Together with titles such as Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series and The Last of Us: Part One, Horizon: Zero Dawn (H:ZD) and God of War (GoW) have been lauded as the pinnacle of videogames as an artistic medium, joining what has largely been described as fun gameplay, impressive realistic graphics and convincing narrative, all masterfully assembled into absolute masterpieces. Fans of these franchises have marvelled at how their preferred medium had finally “made it” and how undeniable it was that videogames were an art form.
My own reception has been much less positive. For a long time after finishing these games I struggled with a certain disappointment that was hard to explain. I could not truly argue with most of the praise: H:ZD’s plot had many interesting moments and, though it wasn’t uniformly great, its writing quality far surpassed that of other action-adventure titles. In short, the game follows Alloy, an outcast from a religious tribe who inhabit an Earth far into the future after a catastrophe almost wiped out all organic life. This new world is inhabited not only by humans and other animals, but also by machines of unknown origins whose designs often mimic organic beings such as deer, tigers and crabs. I would often force myself to walk more slowly when running from one objective to another to bask in the lush natural scenery or would delay an attack to observe the intricate designs of the machines that roamed the world. The gameplay, in my opinion its weakest point, was less entrancing — especially as it forced me to constantly murder fellow human beings whose generic videogame baddy design and behaviours paled in comparison to the mystery of the machines — but nevertheless still solid enough not to be a hassle. And yet, I felt earnestly and completely unmoved once the final credits rolled in. I immediately tried playing the game once again, thinking that this new playthrough would allow me to experience the world deeply, savouring its hidden flavours which my rush in seeing the story to its end might have prevented me from appreciating. It was a failed attempt, abandoned a few hours in.
Months passed and God of War, the unnumbered fourth game in the franchise of the same name, was released. The game was created not exactly as a reboot, since most of the events of the previous installments seemed to remain canonical, but as a re-evaluation of the series and its main character, Kratos. The protagonist, the eponymous god of war who had violently murdered the majority if not the whole pantheon of Greek gods in spectacular and gruesome battles, was now portrayed as a taciturn and severe man, quietly walking around scandinavian forests whilst grieving the loss of his wife and struggling to educate their son on his own. His quest, this time, was a far departure from the past unrestrained gluttony of revenge: instead of destroying gods who had wronged him, Kratos simply wished to fulfil his late wife’s wishes and scatter her ashes from the highest mountain in all the realms. This of course still leads the story into inevitable violence, but this time around it is more calculated and, even, mature. Setting aside players’ expectations of brutal combat, it does not feel impossible to consider an alternative version of the game in which Kratos would have happily fulfilled his quest without any bloodshed. This narrative was, much like in H:ZD, presented masterfully, pushing the boundaries of the medium both in the physical capabilities of the Playstation 4 console and in pure cinematography prowess, as the majority of the game is shown in a single sequence, with barely one cut for the twenty or so hours of the main story.
My feelings upon finishing the game were pretty much the same as with H:ZD. The credits rolled in and I, somewhat bored, wondered how the final reveals would develop in the inevitable sequel. Once again, I felt thoroughly unmoved by a game that, if it had been faithfully described to me, would have made me want to play it immediately. I engaged with some of the post-game content, but, as expected, my feelings towards God of War did not change in the slightest. To this day, nearly two years after its release, I only deign it attention because of the mark it has undeniably left on the gamer culture at large — if it were not for others constantly mentioning it, posting screenshots, fan art and memes, I would possibly have forgotten the experience altogether.
Here it was, the moment in which this infant medium was finally climbing towards a more serious and respectable position, and yet it felt largely unsatisfactory. I believe this is all connected to the much vaunted golden standard of games ideally becoming “cinematic experiences”.
