Alone In A World of Objects: Videogames, Interaction, and Late Capitalist Alienation
In the introduction to a recently edited catalog on the work of videogame artist Jason Rohrer, Michael Maizels and Patrick Jagoda situate the stakes of innovative videogame art in 2016. Maizels, who curated the exhibit from which the catalogue takes its name, approaches the question through a curatorial framework. Taking as a given that museums generally serve to unpack the aesthetic freight of the cultural term “art,” Maizels argues that Rohrer’s work as a game designer “is used to both illuminate and challenge conceptual underpinnings of that loaded term.”1 Aesthetic interrogation in the museum scene, Maizels suggests, marks an important break between older videogame art that aspired to simply be counted among the museum’s company and newer, institutionally acknowledged videogame art that is attempting a self-reflexive critique. The medium-specificity of this critique is what seems to motivate Jagoda in his engagement with Rohrer, who plays “with the affordances of [current digital] technologies and…[enables] critical thought and reflection on them.”2 In both accounts we see a privileging of the medium of “technology” as a tool for unpacking the meaning of digital art: innovation of form, not of content, in videogame art marks it as an aesthetic vanguard serving as a touchstone and bellwether for the future of art, both in terms of audience and product. Mobilizing technology in this way proves for Maizels and Jagoda that videogames are not only worthy of study, but uniquely diagnose and begin to resolve the contradictions of depersonalized late capitalism by way of their engagement with technological advancement.3 For while the videogame form is, first and foremost, commercially and culturally determined, the ubiquity of its share in the market as a narrative form allows for a self-reflexive critique of technology as a commodity fetish.
I would argue, however, that obscuring the formal or structural qualities of individual videogames for the purpose of generalized material critique is shortsighted when considering such a widely disseminated cultural product. The formal character of the medium allows certain games to push back against the commodity form, but it is their similarities to novels and other contemporary art that mark videogames as aesthetic objects as well as technological items for sale. Yet this impulse to deemphasize narrative is widespread. Even Alexander Galloway, whose work reads videogames through a filmic and literary-inspired lens, is uninterested in the immanent meaning of videogames, what modernist critics might have called their “autonomy” as art objects. Thus, while Galloway deftly observes that “the play of the nondiegetic machine act is…a play within the various semiotic layers of the video game…form playing with other form,”4 the horizon of his analysis always comes back to the interaction of the player with the game, as opposed to the game in isolation as an art object. In fact, Galloway’s final moment of analysis eschews consideration of the formal intention of the game’s author entirely, since in the interpretative analysis of Derridean allegory, which Galloway embraces, the author is “no longer directly involved in the moment of interpretation.”5 Interpretation for Galloway is about the player and their actions in the technological matrix of the game and not about the game as a stable, let alone meaningful, art object.
My readings of videogames therefore run counter to many if not most contemporary games critics, as they consider videogames primarily as art objects subject to their own immanent aesthetic logic. That said, Jagoda, primarily a literary critic, does important work in adding the language of mediation to an aesthetic framing of videogames. In an article on the much-celebrated platformer Braid, Jagoda refers to the videogame as a “world[form] that[mediates] between subjectivity and history.”6 The ability to mediate between subjectivity and history—or rather between author and audience—is both videogames’ most important value as a medium, as well as their closest tie to traditional literature and art. Mediation, in its classically Hegelian sense, asserts communication between contradictions, in this case author and reader. The resolution of this mediation, as we will see, is the creation of a digital world that is not so much player-based or creator-based, but centered around alienation. The stories videogames tell provoke a contemplation of the conditions under which they were produced, specifically the space of late capitalist art. Far from a simple reflection upon technology then, videogames can call attention to the limits of audience participation in a way that make them uniquely representative of the interpretative labor and potential of art and literature in the 21st century.
Like the novel, poem, or photograph, these limitations of genre and medium in videogames initially appear as obstacles to be overcome, and, quickly afterward, as a condition to be embraced, necessary for the form’s success as art. It is with an eye toward these limits and toward the promise of art autonomous from its market and its audience—a sort of Marxian horizon in its own right—that I will consider the Fullbright Company’s 2013 first person experimental walking simulator Gone Home and Croteam’s ambitious 2014 puzzle-shooter The Talos Principle. In examining these texts, we will see that even games that are self-reflexive about their technological form do not quite achieve an aesthetic expression autonomous or completely isolated from the reception of their beholder; videogames are still resolving their own aesthetic contradictions. The revelation of these games’ aesthetic complexity, in other words, lies in the moment of their failure to become autonomous art objects within the strict bounds of their narrative frames. However, far from a negative outcome, this failure mediates the cultural reception of videogames with a more formally mediated aesthetic project, challenging more immediate utopian impulses while still revealing what Jameson might call lines of flight from the limited horizon of the market through contradiction. As contemporary art and literature are marked by an increasingly subtle and total immersion into late capitalism, the ostensibly limitless but ultimately foreshortened autonomy of the videogame should be read as a potent-if-immature flashpoint for representing and reimagining our political and aesthetic moment. As we will see in Gone Home and The Talos Principle, videogames all too readily respond to such characterizations with productive insights that, though they begin with a conceptualization of the technological, ultimately result in a reimagination of the art object in the world.
