame-perfect exploit—a single, discrete, grammatized gesture that reduces the movement mechanics of action-adventure games back to the text-based inputs of Colossal Cave Adventure’s “N,” “S,” “E,” and “W” commands. Speedrunning the original Legend of Zelda begins by using this trick to skip through walls and quickly scuttle into the third dungeon after only three screens, and, as seen in the distinct play styles of Wright and Verner, the discrete effects of motion and collision transform into texts when read the right way.
As much as speedrunners rely on the eye to navigate videogames, their success depends on scripts, routes, and instructions that reconfigure the granularity of action-based gameplay in terms of metric sequences. As Narcissa Wright may have written for Verner,
Side hop right 5 times. Hear Link fall off the edge and climb up the edge. Z-Target. Roll forward-left 3 times. Side hop left 4 times. Roll forward-left. Side hop left 4 times. Roll forward-left. Side hop left, side hop left, roll forward-left, roll forward-left. Side hop left. Backflip. Backflip. Use a bomb. Instant shield drop. Roll forward and backflip. Roll forward. Press backward. Now “Mega Backflip” across the canyon in Gerudo Valley.
Welcome to a blind or blindfolded, text-based action-adventure game.
Fade in from black. Fade out to black. Cut to black. While The Phantom Pain and The Helen Keller Simulator represent the extents of the visual economy of games (and each, in their own way, disable play), Jordan Verner and Drew Wissler’s practices shift the conversation from cinematic excesses and minimal mechanics to the embodied performances of and the social contexts of play—from disability as an impediment or impairment to disability as a cultural identity and critical concept. The term disability, as numerous scholars have noted, is not a fixed category, but a moving target. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (1997, 6) challenges essentialized distinctions between “able-bodiedness” and “disability,” stressing that both categories are the product of “legal, medical, political, cultural, and literary narratives that comprise an exclusionary discourse.” Lennard Davis (2006, 3) emphasizes “the ‘problem’ is not the person with disabilities; the problem is the way that normalcy is constructed to create the ‘problem’ of the disabled person.” Disability expands from a self-evident medical condition to be cured or a personal problem to be overcome to a social construction rooted in historical contexts, inaccessible architectures, discriminatory policy, and ableist ideologies that only normalize some bodies. So although it may seem, at first glance, that Verner and Wissler are playing the same game, there is a difference between playing The Legend of Zelda blind and playing The Legend of Zelda blindfolded. Even though the mechanics may be the same, they are different metagames.
In The Philosophy of Sport, Steven Connor (2011, 18) challenges this distinction between able-bodied and disabled sports by arguing,
The objects and instruments of sport are the means both of imposing and surpassing disability, of imposing disability in order for it to be possible partially to overcome it. It is for this reason that there is no real difference between able-bodied and disabled sports, since all sports are means towards the exertion of freedoms through the imposition of impediment. . . . Sport is not possible without the assumption of disability, which means that disabled sports are the only kind there are. (Emphasis original)
Connor’s theory of sport echoes the definition of game and play that Bernard Suits (2005, 55) proposes in The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia in which “playing a game is a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” For Suits and Connor, players are not merely choosing to play games fast or without the use of vision but a time constraint or blindfold makes it a game in the first place. The act of applying an unnecessary obstacle or self-imposed limitation is the game. However, not every impediment is self-imposed and simply reframing a disability as an unnecessary obstacle to be overcome within the magic circle of a game does not change how disability is historically, politically, practically, or phenomenologically constructed. It also doesn’t change how a disability might affect the experience of everyday life.
Although temporarily donning a blindfold in order to learn about the realities of living with visual impairments has been a common occurrence at disability awareness events, Alison Kafer (2014, 4) notes that there are limits to running “disability simulation exercises.” Apart from the fact that these exercises “focus on the alleged failures and hardships of disabled bodies,” Kafer (2014, 4–5) argues they are also ineffective because “there is no accounting for how a disabled person’s response to impairments shifts over time or by context. . . . Wearing a blindfold to ‘experience blindness’ is going to do little to teach someone about ableism, for example, and suggests that the only thing there is to learn about blindness is what it feels like to move around in the dark.” Tobin Siebers (2008, 29) makes a similar case when he suggests that rather than blindfolding students, a more fruitful exercise would be to send them off wearing sunglasses and wielding a cane so that they might “observe firsthand the spectacle of discrimination against blind people as passersby avoid and gawk at them, clerks refuse to wait on them or condescend to ask the friend what the student is looking for, and waiters request, usually at the top of their lungs and very slowly (since blind people must also be deaf and cognitively disabled), what the student would like to eat.” Clearly there is a difference between between blind and blindfolded play.
Although Connor’s (2011, 18) claim that “there is no real difference between able-bodied and disabled sports” and that “disabled sports are the only kind there are” could be seen as a democratizing gesture (perhaps recalling the sentiment that disability activists and scholars such as Joseph Shapiro [1993, 7] have expressed that disability “is the one minority that anyone can join at any time”), the conflation of involuntary disabilities with voluntary impairments elides the very real differences in the embodied conditions of play that are always in operation, both in and outside the magic circle. Metagames, on the other hand, acknowledge the fact that some obstacles are always necessary and some pursuits are always involuntary. In this sense, videogames function as a particularly useful media for thinking about disability by means of the contrast between embodied feedback generated between player and game and the ideology of control, mastery, and escapism that attend videogames as a medium (features that make these technologies particularly valuable in physical and psychiatric rehabilitation). And although videogames always operate as open platforms and elastic equipment for making so many metagames, their screens, interfaces, and protocols can be inaccessible and disabling for many players. As seen in this chapter, however, disabling acts can become enabling acts. By considering the possibilities of videogames with too much video, videogames without video, and the nonvisual games we constantly play, from The Phantom Pain to The Helen Keller Simulator and from Wright’s speedruns to Verner and Wissler’s collaborative text-based action adventure games, metagaming uncovers blind spots in the scopic regime of digital media and looks toward new horizons of play.