Alexander Galloway writes that the defining aspect of videogames is that they are representative of the logic of our society of control, which is to say, of the logic of informatic control. In short, our world is now defined by an effort of rendering every aspect of existence quantifiable and, thus, calculable: happiness, love, inequality, fitness, the flows of capital and carbon and their effects, all are treated as if they could be properly measured and that these measurements were unambiguously useful in understanding reality. This logic also manifests itself in the perception that the world, the brain and life are all processes that are fundamentally the same as a computer algorithm and could potentially be expressed in the same language — meaning, the logical structures and clauses of programming. Indeed, the only reason preventing us from being able to do so right now is the difference in degrees of complexity. A simple program can perhaps depend on one conditional statement (if a certain thing is true, do this; otherwise, do that); life, according to this view, is nothing more than an extremely complex program with many orders of magnitude more statements. According to Galloway, the videogame, a rule-based medium which can indeed only exist through the logic of the algorithm, is the most direct representation of this worldview.
The moment one starts playing a videogame coincides with the beginning of the game’s main algorithm and each decision follows a specific, previously designed pathway: if the player moves the cursor over “new game” and presses X, start a new game; while the player presses the O button, fire; if the player doesn’t do anything for 10 seconds, start idle animation. The same logic applies to everything else that the game displays — bugs and glitches notwithstanding. No matter how sophisticated, everything a player interacts with has been created by either a human or a specialised program and can only exist within the game as something quantifiable and calculable.
Jaroslav Švelch shows this in one specific realm, that of the monstrous: the monster, which traditionally embodies that which we cannot understand and that negates our agency, becomes a rule-based entity with knowable limits and actions. The monster is no longer mysterious and unpredictable. It has become a database, a collection of arbitrarily chosen and organised data. The mythical dragon, sometimes a creature of otherworldly cunning, sometimes a ferocious beast, sometimes a representation of our sins, becomes a game object with a fixed amount of HP, patterns of behaviour, vulnerabilities and so on. From awe-inspiring creature whose very existence highlights the frailty of humanity, the dragon is turned into a computer-controlled adversary who can be beaten by simply following the rules and issuing the correct commands. No matter how fiendishly difficult, the monster becomes a knowable quantity that follows specific patterns of attack and has ultimately been designed to be beaten, often in fairly specific ways.
All games must deal with this logic and its consequences — a medium is defined perhaps less by its capabilities than by its limitations. In the same way cinema must struggle with the fact that it is not suited to expose a character’s internal turmoil on-screen, written fiction will always struggle to present a description of a scene that can be as vivid as an image of that same scene.
One logical consequence of this drive to reduce everything to calculable data is that everything in a game must be constructed. Differently from cinema, which can easily use already-existing elements as they are from the real world, and from written fiction, which must create its elements but can make do with extremely vague suggestions of these elements, videogames require that each object be created from scratch in exhaustive detail, from its appearance to its behaviour to its position in the world to the very conditions of its existence. Seen from this perspective, videogames enforce the creation of a world in all its aspects. There are no givens, no pre-existing conditions or rules in games (something which can also be seen in the diversity of the works in the medium) besides the fact that everything must be artificially created from scratch and that this creation must be made in such a way it can be used by an algorithm. A tree is not a tree and a dragon is not a dragon; both are collections of 3D models, collider detectors or other variables and functionalities depending on the exact function they have in-game.
It must be said that this applies only to varying degrees to most games, depending on their genre (a simulation game such as Civilization V will tend to need much more sophisticated algorithms and behaviours than a walking simulator) and the style and type of graphics they choose (realistic 3D games tend to have much more complex models than games that use only pixel art sprites). Furthermore, one should not underestimate the practical constraints that come into play when making games and that the illusion of complex and rich behaviour trumps actual complex and rich behaviour. Much like in any other medium, tricks and hacks are used to reach the desired outcome. One particularly entertaining example are the trains in Fallout 3 being computer-controlled characters with giant, train-shaped helmets that walk along predefined routes as the logic necessary for actual trains was incompatible with the constraints of that particular game’s development. That is to say, elements in a game are always artificial simplifications that tend to be only as complex as necessary. A tree might be its own object with growth patterns and such in one game, but only a few static pixels in the background of another.