Gone Home, and the Return of the Repressed Object
While the aesthetics of videogames are up for debate, the political potential of such a participatory medium is not at issue: while the active role of the player problematizes autonomous authorship, it conversely intensifies reader engagement. Ian Bogost, in the preface to his Persuasive Games, calls this quality of videogames a kind of procedural rhetoric, “the art of persuasion through rule-based representations and interactions rather than the spoken word, writing, images, or moving pictures.”7 Bogost sees videogames as not only politically influential—a claim that any reactionary response to a school shooting in the past twenty years would share—but as formally influential or, in his words, persuasive. Interaction, by this reading, is a kind of performative act: the player goes through the game obeying the author’s rules, and, presuming they are successful, is given direct access to the matter of the game itself as an incentive. The persuasive elements of the game’s message are at once made possible by the player and reinscribed again and again by the repetition of their actions. The presentation of videogames as mutually produced and reinforced by the synthetic effort of player and artist is for Bogost their great promise as a form. Interaction is a feature, not a bug. The co-authorship of interactive play allows for the meaning of the game to be principally determined through player choices: they reinforce the game’s narrative, and the dialectic tension of the author’s intent and the player’s actions resolve into a political rhetoric of persuasion. For the openly political videogame not only is interaction a necessity, but form and content are married in their function and design through a shared temporality—the author’s intention is only realized through the correct, gameplay-specific player actions, which are themselves dictated by authorial cues.8
Yet even this version of interactive persuasion leaves us with pressing questions: first, what is the horizon of videogames’ political intervention? Can they challenge or convince their players, or are they simply preaching to their particular choir through performative storytelling? And second, can videogames be aesthetically meaningful outside of market reception under late capitalism? To begin answering these questions, I turn to the Fullbright Company’s massively popular videogame Gone Home, a game that in many ways subordinates its political motives to the logic of its aesthetic form. Indeed, Gone Home‘s reputation as an “art” game precedes it: its user-generated product tags include the complimentary “indie” and “story driven,” as well as the more derisive “walking simulator” description. The idiosyncrasy of these descriptors in the videogame marketplace—signaled by the lack of more classical descriptions like “first-person shooter” or “role-playing game”—suggest Gone Home’s ambivalence toward the popular understandings of what a videogame is meant to be. Anastasia Salter reads this idiosyncrasy as an historical contingency of games in contemporary culture. In her recent monograph What is Your Quest?, Salter argues that the expansion of literature beyond isolated textual materiality is a necessary concession to historical—and capitalist—progression, a concession videogames are uniquely able to fulfill:
In this moment of media and platform convergence, new models for understanding the many platforms now available must emerge, as the commonly accepted distinction between reading and play is not capable of describing the range of possible interactions we may have with increasingly…interactive texts.9
Salter’s emphasis on interaction also valorizes the reader herself as co-authorial to the videogame creator. The media that Salter, following Espen Aarseth’s wording/phrasing, calls “ergodic”10 is therefore defined by its split analytical attention upon creation and reception, requiring a conception of, and engagement with, both in order to produce a legible digital art object.
Since videogames call for a sympathetic interaction from their reader, the demand for a relationship with their current and future players is not only a requirement for a study of reception theory, but a basic requirement for the success of the artform itself. Contemporary videogames examine this temporally flexible relationship by playing with their own eventual technological obsolescence more openly than their older, more formative, but less aesthetically adventurous predecessors. Gone Home handles this crisis by positioning its reader as a nostalgic visitor into a shared cultural past, casting the player as a kind of anthropologist-turned-voyeur left in an empty house to uncover family secrets. Released in 2015 but set in 1995, the game follows its largely undeveloped protagonist, Kaitlyn, who returns from a trip around Europe to find her house entirely empty. A note on the door from her sister Sam assures Kaitlyn everything’s okay, but also not to look for her. Unsurprisingly, the game is about denying Sam’s request outright and searching the entire house to discover where she and Kaitlyn’s—or more appropriately for the player, your—parents have gone. Gone Home is coded using a first-person shooter engine but provides nothing to shoot with or kill; in fact, there is no way to “die” in the course of the game, nor any truly insurmountable or otherworldly challenge. Despite sardonic gestures—a spooky TV left on; a torrential downpour; a bathtub covered in what seems to be blood but is actually Manic Panic—the game never dips into the supernatural or macabre.11
In fact, the game is mostly concerned with the politics of sexual identity, as you discover your sister has accepted her sexuality and run off with her girlfriend. Gone Home uncovers this slowly, with misdirections toward suicide or darker endings, but ultimately reveals the celebration of love between Sam and her girlfriend Lonnie as the denouement of the game’s narrative. What Gone Home provides its voyeur, then, is an ameliorative revision of mid-nineties attitudes toward homophobia: Kaitlyn is embodied by the contemporary player, who in 2015 is (presumably) more sympathetic to the plight of queer youth than Sam’s unsympathetic parents. We, as that player, get to interactively enact our tolerance, while the game unfolds its politics by encouraging the player’s natural urge to explore, to collect, and to observe.
