I am 12 years old. I am standing behind a Russian soldier, my SOCOM pistol pressed into his back. I whisper:
A minute or so later he is limping away, bleeding profusely from multiple gunshot wounds and trying in vain to call for help over his broken radio. If I were feeling kind, I’d shoot him in the head with a tranquilizer dart and stuff him in a locker somewhere.
I am not feeling kind.
I pummel and kick him until he loses consciousness. Then I wake him up, and do it all over again.
It is easy to dismiss this act of torture as the digital generation’s equivalent to picking wings off flies. Indeed, as a 12 year old child playing Metal Gear Solid 2, being able to cripple and torment people with a gun is possibly the most sadistic power fantasy you can enact.
But over a decade later, this segment of gameplay still lingers in my mind, inciting my curiosity. I recently bought MGS2 for the Vita; and as an adult I still find the ways you can interact with the guards to be the most compelling part of the game. Yes, almost all of the possible interactions are somehow violent, and the resulting interplay often becomes sadistic. But there’s something else. Something not many games ever achieve:
But, how can such a feeling – a feeling of closeness, of connection – come from the hyper-fetishised militaristic power fantasy of MGS2? The emergence of intimacy from violence and power abuse is a strange idea. But the more I interrogate the subject, the more I start to wonder: can games create intimacy any other way?
After all – every game is a power fantasy.
Art is an attempt to communicate meaning or narrative through a specific medium. Each medium has its own unique communicative codification. Literature conjures stories from language and grammar; Cinema does the same with sequential images and dialogue. Games? Games create meaning through power.
Most dictionaries define power as something like this:
Chess, Football and Pac-Man, for example, all allow the player certain autonomy within a game-system. The player has a limited set of abilities which they may employ. A Chess player can only move their bishop diagonally. A European footballer may move, dribble and shoot with the ball – but they cannot pick it up. A Pac-man player can move in any four directions within the level maze, and victory is gained by manipulating these four inputs only. Within any game, the player’s possible verbs are always enactments of power.
So, in this sense every game is a power fantasy. It is written in the very medium. Any sense of narrative – any intimacy or emotion – must emerge from the enactment of power within a system. It is for this reason that in interrogating the idea of intimacy within gaming, we must consider the concept of power with equal measure.
In any game, independent agents foster relationships through play. In football, camaraderie between team members and rivalry between opposing players are naturally occurring narratives which develop through play as much as personality. The same can be true of any videogame. In Doom, the game affords a certain amount of narrative to its independent agents just in the way they are displayed: an imp sprite just looks like something you want to shoot. This exaggerated demonic depiction reflects the simple and brutal mechanics, as the only possible way these two agents can interact is by hurting each other. There is only one verb the player and the imp can use to interact: attack. The only possible outcome is damage. In this sense, the relationship is one of low ludic causality, as the interactions between the two parties – and the resulting outcomes – are extremely limited.
In MGS2, however, more complex relationships are possible between the player and their enemy. The common verbs which can be utilised by the player correspond with a set of micro rhetorics – or rather, simple cause and effect events – which allow for a wide variety of possible interactions with any guard:
Interestingly, only two of these verbs inflict potentially lethal damage. Most of them allow the player to depower the guard by reducing the effectiveness of their verbs – and two of them also allow you to communicate information.
Just as the player has a plethora of possible verbs, so do the guards – as they are capable of calling for reinforcements over the radio and changing their tactics depending on their awareness of the player. Furthermore, unlike their predecessors in MGS1, these guards do not disappear from sight and mind when they are dispatched – blinking away into the abyss. Their bodies remain to haunt and hinder the player. The guards are therefore rendered as complex individual agents to be acknowledged and respected.
And to surpass them, the player is forced to acknowledge them up close and personal. Outside of firearm use, all of the player’s verbs must be enacted within close proximity. Every subsequent game in the Metal Gear series incorporated ‘Close Quarters Combat’ as both a narrative and gameplay device, and though not labelled as such here, CQC is evidently present in MGS2. The series encourages physical intimacy – when close to a guard, the player enters into a high causality zone in which there are a plethora of ways to interact.
