Visiting GameStation in my doctoral gown.
In August Company: (from right) Dan, Phil, John and me. Dave I missed you at this one.
With my parents
'Remembering How We Died': Memory, Death and Temporality in Videogames
Death is an intrinsic part of gameplay. On considering the role of killing, dying and negotiating the 'undead' in videogames, one cannot be faulted for noting in them an obsessive engagement with the act of dying. It is almost a prerequisite that the player's avatar has to 'die' many times in the process of unravelling the plot. Instead of the traditional tying and untying (desis and lusis) of narrative plots, held sacrosanct since Aristotle, videogame narratives are characterised by 'dying and undying'. The sense of an ending, as literary theorist Sir Frank Kermode calls it, is constantly frustrated by its absence in videogames. Western conceptions of ending, whether Hellenic or Judaeo-Christian, are based on telos and a linear temporality. In a culture where death is a grim finality and where resurrection is only possible by the divine, videogames seem to shockingly trivialise death by adding to it the perspective of multiplicity. Videogame theorist, Gonzalo Frasca, observes that from the perspective of real life, this reversibility can be seen as something that 'trivializes the "sacred" value of life'. This paper argues against such a conception and in doing so, it points to how videogames to a different but equally serious view of death and endings that has so far been largely ignored due to an occidental bias.
In Vedantic and Buddhist philosophy, belief in reincarnation is the norm rather than the exception. The multiplicities of death(s) is, therefore, not trivial. This, however, is not to claim a straightforward connection of the videogame endings with the rebirth cycle in these world-views, especially since there are many differences within and between them. Not to consider them at all, however, would skew the analysis, given that the characteristics of videogames though considered 'trivial' in a Western paradigm, actually connect to ideas that pre-date Christianity. The videogame protagonist, also called avatar (which requires a separate discussion), dies, lives and lives again; thus replaying the cycle of his or her existence. Within the context of the game-narrative, each death or ending is important: often, as Michael Nitsche states, death can be a way of exploring the game or of obtaining information about 'future' possibilities. That apart, each ending is connected to the assemblage that the game narrative forms. Despite their other mutual differences, in Vedantism and Buddhism the key idea of rebirth does not trivialise the event of death. Instead of a transmigration of an essence, Buddhism believes in a moment-to-moment process of rebirth dependent on the encompassing circumstances. The Gita states that 'the newly moulded inner nature will express in a new form.' The 'new' form is called avatar in Hinduism; gods are often (re)born in different reincarnations or avatars and this is part of the divine play or lila. The term avatar is rather freely used in game criticism as meaning 'player embodiment' which is but part of its original significance; its key connotations of reincarnation and immanent existence have so far been ignored.
While these non-Western perspectives indicate an alternative reading of death in videogames, their heavily moral and religious implications make any easy equation problematic. Their ideas of immanence, nevertheless, connect well to games where the same avatar re-experiences the game-world but differently, each time – a complex case of difference and repetition. This, importantly, also connects with current ideas in Western philosophy, such as Gilles Deleuze's understanding of immanence and temporality. The avatar in the game experiences events, including death(s), as actualisations of a virtuality of events. The actualisation takes place from within a combination of possible events, which in turn are determined by their spatial and temporal environments. Further, even as an actualisation takes place, the other iterations of the gameplay (such as other instances where the same section of the game was played) still remain quite 'real'. In the Deleuzian sense, this is a real virtuality or one that is 'never past either in relation to a new present or in relation to a present it once was.' For Deleuze, the different actualisations are like the dice-throws in a 'Divine Game', where they are multiple but at the same time partaking in the One. Following this, he proposes that the idea of death be treated 'less as a severance than an effect of mixture or confusion'. Traditional conventions of death are influenced by the idea of time as a chronological progression. When faced with phenomena such as videogames, where chronological progression gives way to more immanent structures; firmly believed in conceptions about death, memory and event are greatly problematised. With this in consideration, this paper will attempt to build upon the discussions on temporality already started by critics such as Jesper Juul, Barry Atkins and Nitsche. Carrying these forward both in terms of game studies and contemporary philosophical discourse, it will attempt to understand the importance of in-game death: as both immanent and imminent.