The form and the content of Gone Home are thereby linked in a complementary dialectic; but is the link between politics and form enough to produce an internal aesthetic for the game? Is feeling good about our political beliefs a politics in and of itself? Is feeling good an aesthetic? We might say that feeling a kind of subjective pride is a commodified politics—an affiliation of progressive sentiment with market forces that we have seen in such ad campaigns as Oreo’s LGBTQ-positive viral advertising, a way to align politics with preferences.12 This preferential politics is mobilized, at least in part, by Gone Home as form and content marry to create a limited political efficacy, a reaffirmation of the player’s good politics regarding sexuality (or, conversely, a negative pleasure for the player in experiencing politics that they do not find agreeable). But while preference can produce a politics, it is difficult to imagine that “feeling good” can count as an aesthetic.
So what of Gone Home—is it simply pleasant politics with no representational there there? Or can we recuperate its form and say something more about the videogame aesthetic? On the surface, it seems like this would be an untenable recuperative effort, as the game itself is inescapably bound to the subjective markers of an individualized nostalgia; a referential metonymy with previous videogames; and the virtues of voyeurism. The nostalgia in the game works its way in through the viewer-centric referent of old media—VHS of X-Files episodes, cassette tapes of Riot Grrl acts, and mimeographed and photocopied fliers and zines.
That the game relies on TV, music, and common commodities like the tissue boxes, magazines, and phone books littered around the house seems on its face fairly conservative, at least from an economic standpoint: “we are our things,” as any insurance commercial would agree. And while the connection and reference to previous videogames—from literal references like cheat codes to formally echoed strategies of gameplay like hunting and gathering—produces a kind of self-reflexive formal critique, the critical force of this reflection is undercut by the game’s fairly standard rewards for interaction, specifically, the progression of the narrative. Finally, Gone Home fulfills, problematically, the probing desire to uncover a person’s identity. No personal room is off-limits, and while the story of Sam is conveyed through journal entries written to Kaitlyn, the concurrent story of Kaitlyn and Sam’s parents’ marital and professional trials and triumphs is gleaned from forgotten notes, ticket stubs, and calendar entries. In this way, the fine line between the player and the narrator promised by interactivity proves troubling. It is one thing for a daughter to snoop around her own home, but quite another for a stranger-as-player to do so. While the game’s progressive sexual politics are admirable, its aesthetic relies on a curious and intrusive reader willing, licensed, and commanded by the videogame itself to create a cohesive narrative out of domestic clutter arbitrarily strewn about, absent of authorial cohesion, intention, or even permission.
Yet, while the politics of Gone Home valorize the reader through the entirety of its narrative, after the game ends only the house, filled with its now-purposeless items, remains. If the player clicks “Resume” in the main menu after completing the narrative of Sam’s story, she will return to the avatar of Kaitlyn, but without the guiding force of an objective. The player is simply in the house, able to explore and finish up any loose ends they didn’t/failed to complete in the “main” playthrough. But even if certain secrets remain undiscovered, this version of the game is available only if the main narrative is completed entirely: as a result, all locked doors are open, all narrative mysteries are solved, and all dramatic tension is lifted. All that is left is a giant house, filled with things that can be picked up, examined, thrown, or moved, but which will not respond to the player’s interaction beyond simple physical feedback. The structure of the game, therefore, evacuated of any incentive for participation, presents an unresponsive edifice: the things do not tell stories, because the story is over. Now they are just objects. Or, rather, now they are just representations of objects. The things in the house exist as a hyperreal representation of the Marxian commodity fetish: not only is their history of production erased, but so is their exchange and use value. They can be picked up and put down, but never bought, sold, or used. They are purely, impossibly, things. And because of this newly alienating representation, the fantasy of nostalgic-but-progressive recognition through familiar objects and media falls away: nostalgia can seem like an argument when it is in the service of critique, but the nostalgic object removed from a narrative and simply presented as it is refuses to speak. Paradoxically, the truly remarkable aesthetic of Gone Home appears when it actually becomes a “walking simulator.” The game no longer has any stake in the player’s actions—throwing one object across the room changes nothing about the totality of the house or its collection of commodities. The player is let loose in the gallery of the home but is unable to affect the meaning of the gallery itself. So the temporal frame of 2015-cum-1995 falls out with the end of the game, and the eternal present of the commodity-filled home in the heyday of globalization takes its place. The house by itself is a lonely, inarguable idea. The appeal of the digital lies in being able to present an idea like this, which, due to its scope and ambition, cannot be represented within the limits of material bounds. For what is more representative of the full alienation of things under late capitalism than unresponsive, disinterested everyday items? What is more impossible to truly produce in the world than a home filled only with non-living objects and without use value to its sole potential occupant?
We want to be careful not to retreat from narrative so quickly that we end up reimagining objects in the world as the ultimate horizon for aesthetics in a digital space, however. The objects in the game are not objects, after all, but recursive representations of objects that may have been but were not in the world.13 A table in Gone Home is no more a real table than a table painted on canvas. Where a table in Gone Home differs from both its real world and painterly counterparts is in the way it formalizes and imagines the table-ness of “table” with its player. It is this difference, and not the objects it produces, that needs unpacking. Indeed, if there is a medium-specificity for videogames, then this specificity emerges at the intersection of interaction and representation, and particularly in the authorial space that remains cut off from but still responsive to the player-author: code.