Intimacy is a rather loaded term with a number of connotations, but it ultimately refers to the close interaction between two people. To be intimate with someone is to enter a physical or mental private space, within which actions or ideas can be shared. A loving relationship is defined by the willingness of both people to exchange highly personal feelings, emotions, touches, caresses. It is about entering someone’s space, a space where they are at their most vulnerable, and interacting with them.
This is exactly what Metal Gear allows you to do. In the high-causality CQC zone, both the player and the guard are at their most vulnerable. The player is exposed, only one step away from detection – whilst the guard capable of being hurt or killed. But what truly makes this state intimate is the capacity for communication. The player can tease the guard by knocking on a wall – “I am here, come find me”. They can also threaten the guard by yelling ‘Freeze’ – turning the tables (like grabbing an invulnerability-granting power pellet in Pac-Man) and forcing the guard to raise his hands in the air. In a narrative sense, the guard is frightened for his life, knowing that you have the power to hurt and kill him – and in a purely ludic sense, the player is exploiting a weak point in order to immobilise and depower the enemy. Either way there is an intimacy to the interaction. The ‘hold-up’ state is one wherein the player has absolute power over an independent agent, but rather than exorcising this power to eliminate them, they are communicating this potential power and using it in a coercive capacity.
MGS2 allows you to communicate with its guards through the language of games: power. Both the player and the guards exorcise their independence through actions / verbs – and nothing else. In the high-causality zone, potential power can be communicated, comprehended, and – should the player threaten the guard by aiming a weapon at his head or crotch – responded to, as the guard will present a gift to the player in the form of a useful item (often pleading “please, don’t”). In some instances, guards will respond to a player’s threat by calling their bluff: “Just try to pull the trigger”, they can jeer.
This encourages a further level of intimacy. As seen below, guards have complex hitboxes:
Each hitbox, if damaged, inflicts a penalty on the agent, as seen above. In the ‘hold-up’ state, if a guard refuses to give the player an item, the player can exploit his vulnerability by hurting him and bestowing a ludic penalty. Once hurt, no guard will resist.
What makes this particularly interesting is that the game, by expanding the ludic causality of your actions, creates a distinction between ‘hurt’ and ‘damage’. In Doom, you can damage an enemy in the traditional sense, by depleting their hit points – but the only possible outcome is that the enemy can die. It is a binary interaction in which ‘damage’ is a means to an off switch. There is no room for intimacy, and the same can be said for most contemporary shooters. But MGS2, by allowing enemies to be damaged in a way that depowers them but does not kill / remove them, and furthermore allowing the enemy to recognise that they can be damaged and to actively try and avoid this outcome, enables the player to physically interact with the enemy’s body as opposed to simply ‘switching it off’. When lovers touch, they both feel that touch, and there is a mutual understanding. There is no game in existence which accurately simulates the act of touching, but in a perverse way Metal Gear Solid 2 might come the closest – as by ‘hurting’ enemies the player is entering an intimate space and physically interacting with that agent’s body, in a way that is both perceived by the agent and reflected in the game-space.
Of course, while Metal Gear Solid 2 allows a level of intimacy between the player and guards, it is inevitably tainted with sadism – as any possible interaction is somehow linked to a violent act (even tranquilising someone, whilst seen as a ‘pacifist’ action, is pretty fucking violent when you think about it). It is a forced, non-consensual intimacy derived from the player’s absolute power over the NPC enemy. Under the sheets, participants are starkly aware of their vulnerability; but intimate interaction is permitted. Here, the same connection – the same physical and mental communication – occurs, but forcibly. Partly, this is because of the games militaristic narrative – the guards you are fighting are entirely hostile, and any communication can only be achieved after placating them with coercive force.
But perhaps any game will struggle to present a non-sadistic intimacy. If games are power simulators, then every possible interaction with another individual agent must be either depowering, empowering, or have no ludic weight. When we break down reality into these oversimplified, reductivist power simulations, is there much room left for genuine intimacy?
