Virtual Commodity: Objects and Deep Pockets in Adventure Video Gaming

In 2001, Critical Inquiry dedicated its autumn issue to “Thing Theory”, the study of the conceptual nature of material objects. Building upon the philosophical concepts of the fantastic and the concrete, fetishes and signifiers, commodity and valuation, professor of English at the University of Chicago, Bill Brown, has argued in Things and A Sense of Things that while in some cases it may satisfy one’s sense of the concrete to separate “things” from “theory”, it is all but impossible to dislocate ideas from objects, “for even the most coarse and commonsensical things,” he writes, “perpetually pose a problem because of the specific unspecificity that ‘things’ denotes.” Indeed, there lives in every object, however innocuous, a sense of its history, its allusions, its familiarity or its novelty. “Thingness”, therefore, may be described

as what is excessive in objects, as what exceeds their mere materialization as objects or their mere utilization as objects—their force as a sensuous presence or as a metaphysical presence, the magic by which objects become values, fetishes, idols, and totems. (Brown, “Things”)

The extent to which an object may exhibit “thingness” depends firstly on its being recognisable as a single material unit, a “thing” beyond what Brown describes as “the swarm of electrons” of which it is made. Turning from the physical world of reality, however, one finds a subgroup of things made not from a swarm of electrons, but from data capable of rendering the illusion of material objects in virtual environments. The multiverse of videogames, it seems, has proved no less immune to patterns of signification, commodity fetishism, or the human impulse for collecting artifacts beyond all necessity. 

The academic treatment of physical objects appears almost facetious in its attempts to project “ideas” and “theories” into agents which, through their domesticity and apparent mundanity, seem to offer an escape from metaphysical considerations. Videogames, too, with their cultural associations with antisocial youths and their humble artistic status—falling in the lower leagues somewhere between advertisements and reality television—have proved deeply resistant to theoretical study. This resistance persists despite the medium’s increasingly sophisticated cinematic and narrative techniques, and despite the expanding cultural and philosophical implications that the playing experience reveals. Whether or not it is possible to completely remove one’s tongue from one’s cheek when discussing objects and videogames in the language of poetics, it becomes apparent that the questions posed by Thing Theory are not only relevant to videogames, but that the dynamics of games, together with subcultures within gaming, can themselves offer new and alternative models of object fetishism which arise from the “limited reality” of game-worlds. 

We may understand “limited reality” in this sense to refer to the ways in which videogames are unable to replicate certain elements of real life—its complexity, its physics, etc—which in varying degrees change the way in which objects are encountered, understood, used and eventually valued. These limitations are subject to the frames of reference prescribed by the medium of gaming, those which derive primarily, like the “limited reality” within printed texts, from the non-tactile interaction between the subject (player/reader) and object (game/text). What is “limiting” about virtual and printed worlds is that they have thus far been directive in bringing our attention to that which is deemed meaningful by the scriptor. Some objects, we find, are denied physical and sensory properties by being contextualized as part of a “background”, or, in games, by not being endowed with the sufficient programming which allows virtual objects to behave like physical objects.

When, for example, a bookshelf depicted in a game cannot be interacted with, when it has no further purpose other than to look, with its amorphous rows of unreadable titles, like a bookshelf, the game world invites us not to look at the object, but rather through it. This limitation should not feel unnatural to a player; indeed, it is the habitual perspective from which we commonly observe life. In Brown’s words, “We look through objects because there are codes by which our interpretive attention makes them meaningful”. This interpretive attention has fed into the consciousness of game designers as well as players, for many game objects, much like the table furniture in Leonardo’s Il Cenacolo or the list of items on Bloom’s kitchen shelf in Ulysses, demonstrate the human affinity with objects while emphasising our propensity to look through them. It is as though objects in these scenes are drafted and encountered by the human subconscious; we expect them as we expect movie extras to populate crowd scene. And just as we expect extras, we are also inclined to expect the arrival of he or she who will play our protagonist: that spotlighted example, that exception to the rule, which in the object world may be described as a thing

To begin to explore some of the implications of Thing Theory in videogames, let us first consider an example of object-use in a game from the 1990s. Players of traditional “point and click” adventures may find this list a familiar one:

A handful of plaster

A photograph

A red nose

A soggy tissue

A ‘shake and shock’ hand buzzer

A metal rod

A matchbook

A business card

A blood pressure gauge 

Items stowed in the legendarily deep pockets of George Stobbart provide solutions to nearly all of the challenges encountered in Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars as well as its sequel, Broken Sword: The Smoking Mirror. This list is taken from Templars, in which the handful of plaster can be used to fashion a makeshift key, the hand buzzer becomes an improvised weapon, and the blood pressure gauge is used to block a garden hose.

