Intimacies of the Flesh
Meditations on player-game relations
by Martin Hare Michno
The reader learns from the book. The cinephile learns from the film. The musician learns from the instrument, just as the painter learns from light. The player and the videogame, however, share a unique and more intimate relationship than the other art forms: they learn from each other.
I. PLAYER EXPERIENCES GAME
You are never the same person after finishing a game. Whatever you gained or lost from it, no matter how small or insubstantial, marks a change in your being. You cannot go through the process of playing a game unchanged. This phenomenon is known as “experience”. This is what games boil down to - experiences. It bears no repeating that once you are introduced to the colours, mechanics and sounds of Tetris, you simply cannot return to a time before experiencing them. Your life becomes forever ‘post-Tetris’, however meaningless that may seem. As a player, you receive a stream of information from which you learn, and it is this knowledge which changes your being.
II. GAME EXPERIENCES PLAYER
You are a player, not a spectator. Just as information flows from the game code to the player, so does information flow from the player to the game code. The ability to change the course of a gameplay, even if slight or subtle, means that one cannot play the same game twice. Every game is therefore unfinished, and can be completed only with the information sent by the player. In this sense, the video game, too, undergoes a process from which it cannot leave unchanged. The video game experiences the player, just as the player experiences the game. There are two ways in which the game learns from the player: [a] input and [b] catalogue.
II. [a] INPUT
Input is the way information is sent manually by the player via keyboard or controller. Perhaps the most common form of input is WASD for computer-gaming or the analogue-stick for the console. Player input serves as a direct interchange of information between you and the game. It enables the player to respond to situations and challenges put forth by it. The gameplay changes according to the player’s input. It is the double-jump, side-step, the barrel roll.
II. [b] CATALOGUE
It is wrong to think the game learns only through input. We must remember that the game is played through a machine. The machine usually has a catalogue of stored data. Modern technology allows the machine to access a web of information, where all machines are interconnected, and player data can be shared ceaselessly. If the creator is competent enough, the game may access the machine’s data catalogue to receive boundless information about the player or other players, or any other aspect of reality. This is information that the player has not necessarily input into the machine, but rather data that is retrieved through other means. The game may learn about the weather in your location, your Steam avatar, or your birthday.
III. PSYCHO MANTIS
Psycho Mantis is a memorable character from the Metal Gear Solid franchise. In a famously haunting scene, Psycho Mantis proclaims himself “the most powerful practitioner of Psycho-Telekinesis in the world” and lists the games you have played in the past, which are saved on the memory card. It is a fitting example of player-game intimacy. The game has learnt from the player by accessing the catalogue of data stored in the machine.
I am not concerned whether we define the relationship between player and game as dialectical, reciprocal or multilateral. What is most important is that the relationship becomes intimate. Intimacy is the pouring of hearts; it is a feeling of comfort when exposed. An intimate game exposes both the player and the game for what they are: flesh and machine. The realisation of antithesis between game and player is contrasted with the earlier fact that, through their reciprocal transformations, they were one in the same. With all the to and fro of information, with the player changed by the game and the game by the player, the boundaries between them disintegrate to dust. But when the game exposes itself as a soulless binary code, the player then exposes themselves as a soulless organism. It is this realisation of binarism which creates intimacy.
V. EXPOSING THE GAME AS MACHINE
Arguably, there is no such thing as the fourth wall in video games. However, there are those games which make the breaking of the fourth wall more apparent. The most intimate act by the machine is to expose itself as nothing but a machine. It is from this point of apparent soullessness that the intimacies between player and game can begin. Exposed as a machine, the game can no longer keep up the illusion of being solely an object to be observed. It exposes itself as an observer. Confronting the machine, the player realises that they too are being observed.
VI. EXPOSING THE PLAYER AS FLESH
As players, we tend to think of ourselves as voyeurs. However, once the machine realises it is being observed, then the observer becomes visible. Once the machine exposes itself as machine then the illusion of voyeurism ends. Through this exposure, the gaze of the player becomes conspicuous, and the game now speaks directly to the flesh. The game becomes an observed observer, a subjectified object which gazes right back at the player, who is now an objectified subject. The player becomes aware of their inputs and data catalogued in the machine, and the ability of the game to learn of them.
The potential intimacy between game and player has been barely pondered on. The Beginner’s Guide is a good example of a game cleverly exposing itself as machine and acknowledging the player as a human observer. This realisation is what made the game stand out and affect the players in such a peculiar way. However, UNDERTALE and Pony Island perform the exposure in a much more convoluted way. Toby Fox’s UNDERTALE thrives on exposing the player as being both an observing subject and an observed object. The intimacy fans feel for this game is precisely based on the mutual exposure of the game and player. Pony Island, interestingly, uses a Hamlet-esque ‘game-within-a-game’ to expose the machine. The dissection of the “inner-game” by the player inevitably leads to the exposure of the game itself, and consequently, to the exposure of the player as flesh.
VIII. CONCLUSION ON THE SOUL
It may seem counterintuitive to claim that it is the realisation that it is a machine that makes the relationship intimate. It seems too easy to assume that the illusion held by the game is more intimate than wires and numbers. The realisation that it is a soulless machine should surely shatter any sense of intimacy. After all, is intimacy not the exposure of the soul? This is a foolish idea of intimacy. There is no soul to expose. It is the realisation that the machine is machine and flesh is flesh that gives the player a sense of self. It is only with this dichotomy that the player can distance themselves and feel exposed, fully as themselves, their self no longer intertwined with the game. To be exposed by a machine which has changed your being and taken you from reality as a soulless, perpetually malleable and unfinished organism – that is intimacy. To be reminded you are flesh.