If there is, it certainly isn’t reflected in contemporary AAA games. Take The Sims, for example – which actually integrates human relationships into the gameplay. You’d think that serenading another sim, and eventually tying the knot, would be an intimate experience. But ludically it reduces the experience to a minigame in which you grind through dialogue options, slowly building a friendship stat until a threshold has been reached which allows you to propose. Failure is possible; but build the friendship stat high enough and it becomes unlikely. It is essentially a conquest minigame; you are wearing down the enemy’s defences until they cannot resist. Similarly, sex is an animation which can be achieved by issuing an order to your sims. Intimacy is not something which develops through micro rhetorics, but a narrative reward for jumping through ludic hoops.
The same can be said for the Mass Effect series. Let’s use ME2 as an example – specifically the player’s relationship with Tali. The series is renowned for the way it lets the players build a relationship with certain characters, and Tali stands out as a particular fan favourite.
NOTE: the following contains spoilers for her ‘loyalty’ mission.
Tali is one of the game’s fuckable characters, and – like the majority of them – her ‘loyalty’ must be gained before you can have sex with her (already this is sounding more like a conquest than a relationship). The mission takes place within the Migrant Fleet: The main collective of the Quarian race, of which Tali is a part. It begins with Tali being wrongly accused of treason and in trying to clear her name, the player learns that Tali’s father is actually to blame.
Below, I have compiled a map of possible outcomes. Please note that this map only depicts choices which have an actual effect on the narrative:
Now, the first thing I would note is that this ludic map isn’t very complicated. Compared with the ways that a player can interact with MGS2’s guards, there are actually less possible ways to interact with Tali in this mission – especially considering that most of the choices occur in dialogue with other Quarians rather than Tali herself.
Of course, this does not necessarily mean that the player cannot feel intimacy with Tali – what it means is that any intimacy develops through narrative and pre-written content, as opposed to actual game mechanics. One possible interaction allows the player to give Tali a hug, but as Daniel Acaba mentions in his online FAQ, “Doing this doesn’t seem to have an actual effect on the romance but it sure is a sweet gesture.” The game is full of these faux interactions, whereby the player is rewarded with a little narrative snippet which has absolutely no ludic weight within the game.
This romance, then, is more of a slightly interactive movie or a very simple Twine game than an actual game romance. The player is navigating through a very small narrative maze, of which there are only three possible outcomes: Tali doesn’t want to have sex with you; you agree to have sex with Tali; or you reject Tali sexually. The actual sex is not in any way integrated into the gameplay, but a mere cutscene; a narrative reward.
While Mass Effect 2 certainly has well developed characters (and it certainly lets you rub your Captain Shepherd figurine against your Tali doll in something vaguely resembling intercourse), I wouldn’t say, as a game, I allows for genuine intimacy. It’s no surprise that in a recent Kotaku article, John Robinson was so scathing of RPG romances:
“Incredibly, sex in video games manages to miss almost everything positive about the real thing: the emotional and physical pleasure, the excitement, the fulfilment, the bond. Agreeing with everything the non-playable character of your desire says and does might get them into the virtual sack, but that’s such a shallow and unremarkable representation of seduction […] What’s worse is that once a character is ‘done’ – the statistic noted and the achievement counter edging upwards – the post-sex connection is so meaningless, so static, that you can’t help but move on the next to see whether that will prove more worthwhile.”
All things considered, Mass Effect’s relationships evoke the simplistic damage model of Doom. Navigating the narrative maze can only result in two possible outcomes; you fuck or you don’t. The fuck itself is not a gameplay element, but rather a removal of gameplay. Like a dead enemy, the piece is removed from the board, the box ticked – and the only real ludic outcome is that there is one less dialogue option when you speak to Tali on your ship.
If games are power fantasies, then Shadow of Mordor is a game which wears this fact on its sleeve. The game’s predominant enemy – Uruks – are randomly generated caricatures of animalistic masculinity, and occupy a hierarchy which they can rise through by accumulating ‘power’. Uruks gain this stat through events such as hunting, infighting or killing the player. The player – also in possession of a ‘power’ stat – can grow more powerful by sabotaging these events, or by killing high-ranking Uruks. Eventually, the player gains the ability to magically enslave (or in the game’s diction, ‘brand’) any Uruk in the game, turning them into an ally who will fight alongside the player.
