On Irony and Praise in Videogames
In an essay on alcoholism and poetry, Lewis Hyde describes the repeated deployment of irony as “the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.” Quoting Hyde in “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” (1990), David Foster Wallace considers television’s appropriation of ironic, post-modern Attitude and wonders what it all means for the future of art and literature. The irony Hyde and Wallace discuss is a game of cynical one-ups-manship in which players compete to predict and deflect criticism. The crux of Wallace’s argument is that irony is often wielded as defense against a disdain that feels inevitable. In his analysis of Pepsi advertisements, endlessly self-referential sitcoms, and image fiction, Wallace points out that the ironist’s love for his cage is not only stifling, but hypocritical for its pretense of hate. The most entrenched ironist frequently indulges in contempt for society’s faults in order to mask a dependence on them, and for Wallace, this was becoming Western society’s MO.
We all know that advertisements are bullshit. Sophisticated ad companies know that we know. We like it when an ad acknowledges its own complicity, so a performance of self-awareness makes us more likely to purchase what the ad is selling. Because disdain is bad for business, ad companies fear our disdain, so, logically, irony must descend from a species of fear. The converse implication is that sincerity comes from a place of courage. Confusing the matter, ads can just as easily appropriate a persona of sincerity, and there’s a kind of sincerity underneath the fear that often predisposes us to ironic posturing. Such a fear can only exist because of the sincere desire to please an audience, a desire that most of us share with advertisements. This is one of the more interesting tensions in commercial art, which must contain something that serves the mission of advertising in order to succeed. The implication of all this, I think, is that unchecked irony can make art look like a sophisticated advertisement for itself.
The ironic worldview is more passé now than it was when Wallace wrote about it in 1990. In the past decade or so, once fashionable world-weariness has found its counterbalance in what some are calling the “New Sincerity,” which references a rising tendency towards unapologetic meaning and sentimentality in music and film, art and literature, citing artists like Frank Ocean and Vampire Weekend. In this think-piece, a college professor, presenting anecdotal evidence from the classroom, argues that millenials lack an appreciation for ironic humor. This argument strikes me as reductive. I think irony has become more complicated, cliché to the extent that it’s almost impossible to recognize. Even the backlash against irony is sort of vaguely impenetrable: What does “new sincerity” even mean? Is sincerity conscious or unconscious? Are the proponents of a “new sincerity” performing sincerity? In their writing? In their lives? Is an agenda of performed sincerity being projected onto certain artists? Is the performance of sincerity just irony folded in on itself?
What I find strange, in light of our supposed anti-irony cultural moment, is a kind of old-fashioned ironic conceit behind a number of recent critical darlings in the commercial videogame space. 2007's Bioshock and this year’s Bioshock: Infinite are both about the irony of expecting ‘meaningful choice’ to live in an artificial dome of technological and commercial constraints. Last year’s Spec Ops: The Line offers a grim alchemy of self-deprecation and preemptive disdain for its audience. The Grand Theft Auto series has always maintained a cool, dismissive cynicism beneath its gleefully absurd mayhem. These games frame choice as illusory and experience as artificial. They are expensive, explosive parodies of free will.
Even the genuinely charming and independently produced Little Inferno (developed by the ironically (?) branded Tomorrow Corporation) frames its experience with irony. In Little Inferno, you play as a child who never leaves the house. Most interaction with the outside world consists of purchasing toys from a catalogue only to burn them in your fireplace, an act which provides warmth, entertainment, and comfort in a snowy dystopian society. Eventually, Little Inferno concludes that player and fictional character must work together to escape from their self-inflicted, commercially enabled, escapism. The Tomorrow Fireplace, a warm, crackling complacency trigger, is the perfect corporate oppressor. In burning mail-order toys with a mail-order fireplace, you use a commercial object to liberate yourself from other commercial objects, purchasing new commercial objects only so that you may be liberated from them. For the player’s character, this artificial light and warmth, these mesmerizing flame physics, saltwater-like, intensify a thirst for light and life that is not artificial, but pure and free from technology. The experience Little Inferno provides is sincerely enjoyable, but the game implicates itself and, by proxy, the player as part of a cultural problem that needs solving.
The ironical attitudes in play here probably have something to do with videogames’ history of marginalization as cultural artifacts. There’s a backlash against this marginalization that is often projected as a desire for greater (sometimes wide-spread, sometimes high-brow) cultural relevance. In the past few years, everyone from pop critic Chuck Klosterman to game designer Warren Spector has lamented an assumed vacuum in games writing that must be filled by the *insert-fav-critic-here (usually Roger Ebert)* of videogame criticism. Spector insists that Games Criticism needs to be in “magazines you could buy on the newsstand,” so “normal people” can read it. As this essay eloquently points out, when Spector refers to “normal people,” he’s actually looking for the approval of a very specific group: “upper middle class baby boomers.” This frustrated yearning for bourgeois approval forms the backdrop of storytelling ambitions in modern commercial games.
