Videogames are unique in their capacity to depict control, but a lack of control can be depicted by many media. Do videogames have any special moves here?
I wrote last year about depiction and representation. Let me rehash that quickly.
The short version
Really simplistically, something represents when you have to know how to interpret it; something depicts when you can just tell intuitively what it stands for.
I gave an example: the word “kangaroos” represents kangaroos because you have to learn what that word stands for. Even if you’ve seen a thousand kangaroos, you would never know what the word represents only by observing it in isolation. Meanwhile a picture of a kangaroo depicts a kangaroo because the opposite holds here: if you have the ability to recognise a kangaroo by sight then that same ability is what enables you to grasp that the picture is of a kangaroo. No language lessons needed.
Next, I noted that different media have different capacities for depiction and representation. Some generalisations by way of illustration: novels can represent all sorts, but not depict anything beyond the act of reading; film can depict the passage of time, whereas a painting can only represent it; sculpture can depict three-dimensionality but a painting can’t, et cetera. These capacities and limitations become the artistic tools of a medium.
Finally, I suggested three things that videogames can depict and other mainstream media can’t — some unique artistic tools of games:
- Control and decision
- Physical interaction
- Social interaction
Today is a case study on depicting control — or rather the lack of it — and a refinement to the idea of depiction as an artistic tool.
Depicting the absence of control
Following my basic definition above, we can unequivocally say that games depict control because you determine that you are in control of a game in just the same way that you determine you are in control of anything. On the same lines, film can never depict an experience of being in control because the reels are just going to keep flying through the projector without ever waiting for your input.
But doesn’t that mean film can depict the absence of control? On my definition we have to say yes. You judge that you don’t control the events in a film just as you judge that you don’t control real events. Therefore, absence of control can be depicted in film, so we have found one of the artistic tools of cinema as a medium, we would have to conclude.
I don’t think that’s wrong; certainly cinema does use that artistic tool. The inevitability of the progression of the story is a valuable ingredient in creating suspense — whether in film or elsewhere. However, I think we have to acknowledge a special tool of games in this regard because control, as anything, is missed more sorely when it’s taken away. Since games can depict control as well as its absence, they can depict its removal, too. Film and other media don’t have that tool at their disposal.
I promised a case study, so here we go…
Powerlessness in Shadow of the Colossus
Shadow of the Colossus’s (2005) remains a remarkable and distinctive game. You explore, you discover, and you conquer in a structure with such disciplined pacing that the most dramatic moments are unforgettable. It’s epic thanks to its contrasts: giant monsters dwarfing the protagonist, tranquil journeys to frenetic battles, lifeless plains surrounding vivid beasts, struggling against the odds but ultimately prevailing.
And a scene at the very end of the adventure delivers another gripping contrast. Throughout the game, your character has control over his actions, and takes control over his fate and that of the girl on the altar. Likewise, you have control over his actions, and so his control is depicted by the game. So far, so normal.
However, in the climactic scene the player is encouraged to run towards the game’s distressed damsel, struggling against a force that is holding him back. Although this is a playable scene — so there’s an element of control — it’s actually impossible to reach the girl, struggle as you might. The character is powerless, and that’s depicted by the game. Further, it’s depicted by contrast with the control previously afforded to the player throughout the game. Inevitability is depicted in contrast with self-determination.
A neat touch here is that the hero will continue to struggle for just about as long as you care to try. The scene won’t end until the player admits defeat, ceases to struggle, and allows the hero to succumb to the overbearing force. It ensures the player acknowledges the depicted inevitability, feels it, and endures the consequences of it.
This is the step games can take beyond the mere unflappable progression of other story media.
Extra bonus case study
Monkey Island has a typically silly approach to the same idea. When you meet Governor Marley for the first time, you get a close-up of her beautiful, determined, no-bullshit face and Guybrush is in love. The player has full control over what he says next.
So although my analysis of representation and depiction showed an equivalence between film and videogames when it comes to depicting the absence of control, there’s an important practical sense in which games stand apart. The fact that games have the potential to depict control lends more weight to the occasions when they don’t.
(Related to this, I wrote about depiction and representation in Ico and Splinter Cell here.)