DIGRA 2009: My Paper - excerpts
Souvik Saturday, September 05, 2009Here, I attach excerpts of my DiGRA paper - a reworked version has been submitted for publication.
Remembering How We Died: Telos and Time in Videogame Narratives
Dr Souvik Mukherjee
Nottingham Trent University
‘Time is like an Ocean, not a river’, says the Prince of Persia. This reflexive comment by a videogame character describes the multiplicity of temporal experiences in the game narrative, also including the many times a player has to die before learning how the game ends. Such an eschatology transgresses against accepted Christian conceptions of the linear movement of the soul from birth to the afterworld. As evident in the writings of St. Augustine or Joachim of Flora, however, there is considerable speculation in Christian theology regarding time and telos. However, by allowing the player to replay the life of his onscreen avatar, videogames defy Christian expectations of the finality of telos by making it a multiple and repetitive event. Effectively, the implication of this multitelic structure is that Death itself becomes multiple.
Early discussions of game studies believe that this multiplicity 'trivialises the “sacred value” of life'. It will be argued here that this is a limited reading of the issue, especially when considered in respect to pre-Christian eschatologies, whether Hindu, Buddhist or Ancient Greek. These, in themselves, are, of course, quite disparate and this paper does not aim to engage with their complex theological nuances. Rather, concerns itself with specific ideas from Indic theologies that highlight the importance of the alternative conceptions of Time in videogames while developing on the earlier research done by commentators like Barry Atkins and Michael Nitsche, and analysing the phenomenon of in-game death from philosophical perspectives that have hitherto been virtually unexplored in game studies.
Instead of trivialising death and telos, it is evident from the above examples that videogames actually add to some of the oldest discourses on Time and endings. Neither is their role fortuitous. Atkins illustrates this through his example of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. He observes that 'Sands of Time accommodates something close to the save/reload inside the game-space, and within the game's internal logic. Fatal decisions and actions are reversible, quite literally with the player able to “rewind” play.' Of course, the player is not literally re-born and certainly does not occupy a different body as some karmic proponents describe. Further, the karmic schema does not involve time-travel into the past. Similarities, however, exist. Often, after restarting a level, the player ends up with the same situation in the story that he has earlier encountered; it is only too likely that he does not have the power-ups and weapons that he was accustomed to using in his past 'life'. In this sense of restarting a ‘life’ in the game world, then, he is reborn into the game. Regarding the journey back into the past, some karmic notions, especially Hindu beliefs, support the idea of being able to remember past lives and as Swami Abhedananda states, it is a power that can be achieved in the higher levels of Yoga.
The word 'remember' plays a twofold part, here. The more obvious meaning is that associated with memory. As Atkins points out, from the second iteration of gameplay onwards, the shift changes from 'How do I do this' to How did I do this last time?' Memory plays a vital role in giving us cues for gameplay and at the same time, it complicates the temporal scheme because we remember our past 'life' in the same scenario while re-living it in another iteration. The second meaning of 'remember' is less usual. 'Remember' could be read as 're-member' where 'member' is used in its old sense connoting body parts. The act of remembering (as re-membering) could be likened to a putting together of a body (as opposed to dismembering). This dual connotation is well evinced by Assassin's Creed.
For those unaware of the game, the setting is that of a laboratory where, sometime in 2012, kidnapped bartender Desmond Miles's memory is being scanned for his experience in a secret group of assassins, in a past life. Before proceeding any further, two things need to be pointed out. Firstly, in the game, there’s a similarity with the yogic concept described above: only instead of the extraction of memories of a previous life, here the machine extracts ancestral memories through genetic code and to ‘re-live’ his ancestor’s life (again, almost like reliving a past life). The second point is about the protagonist or rather his ancestor called Altair ibn-La’Ahad (literally, 'the Eagle, son of no one'). Altair is killed by his master for failing in a mission and then miraculously revived and given a second chance to redeem himself. Altair, the 'son of no one' is not born and does not die. The player playing Altair dies manifold within the game but lives again and plays out other instances of his narrative. Finally, Assassin's Creed consciously connects memory, death, multiple temporality and rebirths through an element in its gameplay. The protagonist, through his memory, recreates the body and the actions of Altair – as explained above, he 're-members' Altair. In a rather nice touch, Ubisoft illustrates this in the moments where, in an intentional glitch, the player's memory struggles to recreate Altair's image, which breaks up from time to time into a mesh of DNA patterns and nucleotide chains. Altair himself does not seem bothered with death – he dares to jump from the top of high towers and monuments in what is called a 'leap of faith', in the gameplay. Even when he dies, it is possible to move on to another seemingly parallel memory, where Altair is not dead and can continue on his further adventures. Neither is Altair the only life that Miles can remember – Assassin's Creed II will tell the story another descendant of Altair, this time a noble called Ezio di Firenze. These multiple strands of Time and the parallel lives and 'rebirths' of Altair and Miles, further explain the Prince of Persia's comment about Time being like an ocean and also prompt a comparison with the eschatologies of the Indic religions. Perhaps, it is not a coincidence that the Prince of Persia unleashed the Sands of Time in an Indian palace.