Learn to Code: The Talos Principle and the Intrusion of Humanity
Somewhere along the way to a technological utopia, the protagonists of the world-to-come shifted from the users of futuristic conveniences to the people who built and designed those conveniences. The cultural rise of the charismatic CEO dovetailed conveniently with the rise of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, and to this day technology remains metonymically linked to the figure of the solitary genius inventor. It’s not surprising then that the tech-spheres of Silicon Valley and beyond became central sites for imagining a utopian future. And, if the neoreactionary, or nrX movement14 of arch-conservative wealthy technocrats is any indication, the minds behind tech utopia approach their leadership positions with a troubling enthusiasm. Perhaps this is because there is nothing about the efficiency-obsessed and human-capital-justified world of tech that is out of place in contemporary capitalism. Tech “disruptions” like the unregulated taxi service Uber are gaining national and legal footholds as tech industries worldwide diminish the role of unionized workforces in favor of the (often illusory or ideological) figure of the skilled, individual genius. The tech bubble has mobilized a vision of human capital as a productive market strategy, as rhetorics of self-reliance and minimal taxation provide ex-post-facto justification to the meteoric rise of technological advancement. To risk a tautology, the future of capital is linked with the future of the tech industry.
Ultimately, this collusion of capital with technology is nothing new—Karl Marx takes an entire chapter to outline this central role of technology for capitalism in Capital, Volume I—but the emphasis put upon the individual agent of capital here is worth investigating. Going beyond Gary Becker’s redefinition of “capital” as an innate personal potentiality15—“human” capital—the tech sphere has recharacterized entrepreneurial drive as a progressive, humanistic virtue. The ubiquity of the phrase “Coding is the new literacy,” for instance, is so thick that tracking down a specific author proves impossible: the phrase has simply become a truism, marking the rise of technical facility as the new mark of upper class, erudite status in the contemporary moment. This fantasy of the individually brilliant coder as well as the ubiquity of code, however, obscures the materiality of code, the actual product of the labor alienated from the tech worker and thereafter valorized by capitalists to produce profit. This underlying materiality of code, its role as product of labor, sets the stage for the ways in which videogames’ particular representational limitations produce their medium specificity. Matthew Kirschenbaum in his recent monograph Mechanisms works out these limits, defining the qualities of the immaterial program by way of the oddly material code that comprises it.16 For Kirschenbaum, the condition for digital materiality depends upon the real-life-metaphor of the “nanoscale,” the “precise point at which the normal, observable behavior of matter ceases to be predictable and dependable…the exact threshold between the material and the immaterial.”17 Kirschenbaum is careful not to overlay scientific essentialism onto what is ultimately for him an issue of reading practice, however, and his nanoscale remains most useful as a metaphor, specifically for the really existing but practically invisible world of digital storage and display.
Mobilizing a dialectic between forensic and formal materiality, Kirschenbaum promotes a post-material materiality for the computer by rereading technology and code. Forensic materiality for technology somewhat traditionally “rests upon the principle of individualization,”18 denoting the ways in which even identical-looking objects like magnetic hard drives have minute individual distinctions at the level of their material construction. Formal materiality, however, deals more with the liminal space of code:
All forms of modern digital technology incorporate hyper-redundant error-checking routines that serve to sustain an illusion of immateriality by detecting error and correcting it, reviving the quality of the signal, like old telegraph relays, such that any degradation suffered during a subsequent interval of transmission will not fall beyond whatever tolerances of symbolic integrity exist past which the original value of the signal (or identity of the symbol) cannot be reconstituted.19
Thus, while the data produced by a computer might appear to be immaterial points of light in the cloud, it is manifest on the machine itself, supported in its illusion of immateriality by dozens of very real mechanisms and routines that click on and off on the material end of the nanoscale to overcome the banal mechanical errors and failures the data might encounter. And even beyond this, in the realm of metaphor, the digital maintains the material trace of the textual by way of its coding. The archival schema Kirschenbaum overlays on the programs that make computers and their software work reimagines code not as formulaic chits in a notecard formalized for operation, but as particular versions of language, interpretable and idiosyncratic: Kirschenbaum understands electronic texts as “artifacts—mechanisms—subject to material and historical forms of understanding.”20 The ephemeral and immaterial quality of digital media, then, appears not only as purely metaphorical, but as a cracked metaphor to begin with. The engines of digital code are at once palimpsests rewriting over old information, as well as active processes of surprisingly low-tech, material creation and interpretation.