A brief outline of the papers as culled from my notes. For me the conference started with papers on Laurie King's Mary Russell stories – for the uninitiated, in these pastiche novels Sherlock Holmes gets married to Russell, who is a formidable detective in her own right. The discussion ranged from cross-dressing, feminist perspectives to the nature of Holmes pastiches. Sabine Vanacker's paper, while providing learned perspectives on various other aspects, particularly interested me with the analysis of the Holmes stories as taking place in a repeated presence. Sabine also pointed to the chronological anomaly in the Holmes stories and how Carole Nelson Douglas and King establish a clearer chronological relationship in their Holmes pastiches. The best part of her paper, for me, was the description of Holmes's stories as a virtual palimpsest of texts and context. Palimpsest --- that's how I would describe gameplay.
I also particularly liked Annushka Donin's first-time paper on metafiction in the Holmes and Poirot novels. She established a network of textual relations through a comparative analysis and drew out interesting parallels. This is apparently Annoushka's undergraduate work being developed here – I wish I had even one such undergrad in my seminars. She seems to be on her way to engage with more theoretical perspectives and I was obviously thinking of post-structuralist viewpoints.
All the papers that I heard were great. M. Lee Alexander made an interesting case about detective figures being 'wounded' or disabled in some way or other. She provided a long list (to which I added Max Payne) but surprisingly, all of the names on the list were male! Patricia Pulham and Jennifer Palmer both looked at aspects of historicising fiction. Patricia discussed Julian Barnes's novel on Doyle's one and only attempt at detection – I must read it. In my own panel, Harvey O'Brien entertainingly presented on the variety of filmic responses to Sherlock Holmes including 'The Great Mouse Detective' and the Christopher Plummer Sherlock Holmes ('Murder by Decree'). The other panelist, Sally Widdowson, interestingly explored the link between Sidney Paget's Sherlock Holmes illustrations and modern graphic novels such as the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Very interesting, all said and done.
What I missed though was more of a chance to socialise and chat. Though I did make up for it by joining some other presenters on a stroll through Hull. Finally, like all the conferences that I have been to recently, this one ran simultaneous panels and I missed some of the papers that I was keen on listening to. Bran Nicol's paper on Bayard, Eco and conjecture seems really interesting from his abstract and on talking to him after my session (which he chaired). Interestingly, he too describes the structure of the Holmes novels as 'rhizomatic'.
My own paper did what I expecteed it to do – I felt that it opened up Sherlock Holmes scholarship in different aspects and developed on the connection between the multiplicity of narratives and videogames. One of the questions that I was asked was how I would make a Sherlock Holmes videogame. A storyboard is already building up within the recesses of my head and it certainly isn't elementary.
Anyway, here's my abstract:
Sherlock Holmes never faced his final problem. Just as he re-emerged from the Reichenbach Falls after being 'killed off' by his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes has lived on in a multiplicity narratives ranging from the new Holmes tales told by the likes of Anthony Burgess to adventures on the Holodeck of the starship Enterprise. It is this multiplicity combined with that makes the Holmes tales key predecessors of more recent forms of storytelling, especially the story in videogames. The videogame player after 'dying' in an attempt to 'complete' the multitelic narrative, does a Sherlock Holmes and replays his existence in a different way. The Holmes stories can be viewed as proto-videogames by analysing them side by side with Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened (referred to as The Awakened hereonwards), a videogame based Holmes investigates an as-yet-unsolved mystery. Created in the adventure game genre, albeit with attempts to include different visual points-of-view, The Awakened, is characterised by a multitelic structure; it also emphasises its multiplicity by placing Holmes in the Lovecraftian world of the Cthulhu mythos.
Theorists of so-called New Media have argued for multiplicity as being a key factor in determining the novelty of hypertexts, interactive fiction and videogames. However, this conception can be challenged by a closer look at earlier forms of multiple narratives such as the Holmes stories. Analysed in comparison to The Awakened, the Sherlock Holmes stories as told over the last century, emerge as far more multiple than was earlier assumed and reveal greater complexities of authorship, plot and telos. To do so, this paper will engage with Gilles Deleuze's concept of multiplicity, which makes it possible to view the stories as actualisations of a mesh of virtual narratives, where Holmes continually emerges from his various endings only to start again – almost as if he plays a videogame.