This constitutes the oft-referenced ‘nemesis system’. The genius of this system is not in its complicated web of power, but in the way it narritavises actions which occur within it; thereby fostering emergent storytelling. The aim of this system is to allow relationships to form between the player and their enemies, and this is not just a key feature but a selling point of the game – as evident by paid YouTubers being given instructions to emphasise “how different the orcs are, how vivid their personality and dialogue are” and how the player can “[expoilt] their strengths and weaknesses.”
Like in MGS2, Mordor’s enemies respond and react to micro rhetorics. Any Uruk has a list of traits which can be revealed by gaining ‘intel’ on them, and these all refer to either the Uruk’s or the player’s possible verbs. They might be vulnerable to the player’s ranged attacks, for instance – or they might have a special ability which allows them to grab the player. They may even be afraid of certain things, such as swarms of flies or being set on fire, and exploiting these fears will cause the Uruk to flee. By integrating these stats into the game and allowing the player to utilise this knowledge, the Uruks are highlighted as individual agents with similar ludic abilities to the player. They are defined by their actions and reactions, which constitute a personality which is not rooted in pre-written narrative, but in ludic ability.
Pre-written narrative snippets are utilised, but only ever to emphasise an action which has occurred within gameplay. If a player has previously fled a battle with an Uruk, upon their next encounter that Uruk will remember and chastise the player for running away. Relationships with Uruks, therefore, are always fostered through actual play and are never force-fed to the player (standing in stark contrast to the game’s main narrative, which is a dull affair full of unmemorable characters).
Graphically representing the ludic possibilities within this system would be an arduous affair, so I have constructed a diagram of one specific relationship I had. This is the story of Lugnak the Vile, who started out as just an ordinary low level enemy:
Any possible event or change which occurs in this narrative is fostered through ludic action. The resulting relationship is one forged in a zone of high causality – battles comparable to the ‘hold-ups’ of MGS2 – where both player and enemy are physically vulnerable and can be affected by each other’s actions. The narrative which emerges from these gameplay conditions is remembered by the game, and fed back to the player through an Uruk’s aesthetic appearance and their lines of dialogue.
During my playthrough, one Uruk in particular seemed to relish this sadistic intimacy and constantly referred to me as “my sweet”. When I finally overpowered him in battle, he dropped to his knees and – moments before I beheaded him – said “stay close, my sweet… let me feel your breath on me.”
The weakest part of this gameplay is the ‘branding’ feature. Writing for Paste magazine, Austin Walker criticises this feature because “the beauty of the Nemesis system was that it simulated Orc culture and society”, but when the player enslaves Uruks “any agency they had is gone. They just stand there and wait for my command.” When a system allows for intimacy through violence only, turning an enemy into an ally removes any possibility for interaction. It closes a door, and ends the relationship. The diagram above ends with Lugnak becoming an enslaved Warchief because there are literally no further ways I could interact with the agent; he has become a statuette on display in my pause screen and nothing more.
This is a symptom of a much larger problem. As Walker puts it, “No matter how many songs the Orcs of Mordor sing […] all I can do is hurt people”. Like MGS2, Mordor builds a system wherein the only possible interactions are through violent verbs. Intimacy is possible only insofar as you can damage, torture or hurt others; as soon as the ability to injure is removed, so too is any possibility for intimacy.
The strangeness of this sadistic intimacy has been reflected in the diction of a lot of games writing. Christian Donlan calls the nemesis system “weirdly engaging”, while Jake Muncy “felt oddly proud” of the orc who got promoted after killing him. But Chris Plante highlights why any relationships cannot escape the taint of sadism; he calls the game morally repulsive and defines it as “a video game about a spurned man terrorizing an entire foreign culture, literally killing, branding, torturing and enslaving hundreds of living beings [who are] only tangentially connected to the man’s real enemy: another ultra-powerful white dude.”
through gameplay, it is difficult to assess to what extent ludic intimacy is possible. Hopefully, this fixation on violent power is just a small step in the evolution of video games, like how superhero comics – similarly obsessed with the thrill of visual action – paved the way for more critically minded graphic novels in mainstream western culture.