To follow Kirschenbaum too closely into his theoretical entailments, however, would mean going so far into a study of the materiality of digital texts as to lose hold of aesthetics. While we consider the strange or contradictory materiality of code, we also must insist upon the fact that any aesthetic for the medium of videogames exists independently from each individuated instantiation of the videogame itself. Kirschenbaum’s vision of materiality is ultimately a sort of Book Theory for the digital humanities, a programmatic approach to reading the idiosyncrasy of particular digital inscription as text itself. And while this produces exciting readings of otherwise unremarkable lines of numbers on a black and white screen, these readings are compelling only from a very particular historical position of critique. Kirschenbaum’s analysis of a copy of Roberta Williams’ formative videogame Mystery House with old hacking corruptions in the code is a fascinating archival note, but it does not differ in its meaning or value as a work of art from any ordinary copy of the game. To be aesthetically viable, the code of the videogame must be subordinated to the art its formal constraints produce, in much the same way that pages are subordinated to the material printed upon them. Code, in other words, is not a self-evident material object, but a limiting formal occasion for self-reflexivity in the videogame medium. For instance, the moments in Gone Home that most closely approach a self-reflexive interrogation of the videogame medium—the appearance of “cheat codes” or the neurotically acquisitive quality of the game—are the moments that most openly interrogate the formal qualities and limits of videogames themselves. The crowning aesthetic moment of the game itself, the manipulation of the empty, non-narrative house, is a metaphorization of code’s relationship with the player-author. The manipulation of the furniture, objects, and trash in the empty house is allowable only within the constraints of the code underlying the game; the feeling of freedom in the house is an illusion given by the medium of the game’s form, its code licensing its aesthetic critique of late capitalism. The role the code plays in this critique, however obliquely, is as a technical and systemic constraint, limiting of, but at the same point necessary to, the aesthetic success of the videogame medium itself.
Videogames have begun to embrace this self-reflexivity in recent games that are, on a thematic level, about games. Games like Valve Software’s Portal and Croteam’s The Talos Principle reveal the material mechanics underlying videogames not metonymically, as in Gone Home, but explicitly in their narratives. While most of these games have a frame narrative—Portal, for instance, puts the player in the role of a scientist perfecting new technology—the action in the game is purely puzzle-based, recalling the repetitive mechanics and progressive difficulty of early arcade games that relied on repetitive mechanics that grew in difficulty as the player gained more and more skill. Portal and similar games differ in that they are responding to decades of technical and aesthetic progress, making their foregrounding of puzzle over narrative a clear thematic choice rather than a practical limitation. And while these games always follow a narrative arc—the player in Portal eventually discovers her experiment is controlled by a malevolent computer that must be defeated—it is at least interesting to see the self-interrogating quality of code manipulation share the focus with the game’s story.21 The burgeoning autonomy of self-interrogating art recalls Michael Fried’s laudatory description of another dynamic moment in art history, wherein the works of Claude Manet operated as objects that “acknowledge beholding as inescapably the fate of painting” but which also “have the effect of making the actual beholder feel excluded or supererogatory.”22 While the self-reflexive videogame calls its viewer in as a complicit member of the artistic production of the work itself, this interpellation is, like Manet’s work, in the interest of the Diderotian “imperative to negate or neutralize the beholder,” an imperative that produces a kind of “deadly mutual hostility” between the artwork and its beholder.23 That said, Portal is a wildly successful game, known for its narrative turns as much as its formal intensity; it is interesting, but does not aspire to any sort of hostility with its audience that might make it aesthetically important in the ways that I am interested in here. In The Talos Principle, however, the genre’s winking self-critique is paired with an aggressive level of repetitive difficulty, utilizing frustration and boredom to produce an intensification of Portal, one that seems to accomplish a similar effect to Manet’s paintings, which “repeatedly interpellated the beholder in ways[the beholder] could only find offensive and incomprehensible.”24
This kind of open hostility characterizes much of The Talos Principle, though the revelation of this hostility requires both player exploration and complicity. The main “voice” of the game is a far more positive one, a loving but controlling God called Elohim, who explains to the player that she is in his garden and is meant to discover it all. The one place off-limits for the player’s avatar is a large tower in the middle of the game’s “worlds,” the provocation of the forbidden edifice paradoxically providing the main goal for the game. The way the game progresses is through progressively more difficult puzzles, featuring hostile and non-hostile obstacles, the solutions to which give the player one of a number of “sigils” which unlock new worlds. These sigils (not coincidentally) are shaped like pieces from the famous puzzle game Tetris. The method of progressing through the game is a series of mini-games in which the player must reorganize their sigils into a “key,” recalling gaming not as immediate content—the puzzle game itself is not given much consideration as an individual test of skill—but rather as formal super-structure. Thus, the main game of Talos is effectively a series of disconnected videogame-themed puzzles leading to even more disconnected puzzles with historical themes—for instance, a Grecian statue park; an ancient Egyptian landscape; and a baroque English cathedral—all accompanied by encouragement and Adamic blessings from the invisible deity who continually speaks to the player. Ultimately, this is a frustrating proposition, as there are dozens of difficult puzzles, requiring (for me) 30+ hours of time investment, and no promise of any reward. Throughout the game there are QR codes your character can read that reaffirm this frustration, one of which straightforwardly wonders, “It’s clear I’m not the first to walk this path. In fact, the whole thing seems to have been consciously designed—but by the voice in the sky, or some other force?”25
At this point, the productive strangeness of the game manifests—QR codes, the quick indexical shifts between different centuries and locations, the strange tension between narrative progression and obedience, and the open question of the created world all point to an artificiality surrounding Talos. This artificiality is embedded from the first shot of the game, in which the player’s avatar lifts its arm to block the bright sun from its newly opened eyes. From our first-person perspective as player, we can see that the avatar’s hand is skeletal and robotic. As the player’s avatar moves through the game, the open secret of Talos quickly comes into focus: the avatar is not a human, but a human-like robot navigating the maze.