That the player's avatar necessarily does not die and can saved and reloaded in the game is a fact that reflexively allows videogames to engage in discourses on the multiplicity of Time. Earlier connections of the ludic with the philosophy of Time have existed for long in Hindu or vedantic traditions where Time (kala) and Karma are all subservient to the divine cosmic play or Lila. This play is beyond mortal comprehension and also beyond the limitations of the karmic cycles. Rather, this is more in the realm of the gods. Besides the cyclic comprehension of Time in the karmic cycles, there is a further conception of cyclic temporality that is uniquely associated with divinity. This is the concept of reincarnation or the avatar.
As previously observed, the iterations of gameplay are not the same thing as the rebirths in the karmic eschatologies. However, they bear a marked similarity with these in that they are involved in a multiplicity of temporal structures, often concurrent and certainly without a fixed teleology. Like the avatars in the Hindu pantheon, the player's avatar is at a given moment the same character and yet different. In one instance of gameplay, Altair is really weak and unable to face up to challenges while in another, he takes on a dozen Templars and vanquishes them. Both of these temporal strands might be located at the same point in the same narrative and yet they tell different stories. It is also possible, as Nitsche points out, to have multiple events portrayed simultaneously on the same screen and in the same game event:
XIII includes multiple frames that, like comic novels, tell an event over time and are framed in certain panels that overlay the main game view. At the same time, players stay in continuous control of the main character. Players have no difficulties understanding the situation although the temporal conditions are different from panel to panel to game world.
Both Nitsche and Atkins, observe how Sands of Time allows the player to 'rewind' Time, as a necessary part of its narrative, thus reflexively recognising the multiple temporal frames that the save and reload function that is part of most videogames allow anyway. For example, after reaching point B from point A in the game, the player (as the Prince) can choose to rewind Time and return to point A. Thereafter, he can again travel to point B', with added knowledge of the situation (there is, of course, the possibility of random changes made by the AI to the game environment experienced in an earlier instance). In the story that the game tells, both of these strands are equally valid and there might be many more than two such instances (depending on the difficulty of the game and the number of times one needs to replay an event), which effectively creates a very complex mesh of temporality. The question also arises as to how the player's action(s), as occupying many separate chronologies and yet describing one event, is to be described. Finally, is the instance of the replay the same action (as in the replay of a goal 'event' in a football match) or is it different? It would perhaps not be wrong to say that it is the same difference.
This phrase obviously brings up an important issue in analysing the game-narrative. Considering how many times players 'die' in the course of the game and the number of replays involved, this issue ties in with other complex discourses on the multiplicity of telos and Time in philosophy, both ancient and modern. It is possibly because of this complexity that when the Buddha is posed questions about the mechanism of rebirth, he replies with a resounding silence. Unlike the Hindus, he does not accept the imperishable atman but at the same time, stresses on the doctrine of rebirth. Later Buddhist philosophy, tries to interpret Buddha's silence on how karma can pass on from one life to another. McDermott analyses the explanation of the Buddhist monk Nagasena as follows: 'The act (kamma) itself does not pass from one state to the next; it cannot be said to exist here or there. But since its potential cannot be prevented from actualising itself in due time, it may be considered to follow man like a shadow.' Nagasena's concept contains the key ideas of the potential and the actual, which prove useful in analysing the event in videogames. It also captures the sense of how the player's action in a previous iteration of gameplay can have an effect on later instances.
