Baudrillard wrote that “The impossibility of rediscovering an absolute level of the real is of the same order as the impossibility of staging illusion. Illusion is no longer possible, because the real is no longer possible.” (19)
Media operates in the mode of layered simulation. The interaction of simulations has been readily identifiable in film for some time, but their operation within video games has gone largely unexamined. This is unfortunate, because video games exploit the layering of simulation and the resulting confusion of real and imaginary in ways that are not available to other media objects. This is achieved by actually inducing the ontological crisis that was previously only described by postmodern media. I will outline this crisis and describe how video games use it to further complicate the relationship of the real and the imaginary.
Fellini’s 8½ opens with a traffic jam that quickly reveals itself as a dream. The horror of people, the need to escape them, the realization that the need to escape is an intrinsic part of the self, and so escape is impossible if the self is to remain intact. The protagonist keeps his self concept intact, injured by the social and defined by its injury: he allows himself to be pulled out of the sky, crashing into the ocean, trading the gentle horror of the dream for the gentle horror of life.
As the film continues, several similar sequences are presented: dreams, memories and fantasies are interwoven with what presents as real. Sorting out the worlds of the real of the film and the imaginary of the protagonist is left to the viewer. This is indeed no small task, as the viewer must also know that the real of the film is itself an illusion to be sorted against the real of the viewer. This layering of illusion is extended (distended?) by the film within the film, and, in the impossible task of defining true and false, the real and the illusion, the inevitable question: On which side of the camera does our director sit? Which is nothing but an ontologically safe reimagination the actual question: On which side of the screen does the viewer sit?
The opening sequence of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind visually and thematically mirrors that of 8½: the protagonist, surrounded by the horror of the social, the crowded in-between places of mass transit, escapes to the beach. His escape does not provide the desired relief, instead revealing a fractured self-loathing that simultaneously seeks and hates the social.
|Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind‘s opening sequence: Sorry for the link, but YouTube has disallowed embedding for this video. Still, it’s well worth opening a new browser tab.|
Like 8½, Eternal Sunshine weaves together real and imaginary, challenging the viewer to define and distinguish two opposing elements from its hyperreal singularity. Unlike 8½, it does so without limiting its implosion of internal and external to an episodic conversation between protagonist and viewer. Eternal Sunshine‘s conflation of reality and illusion instead extends without boundary. The mechanic of a film within the film, the elaborate layering of reality and illusion, it’s all made unnecessary by the uncomfortable believability of constructed (reconstructed? deconstructed?) thought and memory: the self-creating self. This crisis is mechanically similar to that of 8½, but it is of a different order: the film presents a logic in which distinguishing the illusion of the film from the real of the viewer is not possible. Both are plausible, but neither can be verified. The hyperreal digests the whole of both reality and illusion.
In terms of simulation, Super Mario Bros. presents neither a visual nor a cognitive logic that approaches this level of hyperrealism.1 And yet, its hyperreality surpasses that of both 8½ and Eternal Sunshine.
The surreal representation of a world gone, quite literally, unbelievably wrong. It is easy for the spectator to disbelieve this world; but for the player, belief is another matter entirely. This is achieved through the creation of ontological insecurity the player, resulting in a division of the self that complicates the dichotomies of belief and disbelief, of real and imaginary.
In The Divided Self, Laing describes ontological insecurity as the feeling that the individual is
precariously differentiated from the rest of the world, so that his identity and autonomy are always in question. He may lack the experience of his own temporal continuity. He may not possess an over-riding sense of personal consistency or cohesiveness. . . And he may feel his self as partially divorced from his body. (Laing 42)
Ontological insecurity calls into question the nature of the self, and a response to this question is the perception of the self as, in Laing’s word, “unembodied.” The unembodied self’s “functions come to be observation, control, and criticism vis-a-vis what the body is experiencing and doing, and those operations which are usually spoken of as purely ‘mental’.” (Laing 69)
By using elements of the recognizable language of earlier forms of media and combining those elements with active participation, games induce a gentle form of ontological insecurity in their players. This insecurity is grounded in the same basic confusions presented by the hyperreality of 8½ and Eternal Sunshine. We return to the question: on which side of the screen does the player exist?
The truly fascinating twist is that while games (like other forms of media) can achieve this confusion through pure representation, they need not bother. Instead, games create instability simply by requiring the player to perform; that is, instability is created and maintained through the action of play. Games necessitate an unembodied self while simultaneously allowing that self access to virtually embodied action.
Thus, in games the destabilizing question has a preliminary answer: I exist simultaneously on both sides of the screen. I am part of the simulation.
Simulational participation is not limited to the active: games exploit the passivity of memory to further layer simulation. This tool is used by the films referenced above; but the digital nature of games allow memory to operate in a mode not available to film: perfect reproduction.
Super Mario Crossover illustrates the nature of convention and genre in digital media objects: perfect simulation is possible because perfect reproduction is possible. The referentialism of earlier media, as we saw in the opening sequences of 8½ and Eternal Sunshine, is replaced with the exact reproduction of prior simulation. This adds a temporal dimension of simulation, in which the player’s memory (whether real or illusory) of experience (whether real or illusory) becomes a passive part of active play. Thus the real and the imaginary are further confused as the player participates in the replication and remixing of their own memories, a level of hyperreal confusion that is not available to film.
The ontological crisis imagined by 8½ and Eternal Sunshine becomes, in games, a densely layered crisis of the imaginary; a real crisis of simulation; a crisis that is induced every time we play a video game.
1My use of gameplay videos that follows is, in this context, a placeholder at best and disingenuous at worst. It is my desire that they be viewed as placeholders: they show you the screen of someone who is playing, but it is important to recognize that they are themselves not objects of play. However believably these videos imply a player, one cannot escape being implicated as a viewer; a spectator; an anti-player.
This topic could span several posts on its own. For my purposes here, I will say this: these games must be played. The embedded gameplay videos are a good low-barrier way to access my argument, but they should not be construed as viable alternatives to actually playing the games they portray.
Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994. Print. The Body, In Theory.
8½. Dir. Federico Fellini. Columbia, 1963. The Criterion Collection, 2004. DVD.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Dir. Michel Gondry. Focus Features, 2004. Film.
Super Mario Bros. Nintendo, 1985. Game.
Laing, R. D. The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness. New York: Penguin, 1965. Print.
Super Mario Crossover. Dev. Jay Pavlina. Newgrounds.com, 2010. Game.