header is screenshot from RoboCop: Rogue City
The Messages on the Screen
Ed Smith

I really wish I could find it, and if anyone knows it please do send it to me, but there was an essay I read maybe a decade ago, when I first started working as a critic, which argued videogames function better—narratively, thematically, and in terms of an overall consistency—when they use characters who are not human. At the time, I remember thinking it was a dismal state of affairs, that games as a mode of expression were somehow so unsuited to ventilating matters of human reality that someone, somewhere, could volunteer the idea that games just give up; that there might be proposed, in the conflict between videogames’ formal components and the abstract complexities of life rendered through art, this kind of unconditional surrender—videogames shouldn’t even try. I still feel that way, basically, but with the benefit of ten more years of writing and generalised videogame experience, I also feel more able to consider, rather than dismiss or respond with a petulant, automatic indignance towards, this suggestion. If there is truth behind the idea that games ‘work’ better when they either sidestep wholesale or abstractify and crudify to the point of irrelevance the human experience, or renditions thereof, well then it wasn’t always like this. We must have made games this way, must have somehow ossified their nature, form, style, and representational language not to the point that they actually can’t epitomise or impart the humane, but that they’ve become so codified—and codified in so particular a way—that it seems like they can’t. A callow metaphor, but I still think of videogames as a piano on which we’re only playing the same four or five songs—88 keys, but we’re using, you know, 20. And of all the games of the last twelve months this has somehow been given starkest relief by RoboCop: Rogue City.

RoboCop: Rogue City is a kind of negative proof of gaming’s ability, as an expression form, to successfully capture, reflect, or impress human experience. Like the absence of something may be considered proof of the presence of something else—if we do a blood test and find no aberrations, it suggests the possibility of a type of morbidity that doesn’t affect the blood —the coherence and aesthetic integrity of RoboCop: Rogue City, a game where you play as a robot, suggests that the language of games as it exists currently is best suited to expressing non-human matters. I had the same sense when I was playing Detroit: Become Human. Owing partly to his abilities as a screenwriter, all of David Cage’s work until Detroit had existed deep in the uncanny valley—non sequiturs, irregular body movements, strange inflections, emotionless faces. When all the characters were androids, however, Cage’s writing—but also the oddities inherent to spontaneous videogame action—became more convincing. When what is meant to be a human being walks back and forth around a crime scene, rubbing themselves up against the scenery in an attempt to find clues, while other supposed human beings stand still with their arms folded, looking at them, saying nothing, well, when it comes to verisimilitude in that scene all bets are off. Tell me that everyone is a robot however, inexperienced or incapable owing to their programming to convincingly mimic human behaviour, and everything that I am doing in a game becomes more closely unified with the narrative pretence. Play the opening sequence of Heavy Rain, where you occupy the role of human male Ethan Mars, obligated to take a shower, get dressed, and do a little housework before your wife gets home. It’s the character’s house, but the player doesn’t know where anything is, so our simulacrum of a normal everyday person walks in circles, checks and re-checks areas for possible objective markers, and, thanks to the game’s esoteric control system, struggles to operate the doors of his wardrobe—when you hold down a button to hear Ethan’s thoughts, they are intelligible, clear and directive: “I need to take a shower before my wife and kids get home.” Again, if this were a robot, you’d think, well, that figures. And then you can keep zooming out and applying this suppositional rubric to other formalised aspects of videogame language. Arthur Morgan in Red Dead Redemption 2 can get shot in the chest three times and nothing happens, but if Arthur Morgan were a robot …. Nathan Drake can kill hundreds upon hundreds of people and then sit down with his wife and laugh as they play Crash Bandicoot like nothing has ever happened, and it seems psychotic, but if Nathan Drake were a robot .…In The Walking Dead, when you have a conversation with somebody and a message appears on the screen to say “John will remember that,” it’s bizarre, like your character has an internal data processing system that will compute and commodify abstract, emotional responses into mathematical probabilities, but if your character were a robot .…

The flaw of this criticism is that it demands a literalisation of on-screen expression, and therefore could itself be considered, in that way, robotic—it rejects ideas of metaphor, symbolism, and suspension of disbelief, and demands a perhaps too rigid, one-to-one scale artistic language. On the contrary, I think it’s common to play videogames and think ‘this doesn’t make any sense.’ There are conceits and contrivances that we accept, and oddities that we ignore for the kind of greater good of the overall narrative or game, but perhaps beyond this—as it were—event horizon there is something else. Perhaps a recalibration or a total restructuring of the language of games would allow games to surmount some of their longest standing expressional obstacles. I play RoboCop: Rogue City, and words appear on the screen instructing me to dispense precisely 15 parking tickets in order to receive a prescribed portion of XP. I enter a conversation and my character stands totally still, staring, until I choose from a number of potential responses. I am extremely resilient to physical harm, and, if killed, can simply come back to life. Similarly, I can kill en masse, with supreme accuracy and minimal emotional, legal, or practical ramifications. If I am hurt, I can collect an item from the world around me, inject it into my body and instantly recover. Upon completion of a prescribed quantity of tasks, I can enter a menu and upgrade myself, adjusting values that represent my physical strength, intelligence, psychological profile, and more. I’m playing as RoboCop and the methods through which his personality, his world, and his experiences are partially expressed feel appropriate—conducive—to his characterisation. But they’re the same as games where I play as a person.

I think what might have happened is that games, from the earliest eras of their existence, concentrated mainly on what you might broadly call genres of unreality or extrareality—fantasy, sci-fi, high action, horror, and so on. It’s not to say that these genres and even works that adhere to the specifications of these genres dogmatically preclude any and all inspection of humanity, in the close, perceptive and truthlike sense. But what videogames have almost always done is heighten the aspects of these genres that are separate from their human drama, at the expense of representations of human drama. Games, such as they can be singularly personified, are more interested in the physical pulchritude and alternate fire modes of the assault rifle than the feelings of the man firing it. And so the language of videogames—how games are made, the tools for creating them, the ideas which are prioritised in conversations regarding videogame design, and all of videogames’ formal characteristics—have evolved to serve these genres, or rather, the spectacular aspects of these genres. The etymology of the language of videogame expression can be traced back to sci-fi, fantasy, etc, and by that token does not descend from real-world human experience, and a desire or need to express that experience. Robust, complex, and now calcified, we built a language capable of expressing only a limited number of concepts. Like some Inuit languages have no word for ‘war,’ because it is an idea that that culture has never needed to express, videogames, currently at least, have no words for myriad, vital aspects of real-world human life.+


+ Although it does have a lot for war.


Ed Smith is one of the co-founders of Bullet Points Monthly. His Twitter handle is @esmithwriter.