In 1964, the art critic and theorist Susan Sontag worked on a definition of a specific sensibility, defined above all by its “theatricalisation of experience” and its rampant artificiality which is nevertheless seen as unambiguously good. First of all, camp is intimately connected to homosexual and queer culture and it is hardly a coincidence that some of its biggest ambassadors such as Oscar Wilde and Divine were, respectively, a gay man and a drag queen. This is theorised by both Sontag and, more recently, Brian M. Peters and Bruce E. Drushel as representative of camp lending itself as a subversive strategy by which underprivileged social subjects reinvent and represent themselves in order to attain some form of visibility and shared language that is usually denied to them by the hegemonic order. This not to say that camp is always gay or queer: the stilted dialogues and acting of Pink Flamingos is camp; Bruce LaBruce’s L.A. Zombie porn is camp; likewise, the garbs worn by the higher echelons of the catholic church are camp; death metal’s lyrics of gore so extreme it becomes hilarious is camp; Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo’s cartoonish violence is camp. Camp is hard to define with any degree of precision and there is no checklist which one might consult as to define whether something belongs to it or not, but nevertheless, camp seems to rest upon an earnest love for that which is clearly staged and exaggerated. The aesthetic of camp emphasises excess and what can be construed as “low culture”, something that often pins it completely inside that which is tasteless and vulgar. It deals with and thrives in media, subjects and imagery which can offend for either its crassness, its poor quality or both, loving instead of judging them for their flaws. Camp values artifice and style to the detriment of content, being particularly fond of that which is both completely fake and presented in absolute earnestness, such as an Art Nouveau lamp or, to use a more recent example, the skeuomorphic interfaces of early phone apps like the iOS Notes. Both are offered with a certain seriousness and naïveté: “this is a note-taking app, so we use lines and a font that looks like chalk or pencil, just like a physical notebook!” The quaintness of the presentation does not, however, see any problem with the clearly counterfeit nature of the object — indeed, if anything, it celebrates it.
Videogames, from this perspective, can be construed as essentially camp, as objects that are vulgar, artificial and whose value is intrinsically tied to that vulgarity and artificiality. This is not to say that all games benefit from being read as camp, nor that such a perspective can in any way exhaust all the potential for analysis and critique of a game, but, rather, that camp can be useful in highlighting the artificiality of games as both intrinsic and valuable.
The text adventure Zork puts us in the position of a nameless adventurer in the Great Underground Empire who seeks the Twenty Treasures of Zork and must, for that end, confront monsters like the photophobic grue, often using the contraptions of a monopolistic conglomerate named FrobozzCo International. A few coloured blocks are presented to us as an Italian plumber who lives in a fungal kingdom and battles turtles who have kidnapped a princess. Another set of coloured blocks, we are told, are Blaze, a police officer and martial artist who fights crime by punching countless thugs into either unconsciousness or death, sometimes calling reinforcements armed with bazookas, sometimes projecting blue flames from her hands. And lest we be tempted to think that these are the products of a medium in its infancy, Nathan Drake, the semi-criminal relic hunter of the Uncharted series, murders dozens of other, slightly more criminal relic hunters in the span of a few hours, without being shot any time except, perhaps, during special, scripted events. These are frivolous narratives that either consciously avoid any sort of “serious” argument or wrap them in so much melodrama that they cannot for a moment expect to be taken seriously. And yet they do ask us to be serious about them and dedicate resources and time to take part in these worlds that are often hilariously counterfeit.
Be it from a graphical, mechanical or narrative perspective, videogames have, from their inception, been immersed in conceits which could hardly be construed as serious or realistic at the same time they actually asked the player to take them seriously within the diegesis of the work. And, truth be told, the player often took them seriously outside it as well, something exemplified both by personal testimonies and the more recent phenomenon of acquiring non-mandatory items in-game by paying with real world currencies.
