The Ugly Monster
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The Ugly Monster

Video Games | Media Analysis

The Player/Proxy Paradigm

There was a moment in 2017’s Nier: Automata where I realized you could kill the enemies of the game without any provocation. That I could enter a village of harmless little machines and murder them all should I choose to. I could even get a trophy for it!

That I would encounter this offering again and again — that I could ignore enemies that attacked me and shoot straight past them or engage them knowing I’d win — became a defining feature of my initial playthrough. In the beginning I tended to sprint by them because I was eager to see the story play out and didn’t find them much worth it. But by the end, fueled by the voracious hatred of the character I was playing as, I found myself choosing to actively fight the ones that attacked me even knowing that I could simply bypass them. My proxy had already decided their answer and by playing as him so had I. After all that had happened in this story, after all that I had been through, had learned, had been shown — what was the point in doing anything else?

Whoa, I thought halfway through tossing my sword at a little hopping machine, is this really how I want to play the game?

It has been seen that reading can improve social skills. By seeing the motivations, characterizations, and actions taken by fictional others, we can come to a new understanding about our own social condition. A scientific study regarding reading’s affect on the mind measured the neural activators that correlated with those traditionally associated with empathetic triggers. The study concluded that reading fictional passages with vivid descriptions and higher philosophical foundations “recruits the default network because it elicits at least two distinct types of simulation: the simulation of vivid physical scenes and the simulation of people and minds.” This means that reading fiction triggers neural system responses.

When we engage in fictional spaces and the characters that inhabit them, we tend to call it being “transported” or “taken away” from ourselves. Likewise, we use the word escapism to encapsulate that particular feeling of mental travel into the figurative shoes of another. But the study also made another point . It isn’t just that reading itself is an act of empathetic regulation because if we aren’t invested in the story or characters we’re far less likely to be drawn into their struggles. It concludes that “immersion into and simulation of the mental and emotional lives of the characters may be the mechanism of change.”

Ultimately, we have to care.

What fictional properties do, whether grounded in reality or not, is let us explore emotions and situations that we may not organically receive, through the thoughts and actions of fictional others — who, in turn, serve as proxies for their creators’ intentions, experiences, and designs.

But what of movies or video games? Dance, musicals, stage shows? The spectacle of the stage, the set pieces that allow us to transcend our current surroundings and be transported into the world before us — these visual aids are meant to more immediately exacerbate our suspension of disbelief in a way that mimics the internal creation we share with reading, except we don’t cast the characters — we watch them as they are.

According to a 2015 study regarding reaction to artful television “…just as novels vary in how challenging, subtle, and narratively and socially complex they are, so, too, do screen media, and a variety of scholars have argued that a subset of narratively complex television, sometimes called ‘art television,’ is the television equivalent of art cinema or literary fiction.”

“…the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. If it’s a great movie, it lets you understand a little bit more about what it’s like to be a different gender, a different race, a different age, a different economic class, a different nationality, a different profession, different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us. And that, to me, is the most noble thing that good movies can do and it’s a reason to encourage them and to support them and to go to them.” — Roger Ebert

This study also goes on the to state that the social watching of television — that is viewing movies or shows in groups settings — might facilitate more dynamic discussions on scenes, characters, and interpretations, and therefor more pathways for empathetic interactions. One of the downfalls of this study’s approach is that it largely explores reactions to television shows that are critically and casually acclaimed. Much as with the study on empathy in reading, this one carries the sentiment that “literary” forms of any given media are usually more cognitively well-regarded and difficult to easily emotionally parse than their less venerable peers, therefor eliciting more empathy or emotional reaction given their complexity.

Which — yes, absolutely. But as cited before in the fiction study, we as viewers have to form an attachment to these characters to really go through the emotional gauntlet with them. That can happen whether or not the property they’re from is considered genuinely literary. While a relationship with a fictional heroine may not necessarily qualify as a traditionally parasocial relationship — which, according to Oxford, refers largely to the perceived one-side friendships between celebrities and fans — there is a level of reverence and sometimes deep care there that extends beyond the boundaries of simply watching creations “be”.

In a way, people engaging in media properties that aren’t decidedly intellectually niche or art house (i.e. the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Witcher, Harry Potter) form even stronger attachments to characters. These stories would be what the publishing world calls “high concept” — stories conceived with a simplistic hook and easily summarized plot. These differ from “low concept” stories, which have narrative pieces that are more difficult to easily distill (think Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow) and are thus subject to more critical examination. But that’s an argument for another day. The point is that both highly literary works and more mainstream creations can, I believe, elicit the same responses if, in the latter case especially, we care enough about the characters.

