This is one of a series of interviews I conducted for my article about what text can say about war that AAA games can't. You can read the other interviews by clicking here.
I contacted Robert Yang because I'm a big fan of his blog and in particular his writing about simulation gaps and manshooters (i.e. the difference between a simulation and its subject, and what is implied by where that gap falls). While researching this topic, I found an intriguing blog post about Unmanned which pretty much encapsulated my thesis, and also his blog is almost the same colour as mine, which I applaud.
After lighting twelve black candles and setting out my Gears of War branded ouija board, I asked Yang the following questions.
I'm interested in what text can do that visual spectacle can't (would you call it a more introspective medium than 3D graphics?), but also in your implication that AAA FPS deliberately avoids introspection.
It's hard to humanize protagonists in these games (silent sociopathic murderers) without encoding the character in some sort of text or narration. There are a few options: A voice talking to yourself (Duke Nukem). A voice in your ear? (BioShock.) An NPC who "introspects" for you? (The Gman in Half-Life 2, The Outsider in Dishonored.) In drama, it might be a Greek chorus or an aside to the audience or a soliloquy. In television, it's a confidant "best friend" who sums up the stakes of a conflict for the character. In film, it's where the camera chooses to linger, betraying the watcher's feelings.
With text, introspection is much easier to achieve: narration is inherently introspective. Talking about a "big room with clean white walls" vs. a "rathole of a room covered in white vomit" betray two very different narrators and characters. In literature, we call this "free indirect discourse" -- but, remember that this concept didn't even get coined until 1887 by Adolf Tobler. You could argue that before, readers didn't know how to read like that, or didn't think about it consciously before then. Maybe they still don't. Unfortunately, video games aren't a required subject in schools yet, so gamers aren't learning how to read like that either -- games aren't texts to them, and they often attack games that operate like texts because those are "pretentious." The anger of the illiterate. So, I don't think the AAA FPS can't be introspective. Rather, they don't think it's worth their time.
Maybe they're right. It's hard for developers to craft, and it's hard for players to learn how to "read a game" like that, so they'd rather put their resources into making things explode. That's perfectly fine and great. Nationalistic propaganda and pop music have the right to exist and to be enjoyed. However, I have an issue with the AAA FPS dominating society's mental prototype of a video game. These shooters symbolize "what video games are" to most people, especially gamers -- meanwhile, most people generally know that arthouse films exist, or that the Twilight books work differently than James Joyce's Ulysses. Games are getting more diverse now, we just need more player awareness of that diversity.
Thanks! Also, if any games comparable to these come to mind, please recommend them - I'd very much appreciate it.
THE introspective war game du jour is Spec Ops: The Line. You should get in touch with Brendan Keogh about that, he just wrote a book about it. I personally don't care much for it. Dear Esther is the introspective nonviolent first person game du jour. Jeroen Stout's Dinner Date frames the player as a guy's first person subconscious as he gets stood up for a date -- there, introspection is a trap. Ian Bogost's A Slow Year is about staring out a window and slowly drinking tea. All of these "experimental games" function more as meditative first person Zen gardens than media texts. Again, a very different interpretive mode than Call of Duty, and people aren't even aware that exists. Good luck with the article.