Death in Talos triggers a quick rewinding of visual data, allowing the player another chance to solve the puzzle; glitches in the visual data appear throughout, like a VHS skipping a cel; and even the QR codes and, eventually, Elohim acknowledge that the avatar playing the game is non-human, an avatar of an avatar. This distancing creates a crisis of identity in the game, and the anxiety over repetition—recall the first QR code’s assertion that “I’m not the first to walk this path”—is realized as a fear over a lack of purpose, a loss of individuality. The urge to act by rote is encouraged by Elohim, who asks the character, “do you not feel the pleasure of having discovered the proper order of things? This is the spark of Elohim within you: to create order from chaos.”26 Creating order from chaos is an apt description of the motivation in videogames generally—any incentive outside of the gray market of gold-farming in massively multiplayer online games is totally immaterial. One can push along the narrative for narrative’s sake, but usually completion of a videogame is for its own sake, as Elohim suggests. Or, taking another cue from the mysterious female voice whose recordings are peppered throughout the various artificial worlds of Talos: “Games are part of what makes us human. We are a story. Your actions give life to the story and the story gives meaning to your life.”27
However forcefully The Talos Principle asserts this vision of arbitrary order, however, the question of what the meta-purpose of the game-world might be comes in again and again, particularly via the QR codes, which become more and more rebellious and cynical as the game continues. “Oh look,” one in the Egyptian second world reads, “another puzzle. And another voice telling me I’m special…This world is a bad joke perpetuated by a cruel god too dumb to hit the off switch.”28 Another more philosophically nihilistic QR code comes later, from the repeating character The Shepherd v82.18.0997, who writes “An eternal cycle is another name for a prison. But you must understand the cycle before you can break it, for it is possible to escape and yet remain a prisoner, or to break the cycle by breaking yourself. This was the fate of the ghost that haunts this world”.29 The ghostliness implied by The Shepherd is double-sided, both a reference to the proverbial ghost in the machine, the haunting spark of insight in the midst of unthinking processes, and a reference to the frame story slowly uncovered through found recordings and computer terminals in Elohim’s garden. What the player discovers is that the world she is working their way through is a test simulation, an archival project that is meant to save the work and ideas of humanity before everyone is wiped out by an unspecified virus. This dystopian fantasy of total apocalypse has an unwitting resemblance to the empty house of Gone Home: both games promise a sort of interpersonal connection as the incentive for completing the game, and both games elide the fulfillment of this incentive through absence and isolation. In Gone Home, we learn the story of our avatar’s sister, but we get to connect with her only through audio recordings and diary entries; the player and their avatar are alone in the house, piecing together a story that has ended long before their arrival. In much the same way in Talos, the avatar, after completing their actions, can ascend the tower and solve—by destroying—Elohim’s garden, which results in a cut-scene showing a materialized version of the AI waking up in the Institute for Applied Noematics, alone in the now-dead real world.
Again, the avatar achieves contact with its interlocutor through a mirror darkly, since the only remaining bits of the world as the avatar’s human creators knew it are immanent to the avatar itself. Much like Gone Home, the narrative of Talos is partially a detective story with an intentionally disappointing ending: the player-author helps to solve the mystery of the game, but is unable to engage with any of the characters who embody the solution itself. In short, while these games cast the player as a detective, they also reveal the player as a solipsist at best, and a voyeur at worst.
Talos and Gone Home still operate under the logic of the videogame medium, though. There is a compulsion to complete these games, and the unsatisfactory endings are only unsatisfactory from the perspective of detective genre-fiction—in terms of thematic consistency, the endings of both games achieve their intended narrative force. In Gone Home, as discussed above, the isolation of the protagonist Kaitlyn allows the reader to project entirely onto her character, creating a nostalgia for the mid-nineties that is also improbably a very contemporary sense of the politics surrounding sexuality. The lack of other characters to interpellate the player’s avatar—the disapproving parents are marginalized to small notes, and the drama of Sam and Lonny’s relationship is always-already resolved to everyone but Kaitlyn—assists this easy identification, smoothing the way for the game’s fairly streamlined political goal. In Talos, the heavy emphasis on philosophy, presented both by the freestanding computer terminals and the found-recordings, produces a tension with the heavy-handed god figure of Elohim. In fact, the “Talos principle” after which the game is named (and which is often described in these computer stations), is a piece of Greek philosophy fabricated for the game itself. The principle argues that the philosopher, regardless of his or her ideals or metaphysical beliefs, is unable to function without blood, being in this way like a machine, reliant on vulgar bodily fluids as opposed to transcendentally beyond the body. The game asserts this against the metaphysical promise of salvation as offered by Elohim: if the player accepts the promise of eternal life after completing the garden’s tasks, she is sent back to the beginning of the game, a failed simulation. To succeed, the player must destroy the simulation, rejecting the divinity and control of Elohim, pursuing instead a philosophical materialism mobilized through individualism above all.