When we form attachments to the characters involved in the stories we’re interacting with, it feels a bit like we know them, and they tend to live rent-free in our heads and hearts as we progress through the narrative world alongside them. But with the exception of films such as Black Mirror’s “Bandersnatch” — which allows the viewer to choose their own version of the film, so to speak — there is very little movies or books can do that give us autonomy in their worlds. While this arguably allows us greater access to character motivations as separate from ourselves, shaping us for that empathetic understanding, it can also create a bit of a divide: we aren’t them, can’t decide for them, and can only watch them play out their story.

Yet video games — particularly games that are heavily story-focused — tend to marry autonomy with narration. They give us full or ranged control of the environments and character decisions, placing us in the shoes of a particular avatar to experience the story. In some ways we exist between the “I” of our experience and the “they” of that character’s, especially one that isn’t meant to serve, necessarily, as a stand-in for the player.

In this sense, we’re writing the story with them. The brush we’re holding to canvas is being guided, yes, but we are the ones that choose to take the next stroke. It’s the closest thing to replicating real-world decision making that we have.

All Your Feels Are Belong To Us

We all know the reputation that tends to coalesce around video games: they make kids violent. And while this is a thorny subject that has its roots in social theory, there are plenty of scientific articles that actively denounce such accusations and discuss the limitations and factors that contribute to its staying power within the context of national security. Popular media consumers unaligned with the the broader world of gaming mostly found out about gaming’s subcultures within this context, but despite the fact that APA is somehow still doubling-down on their controversial stance, gaming has never been more popular.

If we go back far enough to find the origins of games, we usually wind up with an answer in the oft-lauded Pong, but the actual synthesis of gaming culture dates back to the 1930s — specifically the world’s fair in New York in 1939, where a machine called a Nimatron allowed a player to go up against a very rudimentary digital computer in the mathematical strategy game Nim. (There is some discussion of the use of very early technology in the early 1900s during war time, but the application isn’t really conducive to the conversation of gaming as a medium of storytelling — just an invention driven by war.) In the 1950s, games were sometimes used to demonstrate technological advances, and in the 1970’s there is the monumental rise of arcades, moving quickly into development of a home console system.

The evolution of video games is vast and there are a plethora of detailed essays that break it down better than I do. But the core here is that gaming has evolved beyond the scope of simple spectacle into a medium capable of telling complex and rich stories. The foundations are the same, but the direction has evolved. This became apparent to me as a child during my exploration of the Jak series of games. What began as a relatively easy-to-pick-up platformer with memorable character designs and a fun open world became a gritty, vanilla Grand Theft Auto city explorer with guns and tattooed rebels bent on destroying a despotic police force. The platforming was the lure at first, but eventually, and especially during Jak III, the story became more of a focal point.

In a fascinating essay by author “t.” that discusses the ongoing climate of game critiquing and its place within the distinguished echelons of cultural examination, we can see how far video games have come in both mainstream and academic spaces. The aforementioned essay, Cinematic Games: Video Games and the Shadow of Cinema, describes the current status of analysis as such:

In brief, there is on-going dialogue over the place of conventional narrative in games and their appeal as an object of study — to some, these narratives represent an appealing place of examination for their socio-cultural valence and, as all artifacts of culture, deserve analysis. Others disagree, and see this over-emphasis on studying conventional narrative structures as ignoring and de-prioritizing the uniqueness of games and their possibilities. Interactivity and structural game design set the medium apart from others, such as film and literature, so focusing on narrative comes with the risk of making games derivative and de-specified from other mediums. “Cinema envy” here is used to describe the latter group’s critique of scholar’s desire to talk about games in the way others talk about films.

The idea that gaming itself — as an act — is part of the experience of the whole, can be seen as competing with the prevalence of character-driven works that might be seen as “robbing” games of their initial purpose, which is in the play itself. Hence the employment of the term “cinema envy” as a way to demonstrate the evolution of games wanting to be more like movies.

If we look, historically, at the evolution of video games, gameplay stands as the tantamount reason that we engage in games in the first place. It’s what separates the medium from other forms of media and what cultivates its continued evolution. Even as I sit here and discuss the finer philosophical points of Nier: Automata or the lovely and casual Hades, they both exist as gaming mechanisms with all of the caveats that entails. They each play differently, with core mechanics that help highlight what is and is not important within the context of the game’s created world, but there is still a core component of incentivisation within them that relies on collectibles, crafting, leveling, upgrading, and defeating enemies.