Beyond these practical applications, material objects serve as the games’ Hitchockean “MacGuffins”. In The Smoking Mirror, George must hunt down a trinity of Mayan artifacts which together unleash a supernatural power capable of banishing a tyrannical deity. The hunt for mystical artifacts is a familiar one in adventure narratives, reflective of a broad tradition whose examples span the literary canon from the pursuit of a brass vessel in “The City of Brass” (Arabian Nights) all the way through time and category to the search for three model ships in Tintin’s The Secret of the Unicorn. These needle-in-a-haystack quests are often rooted in far-flung environments of material scarcity—deserts, seas, etc—yet in Broken Sword games, a form of local, metropolitan scarcity arises from the limitations of the virtual world itself.

What happens to the conception of objects in these environments? Though Broken Sword’s action takes place in cities like Paris, London and Dublin, one may only interact with a small number of items on one’s screen in any given location. Most objects are illustrated as part of a non-interactive background.

 

Paradoxically, then, we find that the living world of objects is of limited use to George. To find the objects which are paramount to his quest, to locate those illusive “MacGuffins”, we are often drawn to museums: the final resting place of material things. The British Museum as well as the fictional Ketch Museum and Musée Crune all feature as key locations in the Broken Sword series. According to Brown, “when American museum history tells a story where the mundane supplants the extraordinary, it neglects the way the curators try to transform the mundane into the extraordinary.” Indeed, in Broken Sword, players are often required to take a museum object and utilise its primitive functionality (an idol which fits snugly into a recess, for example) to unlock the item’s supernatural power. This power is released via the mundanity of the item as it performs its simple geometric task: it might join with a component part, interlock with an ancient glyph, or merely function as a literal key to unlock a secret door. In the limited reality of Broken Sword’s game environment, where opportunities to interact with objects are rare, museums are conceptualised not only as embassies to the world of obsolete things but also as antidotes to that same world. Despite the apparent mundanity and impotency of museum artifacts, their being spotlighted by the discerning curators of the game environment elevates them to a state of “thingness” so vivid that their supernatural associations begin to appear consistent with their former utility.

By interacting with objects, solving puzzles and engaging in conversations with other characters, players of Broken Sword seemingly make choices which affect the narrative trajectory of the game. The course of action is, however, fatalistic. The game progresses not through a dynamical framework which permits variable outcomes, but by a series of connecting animated sequences through which the player advances whenever a required action is satisfied. There is a single linear plot, with each problem delaying the narrative from progressing until it is solved by performing one specific action and one specific action alone. In any given scene, therefore, when confronted with a problem—whether George must extinguish a fire or press a vicar’s collar—it is as though our protagonist already has a solution in mind, and is waiting for us to coax it out of him by directing his attention to relevant objects. This absence of red herrings subsequently endows these objects with immediate functionality, a priori of their use. Items are thus encountered, to quote Brown, as things which “compel us to have a relationship with them”, as neither commodities nor ideas, but as material artifacts which give rise to a state in which the “human fascination with objects subtends the resplendent success of the commodity form”. 

If one were to plot a spectrum of artistic media according to the degree to which an observer feels as though he or she is participating in the origination of the narrative, videogames would rank among the most dynamic, the most participatory. David Lochhead, writing on Marshall McLuhan’s definition of “tactile” (as something which integrates the senses), noted that:

The relation of subject (reader/writer) and object (text) is much more intimate with the computer than with the print medium. I relate to a text on a computer with my fingers as well as my eyes. Text becomes, in McLuhan’s terms, “tactile”. The text becomes an extension of myself. I can manipulate text as if it were a part of my body. 