Some games are certainly more consciously camp than others, such as the Bayonetta series in which an impossibly powerful and sex-positive witch manipulates her hair in order to make her own clothes and conjure demons, even finding the time to stage apocalyptic choreographies with her enemies on unlikely locations such as flying missiles and the kingdom of heaven. Others, instead, are innocently camp, like Rocket League, a game in which players control rocket-powered cars in a vehicular variant of football, trying to score goals with a metallic ball several times bigger than the cars themselves — something that could have easily arisen from an adolescent’s fever dream. Indeed, videogames seem to be pervaded by the feeling that “this is too much!” — mentioned as one of the marks of camp by Sontag — a sentence understood here in its most positive connotation, drenched with pure glee and pleasure.
Absurd and earnest narratives that, improbably, ask to be taken somewhat seriously and at face value are not the only trace of camp sensibility one can find in videogames. There is an element of delight and pure enjoyment, no doubt linked at least in part to the fact videogames are first and foremost games, that is, objects in which recreation trumps any and all other purposes. Furthermore, games, rightfully or not, are perceived as frivolous, vulgar things to which most of the higher emotions of human culture are simply out of reach: they are inconsequential playthings that could never be “worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists, and composers”, as written by famous film critic Roger Ebert when asked whether videogames could ever be art. Sontag herself notes how many things are in a sense “too good” or “too important” to be camp and that this sensibility depends, crucially, on a certain marginal status — something that might be partly the reason for its connection to gay and queer culture at large.
This leads us back to the two games mentioned in the first part of this text. God of War and, to a much lesser extent Horizon: Zero Dawn, maintain some of the camp excesses I mentioned. Kratos is still a comically strong being who manages to single-handedly raise a gigantic metal structure that absolutely dwarfs him in dimension. The game still invites you to bask in the bloodshed, lending a satisfying physicality to the game as the screen shakes after a powerful hit or prompts the player to initiate a finisher move which might see Kratos unmercifully splitting a demon in half with a single swing of his ax, ripping off a valkyrie’s wings bare-handed, or simply crushing a draughr’s skull under his boot. Perhaps one of the more cathartic moments of the game comes when the protagonist wields once again the Blades of Chaos, his emblematic weapon of choice for the previous installments of the series, and allows the player to ditch the precise blows of the Leviathan ax in order to become a whirlwind of unprejudiced destruction. This callback to earlier games, is, however, now rendered in grey and cold tones instead of the vibrant red and oranges from before. There are consequences to his bouts of anger and the god of war truly regrets some of his decisions. For most of the game he earnestly wishes to hide his presence and avoid the bickering of other gods. All Kratos wants is the space and time to grieve his dead wife and understand how to raise a child on his own.
Horizon: Zero Dawn’s Alloy, is a newer creation, as the game is so far a standalone title published in 2017. She holds no ties to a past of excesses and regret, differently from Kratos, and gives the player no cathartic exaggeration. Most of what she does (and that we do through her) is not terribly likely nor particularly believable, but is nevertheless always somewhat functional and balanced: H:ZD is defined more by a melancholic appreciation of nature and a reflection on the hubris of mankind than epic battles. We are constantly brought in contact with the mundane: if the player stops for a moment during the rain, Alloy raises her head and enjoys the refreshing shower; one of the (optional) goals is to find data points, audio logs, or more rarely, remnants of images that give fleeting gleams of the small details of the life of a past civilisation on the brink of collapse; she collects not only trophies from the machine-beasts she slays, but traces of her human predecessors, such as ancient vessels (coffee mugs), chimes (keychains), necklaces (pacemakers), charms (coins) and bright bracelets (wristwatches).
Both titles aim to be mature games, not in the sense that they necessarily approach adult themes, but in that the approach itself is reasoned, measured and responsible. Reckless glee is gone. Grief is messy and confused. Certain characters try to be more than stand-ins for a specific role or stereotype. Motion-captured facial expressions try to convey in a stare what once would be exaggerated, theatrical histrionics accompanied by several lines of dialogue. A win is often just pithy victory, for so much was lost along the way.
