Play Along: The Essay and the Game

This essay was originally published in Kill Screen

“You didn’t see the thing because you didn’t know how to look. And you don’t know how to look because you don’t know the words.” — Don DeLillo.

The history of writing began in Mesopotamia, as the Sumerians, who had invented everything from alcohol to wheels to legal codes, had to then invent writing to keep track of all their other inventions. Of course, the writing they invented was declaratory, dry—a dispensary of data. In other words, it was nonfiction of the dullest sort. But this writing laid the groundwork for a nascent genre, one that was also nonfiction but less interested in bills, tallies, and contracts and more focused on thoughts, explorations, and graspings. This genre is the essay.

Named by the Writer Michel de Montaigne , essay in French is essai, literally “an attempt,” a venturing out to portray the commonplace occurrences of life not for business or law, but on their own terms. If general nonfiction is a perambulation, clearly demarcating its borders, the essay is a saunter that ignores the signs. Instead of proscribing to agreed-upon terms, essays are the true roman à clefs, generating their own rules to portray the realities they are exploring. To understand an essay, you have to be able to understand how it operates.

If this sounds familiar to you, good, because videogames work with the same principle: thrust the participant into a world, and see them either adapt to its conditions or founder. Games have been long and loud compared to other media forms, and the default question always seems to be are games art? This question–vague, loaded, and frankly, misguided–can only be relevant when it’s pressed forcefully, concentrating into the inquest, can games tell us something about the world in which we live.

Can art have play? 

The answer, of course, is that they can, even moreso than other mediums. Walter Benjamin, influential critic of the early 20th century, wrote on every medium of expression available in his day: art, theatre, literature, films. In this fertile period, Benjamin hit upon a crucial idea, that “just as the entire mode of existence of human collectives changes over long historical periods, so too does their mode of perception.” If people begin communicating about their lives through writing, writing becomes the accepted channel to understand those utterances. If they start making films to explore the human condition, and people tune in, that’s how the great mysteries will be addressed. And if people start playing games en masse; well then, here we are.

Perhaps, then, to wring as much as we can from staid inquiry, we re-form the question and ask can art be games? Can art have play? In the case of the essay at least, that protean form springing out of its own head, we can get a sense of how our current game sensibilities modify our understanding of this previous form of media.

Take “Is There a God?”, written in 790 AD by Li Zhongyuan. On first pass, it looks like it could’ve been lifted from a text adventure: just past a valley’s edge, paths fork, one leading “nowhere in particular,” the other opening to a stream with piles of boulders resembling a tower and a walled gate. Inside that gate rests a darkness so deep “that if you were to throw a stone in here it would land with a splash reminiscent of water, echoing for as long as you remained in this place.” It goes on:

Surrounding the scene are two groves of straight trees, growing on either side of the tower and its gate and the wall in which darkness is, looking as if they were intentionally placed to frame what isn’t there.

What are you supposed to do with that? The essayist appears for a brief moment, noting that the darkness, if punctured, might just sound like water. Forget a god; is there a point to this half-finished level??

Image via Sheila in Moonducks.

Or consider Borges’ “Garden of Forking Paths,” a story so dense and charged it fractalizes in so many directions, each one given a primacy until it is cast aside for the next. It centers on a Chinese Professor who is a spy for the Germans during WWI. Chased by the British while trying to finish his last mission (highlighting the location of an artillery base), he is reminded by a Sinologist of his ancestor, who undertook a project to both write an intricate and labyrinthine book, and to physically construct a labyrinth all men would get lost in. This “garden of forking paths” reveals itself to be about time, and embraces “all possibilities of time” to open some events to plausibility, close others off, or even reconnect ones that seemed dead. And with that, he kills the Sinologist, realizing that his very name (and the windfall his action would produce) were the answers to his mission.

The essay is that, sure, but it is many other things: an epistolary, a metaphor, an allegory, an “indeterminate heap of contradictory drafts” that is uncannily familiar to the eponymous document in the essay. But it is more presciently my frustrated attempts to read it, to backtrack, to search all its nooks and crannies for that “100% completion rate” that means I get it, I’ve mastered it, I’m done.

Only the levels can’t be beaten. Each time I revisit them something novel catches my eye, or some new fact percolates to the surface, and I understand I need to make a new attempt. Like restarting Fallout with a charismatic computer whiz after I’ve beaten the game as a gunslinger, or completing a non-lethal run of MGS3, the new approaches carry with them new challenges, but also relinquish new rewards. They might be significant—an additional cutscene, a void pondered—or they might be insignificant, a new type of camo or a series of bankrupt signifiers. Whereas art is concerned with making a statement, with being analyzed in the most thorough way possible, games are about play and discovery, providing liminal spaces where meaning is crafted out of action.

If you play with them, you get to enter their worlds, and at that point anything’s game. 

These essays, challenging in their own time, represented each author’s distilled perspective, using the tools of their era yet playing with them in unexpected ways. For Montaigne, his play led him away from dialects, polemics, tracts, and treatises into more common ground. For Borges, play led to a vertiginous conflation of events real and imagined, people remembered and revised, until Nazis blended with professors, and policemen with pawns, in what now sounds suspiciously like a potential Xbox One launch game.

But just as play allows for the essay’s world to be plumbed and understood, it exists in videogames tenfold, reified into an avatar the player controls. Here the misdirection works similarly, and though the player may be tasked with recovering a vast sum of money from a defected spy (as in MGS3), or leading your lineage to greatness (as in Crusader Kings II), these goals serve as skeletons, containing some semblance of the thing itself, but not in its breathing, vibrant form. I won’t dispute the emotional heft embodied in Big Boss’s salute at the end of the game, but more revealing of MGS3‘s qualities as a game was the interactive opening sequence, or the different paths you could use to dispatch The End. If you follow the game, or read the essay, you might understand it. But if you play with them, you get to enter their worlds, and at that point anything’s game. Whether it’s the fifth Michael Jackson remix out this summer or the latest Thomas Pynchon, the way we look at one medium influences how we look at another, and so we can play not only with these individual forms, but take especial joy in their interplay.

So, with that in mind, I’m heading back to Barthelme’s Forty Stories to try to beat my high score. Or at least emerge a little less confused.

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