Lochhead is talking specifically about the difference between printed and virtual text, but the same can be said for the conceptualisation of images in artistic media. An interactive videogame environment, for example, is a more “tactile” surface than a landscape painting, for it places an agent of the observer (namely the game’s protagonist, whose actions are controlled by the gamer) directly within the fictional universe. The agent’s actions are not pre-determined, but rather subject to the continued participation of the gamer in order for the work to complete its narrative arc. Though that same continued participation is required of a reader wishing to complete a novel, the passivity of reading seemingly offers little in the way of exploration within the medium itself:

Print is unidimensional. Print is. It exists in splendid objectivity on the printed page. The simplicity, the stark objectivity, the fixity of the printed word transfers itself to meaning …We look for the meaning of a text that matches the unity and objectivity of the printed word. 

All, however, is not as it first seems. This “hermeneutical crisis” as described by Lochhead is met in opposition by the capacity of the reading experience to be non-passive, an aspect which brings literature closer to the object/subject relationship of videogames. One may notice how the landscape of printed text itself, much like a gaming environment, is at times just as dependant on an observer’s capacity to act as a dynamic participant. The act of reading requires, after all, for one to actively process lines of text, and while a book may seem directive in its presentation, one may also choose, as in a game, to explore the environment in an unintuitive way.

Beginning at the beginning and proceeding in a linear fashion to the end when reading A Tale of Two Cities would likely be a consensual recommendation among its many appreciators, but what about UlyssesThe Sound and the Fury or Pale Fire? Can such dissembled novels not evoke that same sense of autonomous participation from its readers? Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch actively encourages such fluidity when it invites its readers to “hopscotch” their way through the novel’s 155 chapters, either according to a “Table of Instructions” or merely on one’s impulse. These examples of deregulated fiction shake the written word from its unidimensional authority, de-objectifying the characters, places and objects evoked therein.

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Literary luddites will no doubt be appalled by the rise of Kindle, iPad and other e-book platforms. If concepts like “Twitterature” and “text environments” were not enough to appease the gods of sacrilege, then a comic book version of Ulysses with an on-screen commentary by general readers just might. Throwaway Horse (its developer) insists that they are “devoted to fostering understanding of public domain literary masterworks by joining the visual aid of the graphic novel with the explicatory aid of the internet.” Throwaway’s project offers Joyce’s masterwork in a format not unlike an installment of the Broken Sword videogame series. Readers are required, through tactile interaction, to advance Leopold Bloom’s day by pressing on-screen buttons, and at any time may opt to consult the online community’s commentary in order to solve whichever snag or snafu is delaying one’s comprehension of the text. This interactive approach may seem like an upheaval of art’s very foundations, but it is a practice long established, and indeed now surpassed, in videogame design.

Since Broken Sword, games have dramatically advanced the ways in which a player may interact with the virtual world. The development of sophisticated design engines like those used in recent titles such as Skyrim are able to render an expansive “open world” playing environment, host to a population of hundreds of characters, dynamic weather systems and small scale economies, all operating outside of the player’s participation. These developments, which bring game-worlds closer than ever to the multifariousness of real life, have advanced the perception of virtual objects to models which are all but interchangeable with the human-object relationship in reality.

Skyrim follows the basic structure of a free-roaming Role Playing Game (RPG). The player designs a character who is then loosed into the expansive “world map” with little direction as to what he or she should do next. While there is a “main quest line” along which a player may progress, it is the undertaking of subsidiary and miscellaneous tasks that comprise the majority of one’s gaming experience. Players may have their characters hunt bears, join factions, smith armour or simply wander around. In this world where many independently structured endeavours amalgamate with little or no bearing on one’s endgame scenario, the sheer mass of activities and commodities available can only be related to one another through the valuation of in-game objects. This “value” correlates firstly to monetary or functional usefulness within the game world—the object’s facility to statistically improve one’s character as he or she progresses through various challenges—but increasingly, as one becomes rich and unassailable, to the item’s aesthetic, symbolic, mimetic, or even novelty value. 