Without these longstanding tenements to gaming — most of which are still being challenged and explored — it might seem like there is little separating games from books of movies. For some studios that’s almost the point. Games like Heavy Rain and Detroit: Become Human, both made by the same developer, focus almost entirely on choices made by the player and have very little in the way of leveling or getting items. There are checkpoints and ways to navigate the world, but they are confining compared to the open-world sprawl of Witcher III or Skyrim. There’s a reason for that.

The original games that we often see in the nostalgic depictions of arcades and clunky computers still told stories: the complexity of Super Mario’s level design was still tied to the fact that our eponymous hero had a princess to save. Without that narrative incentive, the game would function simply as a vessel for us to challenge ourselves and our reaction times. But adding in elements of design, adding music, adding an individualized journey — they create space for novelty in the player’s mind.

No longer are gamers mindlessly navigating mazes in order to eat cherries and avoid ghosts —although there are definitely some more indie side-scrollers replicating that experience — there are stakes and tension in dramatic narratives. Music and character design and world-building all work to create depth or, at the very least, spectacle beyond the measure of simple ingenuity. As we move closer to realism and the fluidity of our technology allows us to change the look of games, we come closer to creating what amounts to movies that you can play. Cinema envy, certainly, but with the ability to explore the world we see.

The meteoric rise of gaming’s popularity has only exacerbated the fervor of the conversation around it as a medium. Does gaming deserve to be analyzed at that level? Does it need to be? And, most importantly, if we do decide to include gaming as a reflection of our artistic greats, does it have to bear the burden that literature and more recently cinema have acquired when it comes to lifting the human experience up and displaying it for us to unfold and explore?

Namely — does gaming have to do anything more than entertain us? Should it?

In an article that was published in Wired in 2018, there was an argument made that gaming should not have to be forced into such an emotional zeitgeist because they ultimately can’t teach us something as complex as empathy.

Games are imaginative spaces, and imagination is fodder for empathy — picturing another person as being as wholly human as yourself, with struggles that matter, is an important part of becoming empathetic. But games can’t teach, or even develop, that. An empathy game can make you cry, but it can’t make you care. That’s up to you.

This is something explored in depth by Amanda Lange in her essay You’re Just Gonna Be Nice”: How Players Engage With Moral Choice Systems. In the essay she analyzes games that follow a moral binary of play. A good path or an evil path, in the likes of Fable, or those with more morally grey decision making measures, such as in Bioshock, Skyrim, and Grand Theft Auto. The presence of these systems of alignment have much to do with the nature of the structure of gaming itself — the oft-discussed theater of personal fantasy.

Moral objections that cause a termination of play seem to be a minority opinion among participants. 56 percent of responders said they never had a situation where they refused to commit an act in a game. Many participants were adamant that evil acts remain in games. They relish the opportunity to do bad. “It’s a game… not reality. The decision I take [sic] in the game have no impact on my life,” said one such response. 31 percent of respondents claimed to never have felt any guilt about an act they committed in a video game.

The essay goes on to show that most people do play nice, choosing not to explore their darker impulses until a second playthrough, or choosing not to engage in them at all. The presence of these systems of alignment are due to the incentivisation element of gaming taken to a narrative extreme: would you kill this man for money in real life? Of course not. But in a game world? Anything goes. The absolute tyranny of death in the likes of the Assassin’s Creed series can feel almost dispassionate because you know these deaths are inconsequential, are just pixels on a screen. The goons are fun to kill because there are no real faces attached to them, no real punishment for the action, and the entire game is based around the stealthiness of our assassin protagonists.

And therein lies the key difference that separates games from movies or books or music — they have a functionality. There is an understanding between player and creator on what, exactly, is being produced. Games like the Far Cry and Dragon Age series intertwine freedom of exploration with character development, urging players to both conquer obstacles and interact with the story. It is escapism at its finest.

Holly Green of Paste magazine discusses this as such:

While our personal values play a factor in our satisfaction, how we act in games has more to do with how we view ourselves and our impact in the real world, rather than arbitrary adherence to rules and social order for their own sake.

Games that give us freedom to choose a path simply reinforce our own ideals. We play these fictionalized characters to get away from ourselves, even if it’s not too far from ourselves, to see what we can do behind the controller, through the eyes of someone we’ll never be. Or, in some cases, someone we want to be.