Even the novel experienced such a gestation period. Euphues: The Anatomy of Wyt, a sort of proto-novel written by John Lyly in 1579, is a work more fascinated with language itself than the sum of its parts. In an anthology, Keston Sutherland argues that the “plot is negligible […] more or less just a frame over which the multitude of polite phrases is draped,” and that this “verbal ostentation” would later be rejected by Romantics such as Samuel Coleridge.
Just as Euphues is an early piece of literature about language, we could interpret many games released today as early experiments about power. Mordor gleefully exaggerates every aspect of power within the game-system it creates, giving the player such a vast array of actions that they must be channelled through two characters rather than one:
For games to evoke anything close to an amiable intimacy, they need to learn – like the novel, or the comic – how to use the language of the medium to express an idea greater than the sum of its parts. This means exploring the subtleties of power interplay, without treating power as a one-edged sword where more is objectively better.
While the gameplay mechanics of Mordor certainly reflect this limited ideology, MGS2 at least offers players the choice to harass its enemies. With the exception of willingly aggressive bosses, any conflict can be circumvented with stealth. The way the game presents ludic power could therefore be said to resemble post-war psychological studies into power abuse, such as the Milgram study or the Stanford prison experiment, in which unwitting participants showed a tendency to abuse power so long as they were absolved from any responsibility. If torturing guards for goodies in MGS2 makes the player feel somewhat uncomfortable, then perhaps that was the designers’ intention (which certainly fits with the series’ overall motif of – as Erlend Grefsrud puts it -“scepticism towards conflict”). James Clinton Howell draws attention to how the game actually rubs your nose in your violent transgressions, by having the player’s actions photographed and publicly decried.
Though rare, there are contemporary titles which explore the other end of the power spectrum: powerlessness. Cart Life is a game which lets the player manage the daily routines of one of three completely ordinary city dwellers. Rather than encouraging the player to accrue material wealth or financial success, the objective of the game is to merely survive the gruelling challenges of everyday life. Adam Smith argues that from this mundanity emerges “the importance of human contact, no matter how fleeting” – which suggests that the game’s simulation of life is more successful at fostering a sense of intimacy than The Sims.
The recently released Alien: Isolation displays an aesthetic that couldn’t be more different than Cart Life, but its gameplay mechanics are similarly built around limiting the player’s potential power. The revolver, one of the only ‘conventional’ weapons attainable, acts as a reminder that traditional first person shooter tactics are next to useless, as it proves to be a woefully inadequate tool when facing the game’s inhuman enemies. The invulnerability of the player’s nemesis – the titular alien – prevents the Doom-like ‘negation’ of opposition within the game-space and therefore fosters a sort of terrifying physical intimacy. The alien will often skulk past the player’s hiding place, its massive body – jagged and irregular – only centimetres away. This serves as a reversal of MGS2’s hold ups, as here the player is the one having their personal space invaded.
As a medium, video games have always been an amalgamation of existing art forms; often combining cinema, literature, music and anything else that can be entwined into computer code. But what makes games stand out as a unique means of expression is their ability to react to user input – and it is only by exploring and expanding upon this incredible asset that games will be able to carve their own cultural heritage, rather than existing as a footnote to some other medium.
Postmodern critic Michel Foucalt argued that power is not just a blunt coercive force within society – to be aimed and wielded by ‘powerful’ people – but that power is everywhere, and is channelled through every individual in the incomprehensively vast network that is ‘humanity’. These ideas revolutionised the critical assessment of power within western philosophy, and if games are simulations of power then they will surely benefit from a more complex and nuanced analysis of what ‘power’ really is.
Because really, you do not need a gun to feel powerful. Every day we involve ourselves in dozens of power struggles. Even just a conversation is a minor linguistic skirmish, in which anything from compliments to snide remarks can empower the speaker. Any person is at once incredibly fragile and immensely powerful, and we all erect defences – our individually defined private spaces – to protect our vulnerabilities. Intimacy is possible when we trust someone enough to allow them to exorcise their power – be it physical or otherwise – in our private space.
The reason that AAA games struggle to evoke anything other than a tainted, sadistic form of intimacy is because they are too quick to give the player a bazooka, when they could be giving them a pair of hands… or a voice.