The importance of physical objects is owed in part to their being observable and potentially permanent signifiers of one’s progress, as well as of one’s character’s “social” standing in relation to Skyrim’s class spectrum, in which men and women of various mythical races are cast as anything from beggars to demigods. The desire to invest so much of one’s time playing Skyrim may therefore come not from the wish to see its narrative unfold (as when one devours a gripping novel), but from a state of virtual fetishism, wherein virtual objects satisfy the same pattern of appetite as described by Karl Marx, wherein “the fantasy of the appetites tricks the fetish worshipper into believing that an ‘inanimate object’ will give up its natural character to gratify his desires.”

Skyrim’s world of object commerce is dominated by items endowed with abilities to enhance one’s character’s proficiency, and here Skyrim feeds into the history of inventorial games by filling its world with an overwhelming amount of useful stuff. There are also, however, thousands of items in the gaming environment with which a player can interact, but which provide no benefits whatever: they are merely things for things’ sake, bric-a-brac which contribute to the authenticity of the virtual world. Such useless items include spoons, brooms, buckets, machine components, ruined books, embalming tools and wooden plates. These objects are available to collect, move around, or sell for low values of currency.

A subculture of “hoarding” these items has arisen among players, wherein useless objects are accumulated in one particular location to create outré stockpiles, which, besides illustrating the sheer amount of miscellany in the game, point to a compulsive urge which mimics the fascination with collectables exhibited by philatelists, discophiles and numismatists. When considering the nature of these latter hobbies together with “hoarding” in Skyrim, the question “why collect?” is perhaps surpassed by the more boggling, “why collect in videogames?”. This question yields a conceptual model upon which the person-object dynamic is able to operate outside of physical space.

Collecting may be understood as an attempt to abstain from boredom, an inarticulate manifestation of wealth accumulation, an indulgence in surreal displays which interrupt routines and the status quo anti, or more daringly as an attempt to bring the object-world closer to a conceptual notion of oneself by physically demonstrating the relationship between the collector and an object’s associations. These theories are all relevant to the study of collecting per se, but to reach the conceptual core of “hoarding” in games, one must consider what role the gaming environment plays in encouraging such unusual behavior, and to what extent Thing Theory can be remodeled by “limited reality” and the virtual dynamic.

René Girard’s principle of “mimetic desire” postulated that “all desire is a desire to be”, which is say that a man desiring a certain model of car does not want that car per se, but rather desires to be the type of man who would want and indeed eventually own such a car. In videogames this desire is no different, yet a player is also acting out his desire for adventure via the role of a game’s protagonist, while at the same time satisfying that first layer of mimetic desire which exists between the in-game character and the virtual community around him. In taking on the role of another whilst inside the game universe, players partake in a kind of double-mimesis. 

A player might wish to see his or her character achieve certain things in a game environment similarly to the way a reader might wish to see Anne Elliot discover happiness in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. In games, however, one feels as though one “is” a game’s protagonist when playing far more than one “is” a novel’s protagonist when reading. No blurb would ever proclaim that “In The Great Gatsby, you are Nick Carraway”, or that “In Lolita, you read as Humbert Humbert”, however pertinent those constructions may in fact be. The connection a player may feel in a game comes firstly from the control he or she exhibits over the character’s actions, and, secondly, from the increasingly customisable gaming experience itself. Players may now decide what their protagonists will look like, as well as what kind of moral constitution will dictate their actions within the game. What becomes apparent is that games, unlike literature, are capable of indulging a player’s sense of autonomy within the fictional universe to a degree which subverts the imaginative flights of reading, prescribing instead an inward, mimetic dialogue between the subject and the fictional world.

Material possessions in both real and virtual worlds are often conceptualized as objects of desire. They are ripe for coveting. However in videogames such as Skyrim, where one may eventually wield god-like control over the universe, items of no use take on a triviality higher than even the trifling nature of spoons, say, in the real world. Virtual spoons, when collected in massive quantities, cease to have any reasonable connection to the game-world, whose artificial intelligence can only respond within the limited parameters with which they have been programmed.

Here, a player has filled an entire hall with cabbages, the result of a piece of manipulating software known as a “Mod” or the product of a great many tedious hours spent finding, collecting and dropping off the vegetables. The three figures present in the hall are “non-playable characters”, which is to say that they are agents controlled by the game engine, programmed to interact with the player. The men will not comment on the perverse number of cabbages which have besieged their hall, as they are not endowed with sufficient artificial intelligence to respond appropriately to such excess, or indeed to any misuse of cabbages, plates or, most amusingly, baskets.