One potential response to this demand for cultural legitimacy is for game authors to express a sanctimonious contempt for problematic components of games that have been reproduced for decades, such as misogynist portrayals of women, gratuitous violence, or addictive reward structures. The third video in Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs Women in Videogames series points out how ironic depictions of the “Damsel in Distress” actually work to reinforce the harmful trope and preserve the status quo. Storytelling games seem particularly susceptible to the seductions of self-effacement because of an augmented dramatic irony embedded in their existence. Not only does the audience, or in this case the player, know things that the character doesn’t, the player can often make the character do things she might not realistically want to do. Violence is the overwhelming standard for interaction in videogames, and even if a game allows for a pacifist approach, and the player elects not to murder as many people as possible (to play ‘in character’ as it were), she still plays with the knowledge that she, to a limited extent, can usurp the character’s personality any time she chooses. What many refer to as “ludonarrative dissonance,” the idea that a game is not saying what it means or meaning what it says because its story layer is undermined by its game mechanics (or vice versa), is another kind of irony. Dramatic irony is subtly different from the irony of not meaning, in that dramatic irony is more about secrets between player and author of which the characters are unaware. These two ironies can exaggerate one another; in tandem, their deliberate deployment can contribute to a domineering nudge-nudge wink-wink sort of presentation.
Nothing You Have Done Deserves Such Praise is a gorgeous title for a game. Like Little Inferno, Nothing is not just pretty, but genuinely beautiful. As does Spec Ops: The Line, Nothing praises the player ironically. Nothing would look good on a glossy Macbook centered on a clean table surrounded by blank gallery walls. On the screen, static grey areas become blossoming flora or flocks of birds or glittery explosions. The backdrop is a biological, limbic cityscape, populated with animated videogame tropes and abrasive text, a messy digital collage. There are no obstacles or enemies, but jumping feels interesting. As you progress, gravity and friction shift from oppressive, like walking against an escalator, to vertiginous, like bouncing on the moon. Cursor-like arrows and protozoan blobs follow you, and if you stop, they circumnavigate your avatar as if it were their sun. Meanwhile the game praises, relentlessly, through voiceovers and onscreen text, every inane little thing you do. As you leisurely traverse the screen, a voice (presumably the author’s) confesses, “I’m coughing because of how amazing you are,” one among dozens of dry exclamations of similar sentiment. The humor is sometimes spot on, but it feels like it’s there to deflect the attention away from something cynical. This game is drenched in an irony that might appeal to people who play a lot of games, but potentially alienate an audience that doesn’t. Nothing positions the videogame as a kind of anesthetic that distracts us from our feelings of IRL inadequacy.
On her blog Infinite Lives, Jenn Frank observes that Nothing’s thesis applies beyond meta videogame commentary: “Especially in the educational system, but also in the workplace, students and underlings who conform are also rewarded: for falling in line; for showing up on time; for jumping when they are supposed to jump; for completing life in the ‘right’ ‘order.’” Though I agree, I think that Nothing suffers from focusing its reticle so directly on other achievement-saturated videogames (see excessive high scores, repetitive coin-gathering, reaper-like wizards, etc.). Its presentation excludes those who aren’t in on the joke. In addition, Nothing exhibits a self-deprecating awareness of its imagined perception as just another artsy platforming game, a descriptor that has become decidedly pejorative. The title implies something uplifting, but once played, the name thuds with a weary cynicism. The problem with this kind of effusive, parodic praise is that it suggests the game has already given up on itself and the player.
I worry that my analysis of these games sounds naively cynical, which I guess is the exact thing I’m critiquing. I am also nervous that readers will think I’m saying that irony is the most prevalent worldview among gamemakers, which I don’t believe is the case. For one thing, irony is useful for breaking down conventions; it can be an appropriate tool for dealing with the medium’s adolescent, exclusive, misogynist, racist history. For another, there are so many examples of sincere expression in games (see Cart Life, Dwarf Fortress, anything by Michael Brough, anything by Christine Love, and every recent hypertext work that I can think of) that I wouldn’t know where to begin or end. I do believe, however, that games which offer heavy doses of irony, in the form of self-and-player effacement, tend to claim a disproportionate amount of the critical conversation. Irony is an established marker of high culture, and it is often the games that are best at marketing their own importance that we feel most obligated to talk about and recommend.