There’s a term for the idea of putting yourself into a novel that’s garnered a…bit of a reputation throughout the years. It’s called the self-insert, and it’s often derided as a lower form of writing all too prevalent in fan fiction and currently saturating the YA market. And while I find this line of thinking a bit disingenuous — considering Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut is widely seen as a self-insert and a metafictional masterpiece — I understand where it’s coming from. We like to see ourselves in stories. We really do, and reading about characters vastly different than us can be more taxing.

The reason I bring this up is that video games have inherently been things of easy self-insertion. Before the narrative folklore arcade games held, there were more simple pursuits of gameplay that offered little in pure relatability but were rather open canvases of personal experience. As games developed characters, they became vessels of player action and little more. Even as gaming evolved with the advent of the home console, it retained a sense of playful anonymity.

The silent eponymous protagonist in 2001's Jak and Daxter is a prime example of the player-insert — it was assumed that most kids playing video games at the onset of the 2000s were boys, so the protagonist has to fit into that default sort of frame. The same can be said of Pokemon Red & Blue, all the way up until Pokemon Crystal — which featured the first playable female protagonist in the series. These little sprites and avatars were meant to represent us in the broadest possible strokes.

The customization of Dragon Age and Fable offer you a way to really build yourself into the story. The first-person perspective of Bioshock further distances us from the personhood of our main protagonist — we know they’re a character with wants and needs, but those are thinly veiled enough that we can imagine ourselves in their shoes and we spend the whole game making moral decisions for them, without having to know their opinion of which path to take.

The revelations from the studies above focus largely on this moral binary presented in games, the decision-making standards of players, and the expectations of customization.

But what of games that explore narrative without being tied solely to such individualized decision making? What of the games I’ve mentioned that rely explicitly on a linear story, with little incentive or means to make broad decisions on behalf of the character. Games where you are forced to engage in their particular view of the story, regardless of if you yourself might choose to do something else. In a stark contrast to the ideas presented in the likes of more customizable games, those that put you in the shoes of a particular character — not a nameless proxy of self-insertion — begin to unravel a different framework for understanding storytelling entirely.

Playing the Hero’s Journey

This section contains spoilers for The Last of Us: Part II, Final Fantasy XV, and Nier: Automata

Is it the writer’s responsibility to lead a reader to moral exploration through their art piece? Most would argue no (some would argue yes). The change we individually feel when we experience a piece of media that resonates with us is personal, organic, and can’t be forced or cultivated solely through experiencing said piece of entertainment alone — we are informed by our past experiences, our opinions, our needs and wants and ideals. But there can be an overlap in how media portrays and depicts particular ideas and how we as a society — or individual — view them. It definitely isn’t necessarily anyone’s responsibility to create mindful art, but do we have to understand the repercussions of the things that we create.

Because art has functionally changed how we view things.

Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, while being a resounding read in and of itself, also almost single-handedly saved the cathedral that serves as the lush scaffolding of its tempestuous and tragic tale. If we claim that fictitious depictions of life, be they fantasy or simple embellishment, have little affect on the reality of things we dismiss the countless scientific successes that have been inspired by counterparts presented in fiction. Books have formed the bedrock for political movements and social change, such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle — a work of fiction which was more a reflection on the abuse of labor and the plight of immigrants than it was food safety — which depicted the meatpacking industry in such a sordid light that public and political sentiment lead to heavy industrial change. Charles Dickens’s depictions of life in Victorian England are so detailed and plentiful that historians continue to cite them as nearly first hand accounts.

Storytelling has long been a facet of life, something that scholars such as Joseph Campbell — who is largely credited with recognizing the universality of the Hero’s Journey — talks of often in his publications. Myth had informed reality, and vice versa. Stories offer us glimpses into the lives and ideas of the past, helps us contextualize our present, and project our hopes and fears into the future — all while speaking to the universality of human experience.

When games focus on the myth-making behind their stories and when they create narratives that we can explore and understand while also grounding us with a specific place in that narrative — it effectively funnels our focus to this particular character or this particular event. It asks us not what we want out of the game as a self-insert, but rather offers to take us through a personal journey of the character’s we’re set to play even if we can’t — and don’t want to — identify with them.

And this is why, for other myriad reasons as well, The Last of Us: Part II, was so controversial. The sequel to the critically acclaimed and beloved The Last of Us, the second game had much to live up to. I’m not going to discuss how or if it succeeded, but rather I want to discuss the most controversial story segment that left a lot of fans bitter: in the second act of the sequel, you effectively play as the villain. At least, she is who we, the audience interpret heavily as a villain — because she’s responsible for the murder of the character we spent the entire first game playing as.