Nitsche brings up this idea of repetition of play through his comment on Brenda Laurel's 'flying wedge' figure where Laurel proposes to explain the player's learning process as a 'gradual development of player behaviour from the possible, via the probable towards the necessary.' For Nitsche, players experience the same event in the game's fictional time differently, because the later iteration of gameplay has already been influenced by the earlier (that is, in most cases, the second time the player has some idea about the obstacles ahead). This effectively skews the 'wedge' because players do not return to their former state and instead know more about the probable behaviour. These observations bring up a few questions. How is it possible to explain the multiplicity of time and of different instances of the same event? Are the later iterations of a videogame event contingent on the experience that the player carries forward, and finally, are all these instances different or the same?
Nagasena's reply to the questions posed by King Menander, mentioned above, argues against karma being carried by a fixed agent and with fixed results. So his scheme is quite different from the far simpler Hindu belief of karma where one's next birth is rigidly codified according to one's actions in this one (in this there are strange formulations, such as, if one steals green leafy vegetables, he will be reborn as a peacock). Similarly any game experience is not literally carried forward as a sort of karma (in its original sense, meaning 'action'). However, it forms part of the changing potentiality that is variously actualised in every event in the game. This later Buddhist concept is not easy to explain but it can be examined at greater length through another complex philosophical perspective. The ideas in question are those on difference and repetition as stated by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze.
The complexity and gravity of both Deleuzian philosophy and Hindu or Buddhist theology is well recognised and it is not surprising that a connection with a seemingly disparate entity like the videogame is not the most obvious of things. However, the associations with such philosophical systems need to be made to explain multiplicity of Time in gameplay. Instead of trivialising the multiplicity of endings and death, based on the linearity Christian teleology, the full complexity of the issue needs to examined from other perspectives, ranging from pre-Christian theologies to modern philosophy. Finally, when analysing videogame narratives, it needs to be remembered that older methods of narrative analysis often miss point. Instead of solely basing the analysis of the 'tying and untying' of the plot (desis and lusis in Aristotelian dramaturgy), videogames show how criticism should also seriously consider the 'dying and undying'.
 Gonzalo Frasca, ‘Ephemeral Games: Is It Barbaric to Design Videogames after Auschwitz?’
 Gananath Obeyesekere, ‘The Rebirth Eschatology and Its Transformations: A Contribution to the Sociology of Early Buddhism’ in Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions, ed. by Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1983), pp.139-49
 James P. McDermott, ‘Karma and Rebirth in Early Buddhism’ in Karma and Rebirth, p. 175
 Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths, ed. by Donald A. Yates and James E.Irby (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1970), p. 53.
 Barry Atkins, 'Killing Time: Time Past, Time Present and Time Future in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time', in Videogame, Player, Text, ed. by Barry Atkins and Tanya Krzywinska, vols (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), p. 243
 Swami Abhedananda, Reincarnation, (Project Gutenberg),
 ‘Assassin’s Creed wiki’,
 Bhagavad Gita , Chapter IV-7.
 Michael Nitsche, 'Mapping Time in Video Games' in: Situated Play: Proceedings of the Third International Conference of the Digital Games Research Association DiGRA '07 ed. by Akira Baba (University of Tokyo, Tokyo, 2007), p.145-152
 McDermott, ‘Karma and Rebirth’, p.168
 Nitsche, ‘Mapping Time in Videogames’.
 Souvik Mukherjee, ‘Gameplay in the Zone of Becoming: Locating Action in the Computer Game’ in Proceedings of the Philosophy of Computer Games Conference, 2008, ed. by Stephan Gϋnzel, Michael Liebe and Dieter Mersch (Potsdam: University of Potsdam, 2009), pp. 228-241
 Manuel DeLanda, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy (London, New York: Continuum, 2002), p. 28
 Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (London: The Athlone Press, 1994)p. 358
 Deleuze, p. 353
 Deleuze, p.105; emphasis mine.
'Literature is a combinatorial game that pursues the possibilities implicit in its own material [...] but it is a game that at a certain point is invested with an unexpected meaning' - Italo Calvino