Thursday, 11 April 2013

Tomb Raider: Diary of a Madman

First things first, I absolutely loved Tomb Raider. It looks beautiful, the gameplay is very tight and the narrative and writing are exceptional. A few things about it didn't necessarily work, as is to be expected in any creative work, but there is one note which jarred especially with me. It's a minor one, it is entirely possible to complete the game without even noticing it, but that doesn't mean that it should be ignored.

So, there are spoilers ahead, mainly to do with theme. I've tried to keep major revelations to a minimum.

Madness and Play, Chapter 2, Excerpt

This is an unedited, abridged excerpt from the first draft of the second chapter of the book I'm writing. This is an early version of some of the arguments but gives you an idea of both the style of writing I'm initially looking at and the themes I'm investigating.

There is a curious confluence of ideas between gaming and madness streaming down the years of theory and concept, although not one strong enough to be necessarily formalised. It is not that madness describes a game-world, or that to play games is to be mad, but it is certain that both have been and can be described as worlds separate to that of reality. The history of madness is a history of enforced confinement and separation, and the developing idea of the madness itself being a disconnection between the afflicted person’s perceptions of what is real and what is truly there. The player of games meanwhile willingly enters, just for a while, a space where the rules are defined, different to and cushioned from the rules that govern the outer world.

In his history Madness and Civilisation Foucault traces the idea of madness, from pre-classical times where he posits a mental world of almost pre-fall wholeness: one in which overwhelming passions and mystical insight instead of dysfunction and folly marked out differences. In this world the main othered group, to be kept separate and outside, was the leprous; but with time the mad and the leprous became conceptually mixed. (This in itself is only a very surface reading of the first chapter of Foucault’s book.) From that point on the path madness follows is one of disease, disorder and vagrancy, ladened with meanings that are not itself but always, from the great conceptual shift of the classical period, to be confined.

At times it has been the fact of physical confinement, often predicated out of political or humanitarian ideals as in the hôpitals of the new French republic or the Asylums of Victorian England, that has suggested a deeper fundamental separation to theorists of the mind. Elsewhere in history it has been the study of the mad, of what they say and do and believe, and the fears thereof amongst the sane, that have promoted the need to keep them apart. Just think even now how loaded with political power the phrase ‘care in the community’ has become and you won’t laugh so much at our ancestors who thought that a madness that resided in imbalances of vapours could pervade through a malignant air and infect those nearby.

Foucault’s longstanding message that the things that we do shape the way we think and talk about concepts comes through as his history races ever closer to the present and theory and action reinforce one another until madness is truly defined as a separate way of thought, until madness is defined and codified and treated not as an alternate way of being but as dysfunction and nothing else.

Whether or not you agree with the way in which we currently conceptualise mental illness is, at this point, immaterial. While Foucault’s argument is powerful and his analysis compelling it is by no means a given that the modern view of madness is entirely socially constructed, and in fact a counter argument is that the focus pulling effect has been towards a real truth, one which was discovered incrementally and through a great many experiments: crude at first and often disastrous for those whose lives were experimented with, but essentially self-correcting and progressive.

Despite societal changes, certain tropes and stigmas remain common, and surface even in the most recent iterations of popular culture, which includes game design. The strength of the representation is cemented further when viewed within some certain works of art. Lady Macbeth’s psychosis and paranoia is confined within one of the greatest works in English language, if we are not going to be rid of this powerful psychodrama from our culture for the sake of its inherent sexism then I don’t think that its conflation of villainy and madness is going to convince us either, and maybe it shouldn’t even do so as there is a certain validity there. However, the plaudits rightly showered on the play, and its creator’s central place in what for many is and should be the core of our culture, provide its depictions with a legitimacy that goes beyond their narrative use. Shakespeare is art, and art is truth. Not every popular depiction is necessarily able to be so heralded unchallenged, but the syllogism remains in the background, while the depictions in all media foreground themselves and repeat, in entertainment’s lazy way, across a hundred iterations of the same essential stories, until they acquire a form of accepted truth that is as easy to leave unquestioned as was art’s before it.