Abby’s story is an exercise in using the player’s baggage as an outside participant against us. We’re taught from the off to hate this person. Not only does she viciously murder Joel by smashing in his skull with a golf club, but she does it after Joel literally saves her life from a swarm of infected. Furthermore, she’s the only playable character who wasn’t featured in the first game eight years prior. We have no attachment to this character, so trying to tell her story now, after all this, seems like too little too late. — Ollie Jones, The Last of Us: Part 2 is better for not giving players what they want | Why I Love at

In the essay quoted above, the author further goes on to praise the game’s exploration of Abby expressly because it’s such a bold and daring narrative risk. For some it paid off, for others it didn’t, but the calculated risk that The Last of Us: Part II took was in attempting to do something games have so often tried to veer away from: putting us in the shoes of people we hate, as well as forcing us to reconcile with our easy and passive dismissal of violence in gaming itself.

There were plenty of reviewers that found the gritty realism of The Last of Us: Part II almost too effective — in that killing enemies could result in the horrible outcries from friends who stumbled on their bodies, further exacerbating an experience that in most games is seen as a form of cathartic and necessary evil. But in exploring the effect of death on those we don’t know, the game paints a bigger picture on how art can help inform experience and how the discomfort of reality seeps into our fiction, no matter how we try to separate fact from it.

In going back to my initial anecdotal example of my playthrough of Nier: Automata — it wasn’t necessarily that the benefit of killing the enemies was simply about leveling up, it was that killing them became informed by the game’s narrative. The hatred was something I learned by playing as the characters.

While this is still touching on the fact that games are creative cinema-esque narratives of deep character explorations, what can differentiate them is the execution of such things. Games allow us the freedom of gameplay, in whatever way the game chooses to encapsulate it. From turn-based tactics, to strategy, to real-time — the way we play a game informs how we’re able to navigate its narrative.

The combat in Nier: Automata is frenzied and fluid, which can add intensity to its various climactic moments in action alone. In one scene you have to kill your fellow, once friendly androids who have been infected with a virus. The game is unrelenting about this sequence of events. The usual fast combat is turned up a notch, the screen blurs and glitches as the various enemies began to mess with 9S’s systems, and everything is frustratingly difficult to see. More so than simply witnessing a character’s state of mind, we get to confront it.

Another example, far less lauded, is the infamous Chapter 13 of Final Fantasy XV, which is a jump-scare laden dungeon crawl slapped into the middle of an action JRPG. This chapter was heavily criticized for being a too-long slog in what should have been a section of rising tension and action. It had tension, certainly, but stretched far too thin. While this is true, in my initial playthrough of that chapter — the original one that has since been redone — it made me sympathize with the protagonist in a way that I never had before.

Being overpowered for most of the game, this chapter brought to light the scope of strength and the real hardships of perseverance — and it wouldn’t have had the same effect if I wasn’t stealthily trying to avoid zombified soldiers because I had nothing else to defend myself with outside of a nerfed ring that zapped my strength. For all it’s myriad weaknesses, this particular sequence helped to contextualize the hesitancy of Noctis and his fated ascension. It made a rather middling and immature character feel real, and I immediately understood the implications of his journey and what it all meant. Having embodied him for the entirety of the game, when we got to the end — well, I don’t really think I’ve experienced quite as tragic a tale in a game since.

So what’s all this to say? The idea of games having to qualify as art is already a big discussion, and burdening them with the idea that they need to functionally do something to their audience is a bit unnecessary. Games don’t need to provide us with anything, but as the medium grows beyond the measure of its original niche, and innovation within the vectors of game play allow for more freedom and, hopefully, new perspectives, gaming might just become a valuable vessel (if it isn’t already) for communicating all the various components of our experiences. As more and more developers diversify stories, we have the chance to benefit from wonderfully new and fascinating perspectives.

The way we play and see games is only going to continue to evolve, and we will likely find ourselves more often playing as fleshed-out characters than voiceless player-inserts. And in doing so sometimes we have to adjust our expectations of what the game wants of us. Can I learn to see through the perspective of who I’m playing as, of acting as they do, of sympathizing with their needs and wants? I feel as if that’s the magic right there.

Be they roguelikes, action RPGs, or point-and-click exploration games, the stories they tell have a chance to do something more than hold our hand through a narrative — it puts the power in our hands.

For once, we are them. Player and proxy both.




Fandom | Gaming | TV + Movies | Sci-Fi + Fantasy | Other Indecent Pursuits

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in my head or one of the Final Fantasy games, most of the time / /

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