These stories do not take the player on a murderous spree for the sake of fun; they take the player on a murderous spree for the sake of important things and they want the player to acknowledge that, which might finally lead to the reason of my discomfort with those games. They seem to reflect a wish to bring videogames to their own maturity, without realising that they are submitting to a specific idea of maturity that mimics that of other media such as cinema. Like teenagers who want to be respected, they claim that their reckless past is behind them and that now they are serious, responsible adults who can talk about complex matters: like Kratos, they look back to their past and are filled with regret and disappointment. Also like Kratos, they are quick to set those concerns aside as soon as they hand the control back to the player. Alloy, with her both pragmatic and poetic disposition, goes very quickly from enjoying the summer rain to murdering twenty bandits by immolation, electrocution or an arrow to the head.
Much like the teenager who is found with a pornographic magazine and says they actually only read it for the articles, a game about the nature of grief and a game about the hubris of mankind are found with intricate battle systems that reward their players for using violence over any other alternative and try to convince those mechanics are about storytelling. The narrative becomes a schizophrenic union between touching cutscenes and unrestrained bloodshed which no amount of skilled writing and acting can hope to re-integrate into a cohesive whole.
It is irrelevant here whether that easy slip into sudden violence is problematic or not. The actual issue is the discrepancy between the narratives the games try to build with what constitutes the core of their gameplay. As much as they purport to be games about interesting stories, both invest the majority of their rules and algorithms in managing one single aspect: combat. Kratos’ range of facial expressions, as impressive as they may be, are dwarfed in number by the intricacy of animations of executions, dismemberment, attacks, dodges and special moves, both his and of the creatures he encounters.
H:ZD nor GoW are not more nor less artificial than many other games; both are as purely constructed and staged as any game one might be tempted to compare them with. Their difference is that they do not wear this artificiality proudly. Instead, they deny it and try to hide it behind technical feats and competent storytelling, losing the unrestrained and very much camp vitality and passion that characterised the medium since its inception.
One of the aspects of gaming that Galloway singled out as the most rich with potential was, in something that echoes Sontag’s comment on how camp depends on not being taken seriously, that they had not yet been raised to the status of a form of high culture and thus constituted a “beautifully undisturbed processing of contemporary life”. By denying the legitimacy of the outrageous aspects of the interaction between their narratives and gameplay, H:ZD and GoW seem to be claiming acceptance into so-called high culture, unaware that perhaps what videogames have to offer is indeed their camp outrageousness.
To be clear, this is not a negative judgement on either violent games or games that try to approach serious subjects in a serious manner, nor is it a nostalgic call-to-arms to the return of the simpler games of yore. It is, instead, a claim to embrace the idiosyncrasies of videogames as the medium evolves — idiosyncrasies which, if the past record of the medium is of any indication, seem to be tied or at least deeply indebted to a certain exaggeration and frivolity which should be celebrated instead of fought against in a misguided quest for a specific form of maturity. As much as the medium might share with cinema, it is not cinema and certainly not only cinema with interaction added and the evolution of one needs not mirror the path taken by the other. Whatever shape games might take in the future, I sincerely hope it is not only “cinema, but make it so I get to press F to pay my respects”.
- Drushel, Bruce E, and Brian M Peters. 2017. Sontag and the Camp Aesthetic: Advancing New Perspectives.
- Ebert, Roger. n.d. ‘Video Games Can Never Be Art’. Accessed 20 May 2020. https://www.rogerebert.com/roger-ebert/video-games-can-never-be-art.
- Galloway, Alexander R. 2006. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. Electronic Mediations 18. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- LaBruce, Bruce. 2013. ‘Notes on Camp/Anti-Camp’. Nat. Brut, April 2013. http://www.natbrutarchive.com/essay-notes-on-campanti-camp-by-bruce-labruce.html.
- Sontag, Susan. 1978. Against Interpretation, and Other Essays. New York: Octagon Books.
- Švelch, Jaroslav. 2013. ‘Monsters by the Numbers: Controlling Monstrosity in Video Games’. In Monster Culture in the 21st Century: A Reader, 193–208. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.