Individualism as means and end dovetails with the reactionary quality of contemporary tech circles described above, and the game can absolutely be read in this sort of reductively laudatory way, the moral of the story being the rejection of all metanarratives aside from individual reason. We could understand the rejection of Elohim as a standard contemporary atheist rejection of faith—recall the earlier QR about the “cruel god too stupid” to end the simulation. Or we could understand the text to be more mediated in its rejection, simply positing the rejection of metanarratives as an entry point to the individual human existence the AI would face in the new world. Both narratives, however, get us to the same point—a lionizing of individual agency over systemic restrictions. The destruction of the regulated game world and the rise of the new, pure individual of the AI reads like a libertarian fantasy, and, perhaps in spite of its softer intellectually exploratory cues, that is one of the political points of Talos. Indeed, what we discover at the conclusion of the narrative is that the formal qualities with which we were so interested before are revealed as glitches, artifacts, and old technology. They are relegated to the new wastebin of posthuman history.
As in Gone Home, this turn to a narrative rejecting the primacy of the game’s form presents an interpretative crisis. The glitches throughout Talos, the marks of the simulation that occur in the view of the avatar as well as the strange side corridors where the code seems incomplete, mean differently under the sign of narrative than they would as the indexical marks of a totalized vision of a world.30
These peculiar details produce formal conflicts, too, such as when the player confronts the edge of the map and isn’t simply turned around as in other games, but rather receives a warning from Elohim to turn back. If the player does not, they die and are rewound to an earlier section. More oblique than most of Elohim’s directives, the warning triggered by reaching the edge of the represented space in the videogame map conflates map boundaries with semiotic limits of signification:
In the beginning were the Words and the Words made the world. I am the Words. The Words are everything. Where the Words end the world ends. You cannot go forward in an absence of space. Repeat.31
On one hand, this represents a clever way to solve the problem of arbitrary boundaries, a technical issue for videogames that want to immerse their reader but which must also deal with practical spatial and technical limits immanent to their code. On the other hand, the emphasis on speaker and speech here, the capital-W Words being the originary signs coming from the speech of the capital-S Signifier Elohim, suggests a preoccupation with language and intent.32 While the intent of Elohim is rewritten by the narrative conclusion as regressive and unimportant, within the game itself it represents a material limit and license. The Words here are the symbolic language that produces the world of Talos on the screen; beyond those Words, the world is less than nothing, unimagined. As such, we can understand Elohim as both a god-like coder and a literalization of restrictive code. And within these restrictions we find the fragments that reveal the totality of the whole.
There is therefore an anxiety of creation baked into Talos, as demonstrated by Elohim’s stern warnings to stay away from the central tower. Yet, rereading Elohim not as a jealous and anxious god but rather as a self-limiting code opens Talos up to a more satisfying interpretation, at least for the purposes of literary-aesthetic criticism. Elohim, of course, is not as interested in the completion of the garden program as its doomed coders, and he ultimately admits that he attempted to steer the avatar away from the tower because “I was scared. I wanted to live forever.”33 But one can imagine the game without the tower, without the triumphal return to the dead world, and without the rejection of formal totality in favor of individual agency. In this version of Talos, one repeats the process again and again with no end, walking through the pearly gates after completing the game and immediately being reset at the beginning of the garden with the same narration, same QR codes, and same puzzles. The description does not give much confidence to an investor in or purchaser of the game and, undeniably, the actual narrative provides a more enjoyable and fulfilling experience for a player. But the limited scope of the simulation in Talos self-reflexively gestures to the limits of the videogame medium by way of the arbitrary limits imposed by its code. And this hypothetical version of Talos is licensed by the game already—if one really follows the rules of the game-within-the-game rigorously, they’ll never advance beyond the endlessly repetitive cycle of Elohim’s garden.
This reading of Talos reveals a representational critique immanent to the logic of the game, wherein Elohim is not a devious god meant to be replaced by the individual, but instead an autonomous force within the coded world of the game itself, redirecting the philosophical critique of divinity to a meditation on the necessary limitations of aesthetic form, visible in the game world through the peculiar details of glitches. The glitch as not detracting from, but imbricated with the structure of the game leads to a more outward-looking critique, a critique of the very concept of archiving or representing a dynamic, total system like humanity via coded (or non-coded) representations. Throughout the game, various computer terminals give dire updates on the archive project, informing the player of the Talos engineers’ doubts about the viability of their project. And while there are countless single flaws one could bring up with the idea of a human archive—which languages will be archived? Will all subjects be archived? Who gets to decide and why?—the completed archive of the garden itself proves the most compelling example of the archive’s flaws. The glitches, the overbearing guide, the lost files, and the clearly incomplete world suggest a constitutive incompleteness to the very logic of archival projects as such. The failed archive cannot triumphantly reemerge to maintain human knowledge in the dead world: all that would be left would be the broad strokes, and the metonymic hints of content outside of the frame or within the palimpsest of corrupted data. The game is far less fulfilling but far more interesting from an aesthetic and critical perspective if the plan to contain everything about the dying world fails. Talos would then not be simply a pro-individual morality tale, but would represent the flaws of a medium that intends to represent so completely as to inspire reader immersion. What videogames require to be commercially and technologically compelling is a level of complete immersion in a totalized world. What Talos does in spite of its narrative is to demonstrate that much of this immersion is on the level of formally symbolic interpretation and framed in distinction to experienced or objective materiality.