Even with a basket on his head, this man will simply go about his business, talk perhaps about the weather or the price of mead, giving rise to the joke which was perhaps the intention of misusing the item to begin with: that game-worlds resemble reality closely enough to replicate both a status quo as well as the situations which may transcend it, but are not yet sophisticated enough to have all elements respond appropriately when the zeitgeist of what is possible shifts to excessive proportions.

When players act upon their fantasies of wealth and excess in these consequence-free environments by “hoarding” or misusing useless objects, they give rise to a fetishism which replaces the mythical and mechanical object-associations found within Broken Sword and supplant it with a culture which prohibits objects from ever attaining a sense of “thingness”. This process of defamiliarisation is precisely the kind which informs object theories of modernity. By reducing objects to a deregulated state of replication or manipulation, what had once been “things” are returned to the swarm of pixels of which they are made, defamiliarised and re-conceptualised as mere objects: lines of data which may be exploited for comic, novel or functional effect in games, or reduced to nothing more than their perceived exchange value in reality.

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In 1995, David Foster Wallace told BBC Radio Three that, “by creating a character in a piece of fiction you can allow a reader to leap over the wall of self, and to imagine himself being not just somewhere else but someone else…in a way that no other form can do”. Foster Wallace wrote about reading as a lonely pursuit, and printed texts as stages upon which readers are confronted by the fact that they are alone: “Fiction”, he wrote, “is one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved.” He compared reading to watching television, an activity which “help[s] us deny that we’re lonely”, for even when television is watched alone, when the “wholesome domestic sport” of watching TV as depicted in Don DeLillo’s White Noise is replaced with a less passive, voyeuristic ogling, the viewer is nonetheless aware that he or she is part of the “megametrically many” (DeLillo). While the term for the receptive agent of written texts is commonly phrased in the singular form (“the reader”), viewers of television are considered part of a wider community. Even when watching television alone on the living room sofa, one is “the audience”.

While it appears that Role Playing Games offer players the opportunity to “leap over the wall of self”, to inhabit the perspective of a fictional character, the deregulated nature of contemporary games yields so much authorial control to the player that it is no longer he who plays a role, but rather the fictional character within the game who plays host to the player’s direction. Text in physical books is able to evoke this dynamic, and in examples from fragmented novels like Hopscotch to poetry which leaves blanks (“_____”) for a reader to negotiate, print has surrendered a little of its unity to the participation of the masses.

Written text alone, however, is not capable of multifarious texture when presented within a physical book. Here we return to objects, and to the simple observation that a physical book is a piece of hardware; written text on its pages may indeed be read in any order, in any number of infinite ways, producing, as it often does, a cosmos of interpretation, yet any new addition to what McLuhan described as the “Guttenberg Gallaxy” is unavoidably self-aware of its history. This is the history which, in the English speaking world, proscribes a reading method which runs from left to right across the page, from front to back through the volume, and in which a blank space such as “_____” is not an empty field awaiting data, but a piece of punctuation whose blankness speaks louder than any substitute a reader could postulate.

For Foster Wallace, the pleasures of reading were derived in part from its capacity to transcend an ethos which places the individual and his desires at the centre of consciousness, an ethos which thrives in advertising, which constricts attention spans, and which above all encourages a participatory but yet compliant response from its audience. Reading, by contrast, is hard work. Reading is contemplative. These distinctions (and others besides) made between visual and “tactile” media, between television, games and books, between art which is “passive” and art which is “dynamic”, are all subject to the rigidity and prolongation of the forms. Such rigidity never endures. There has yet to be a narrative form whose practice and prominence has not been superseded by another, and with the development of virtual texts, such as the interactive graphic edition of Ulysses, it is now possible to conceal the mechanics of deregulated fiction and allow a single work to offer multiple strands of narrative, each progressing as fluidly as traditional linear texts. Such a development would present literary “things” —both objects and characters—as dynamic variables subject to a reader’s input. The reader in this hypothetical medium becomes part-writer, a literary gamer; his personal history, expectations and judgments are projected not into the realm of interpretation, but intertwined in the texture of the work itself.