So where does gaming sit within this history of popular culture? We tend to talk about it, and I will be doing so too in this book, as a bit of a monolith, as gaming culture. But gaming and games are spread out across activities and people and concepts; an anti-entropic climb from children playing make-believe, to family boardgames, to sports, to gambling to the people who call themselves ‘gamers’ and play with esoteric, highly organized rulesets.

Even non-games are called games, because they have something fundamental in common: there is the Tarot, with its cards and rules; there is politics or street crime, with their levels and layers and fronting; and there is Hip-Hop, with playful unrealities, avatars and contests of skill. But what is it that binds these all together, that binds them to some of the earliest conceptions of what makes a game a game, rather than just a pastime? I would say that it is the sense of there being another world, a game-world, in which all this takes place in.

Even when it is so close to reality as to be indistinguishable, for a person to conceptualise that they are playing a game they have to believe that the rules are in some way different to those of reality. The purest game worlds are those which are truly separate, where although we can win or lose we do not bring our win or our loss outside, only the memory of it – the experience of which can teach us important lessons about victory and defeat in the real world, as well as strategy and forward thinking and so on. We can also take with us the emotions – the joy of victory and the sadness of defeat, and the skills and sometimes the spoils of the game.

There is often a snobbery, with (often older) games like chess being considered ‘better’ and ‘purer’ than other games. There have always been crazes and fashions in gaming, and games that have been considered dangerous to mind or spirit, addictions that have destroyed lives as surely as there have been escape routes that have saved them. Even as games were being theorised as teaching tools they were also being theorised as dangerous illusions. Unrealities that simulate reality, that can easily confuse and ensnare the weak minded.

And eventually the two worlds under our microscope interact. Like any art form with any representational expression games of all forms have attempted to depict the mad and the unwell and to place them within the framework of a larger understanding; be that of war, or crime or the entirety of life as we experience it depending on the game's theme and scope. This is exactly as you should expect, and as a primarily popular form those depictions have tended to follow the patterns laid down in the rest of popular culture, which makes popular culture a good place to start looking for an overview of mental illness tropes.

Tropes, memes and other ways of streamlining the processing and re-presentation of meaning develop over time; spinning out of complex ideas and eventually coming to stand for those ideas. This is not an essentially deleterious process, as it can allow for something to stand for more than it is, so that a single idea can carry layers of meaning accreted through history or encoded at the time of its first usage. However, it can also allow for lazy, construction-kit storytelling, where each piece is fitted together because it works to do so, but without examining the inner workings of the pieces. It can also allow for lazy, prejudiced thinking, because what is a prejudice other than a trope; a black-box that short-circuits a mental flowchart snapping through to make decision making less burdensome.

Madness is sometimes used as a shorthand – both in popular language and in terms of the moral structure of games – for deviancy or sub-humanness or necessary death. Sometimes games give you moral choices about how you deal with the mad (Bioware etc.), sometimes a moral choice is displayed, but given to the character and played out in cut-scene (so you might finish the boss fight but rather than a death animation the character is shown wrestling with, or giving, mercy – or allowing the mad boss to kill themselves, or at least be the agent of their own death so avoiding ultimate responsibility for their death in true Disney villain style), and sometimes the need for death is given a moral imperative – either by the protagonist ‘I’m putting you down’, the antagonist ‘please stop the voices!’ or the situation - where the mad character will not stop attacking until they die, even if they don’t intend harm.

How do popular ideas of madness integrate themselves into the structures of games, and is this different fundamentally, or merely texturally, to the rest of popular culture and representational mediums? How do games deal with the issues unique to gaming? Should gamers, both players and designers, have any specific cause to be more heavily invested or understanding of these issues? These are questions that I hope to answer over the course of this book.