Ultimately, we must concede that this reading of Talos likely goes against the grain of the creators’ goals. The narrative ends the way it does for a reason and, like it or not, the game seems to resolve upon a lionization of individual will, mixed with compelling questions over the blurred boundaries between human and machine. But the game undeniably has a formal structure that reflects upon the specific constraints and failures of its medium. In this sense, Talos is certainly self-aware in an aesthetic mode and, for most of its playthrough, allows its player to contribute to that self-reflexive critique. Yet, much like the final moment in Gone Home, the portion of Talos that takes place in Elohim’s garden does not really give the player much of a chance to impact the work itself. It merely provides a space to engage with and therefore “read” the code underlying the construction of its narrative. Talos, in the garden at least, therefore rejects narrative and turns toward a reading of archival collection and cultivation, of representational totality and organization under late capitalism. What this reading reveals is that the fantasy of the posthuman, of digital eternity, is occluded by the limits of the human capacity for representation. While Talos sneaks a happy ending for the posthuman and a progressive promise for humanity itself in through the back door, the central message of limitation is delivered by way of a formal limit. Breakdowns in signification, language, and structure work to decentralize the player and privilege the broken, unresponsive, and (often problematically) autonomous sphere of the game. True immersion is rejected to produce a representative totality in the gaps: a representation of failure, of the futility of progression, and the endless immaterial repetition of intellectual labor under late capitalism.
How to Game and Why
Even within their commercial forms, these videogames go beyond the straightforward portraiture of digital representation, and insist upon constraints that differentiate them from the genre’s blockbusters, a task Alexander Galloway might call “countergaming.” Gone Home forwards a progressive social politics through the medium of nostalgia. But in the final moments of the game, when the player can be said to be in closest communion with the code of the game’s graphics engine, the focus of the piece shifts to an unresponsive set of commodities, movable but without significance, blank and reduced to their constitutive atoms: past politics, past even use and exchange value. In The Talos Principle, an individualist ending undercuts a politics of absorptive aesthetics, but the cycle buried in the actual commands of Elohim represents a kind of frustrated purgatory, repetition without material reward. It is striking, even without the Tetris blocks and other videogame genre cues, how much repetition without reward resembles the classic videogame. Talos’ self-reflexivity represents a critical inward gaze that rejects the significance of the videogame grind toward collection while continuing to embody it wholly.
In a final analysis what these moments of near-aesthetic-autonomy risk embodying is what G.W.F. Hegel might call “bad infinity,” the endless desert of the real in which things or meaningless tasks seem to, or perhaps truly do, stretch on and on. Yet, these videogames, with their items and tasks without signification, are qualified by very intentional boundaries and limits. Gone Home is restricted to the house, and insists upon solitude—no second setting or character outside of voiceover diaries is available to open the story up further. Talos’ Elohim insists upon the avatar’s participation in meaningless puzzle-solving tasks, endless and without purpose in the repetitive cycle of the life and rebirth of the robot simulation. But these tasks are bounded by the garden, and only maintain their aesthetic legibility within the Words and world of Elohim. In both cases, an immersive world relating to alienation in late capitalism is represented, and the legibility of this representation is made possible only through the game’s aesthetic and epistemological collusion. The detail of the stray object, the videogame glitch, or the boundary recalls the player from their limitless visual fantasy and reminds them that this is a fantasy within representational formal limits. These formal limits open the space for critique, however provisional at our historical moment, and call attention to the ways in which the world of objects and things is unfulfilling as an immanently aesthetic expression.
Just as the earliest motion pictures teeter between the Vaudevillian spectacle and the aesthetic frame of filmmaking, these videogames cast about between commodity and aesthetic form. Galloway, in attempting to come up with a theory for countergaming, insists that the art-games of JODI and Brody Condon problematically refuse to acknowledge play, merely representing the avant-garde through visual glitches and distorted graphics. “We need radical gameplay, not just radical graphics,” Galloway explains,34 adding shortly afterward that a countergaming movement ought to aim toward “redefining play itself and thereby realizing its true potential as a political and cultural avant-garde.”35 But Galloway limits videogames to a subset of “play” as opposed to an intensification of the literary, thereby evacuating videogames of the textual complexity we have seen in our objects above. What Gone Home and The Talos Principle reveal in their own formal attempts is that videogames have specific medium constraints, and, most importantly, the ability to mean outside of the reactively political and within the disinterested aesthetic. If the immersive function of these games can be used to forward political and aesthetic critique, somewhere between aesthetic disinterest and Marxist communalism, they are more than just revisions of play. They are artistic objects to take seriously, as well as important forerunners of a new and promising kind of serious digital art and literature.