Again, Again, Again: On Carmen Machado and J. Robert Lennon’s “Critical Hits” and Frank Lantz’s “The Beauty of Games”

Neuroscientist Patrick House reviews two new books on the art of repetition in video games—“Critical Hits: Writers Playing Video Games,” edited by Carmen Machado and J. Robert Lennon, and “The Beauty of Games” by Frank Lantz.

Again, Again, Again: On Carmen Machado and J. Robert Lennon’s “Critical Hits” and Frank Lantz’s “The Beauty of Games”

Critical Hits: Writers Playing Video Games by Carmen Maria Machado and J. Robert Lennon. Graywolf Press. 256 pages.The Beauty of Games by Frank Lantz. MIT Press. 184 pages.

ONE NIGHT IN 2005, a group of young, drunk Estonians were listening to DJ Tiësto’s “Adagio for Strings” when they came up with an idea for a fictional world. They would come to call it “Elysium.” After experimenting for months with some of the world’s details as a tabletop role playing game, one member of the group, Robert Kurvitz, wrote and released a surreal mystery novel set in Elysium titled Sacred and Terrible Air (2013). Published in Estonian, it sold, at best, 1,000 copies; 3,000 copies were later pulped to save on warehouse storage costs.


In video game circles, the next few years have become a mythic time. The story goes that Kurvitz proceeded to fall into an alcoholic, depressive daze until a friend—a fellow novelist whom Kurvitz had once helped out of a similar daze and whose kids had recently told him, “Stop writing books! No one reads books! You should get into video games”—suggested he try to make a video game based in Elysium. Kurvitz wrote a brief description in an email of what such a game could be (censorship mine; the detective’s name is, technically, a spoiler):


[D&D] meets 70s cop-show, in an original “fantastic realist” setting, with swords, guns and motor-cars. Realized as an isometric CRPG—a modern advancement on the legendary “Planescape: Torment” and “Baldur’s Gate.” Massive, reactive story. Exploring a vast, poverty-stricken ghetto. Deep, strategic combat.


Be a cop. (You’re a cop, ███!). Choose what kind of cop you are—good cop, bad cop, lady cop, man cop, a socialist revolutionary disguised as a cop. A criminal mastermind disguised as a cop. You can even be a real lazy cop, who doesn’t wanna be a cop.


With this idea, a small group started a game studio and called it ZA/UM, a nod to zaum, the branch of the Russian Cubo-Futurism movement that attempted to create a new language from scratch using sounds and rhythm alone. To differentiate itself from the anarchic Russian linguists of a century earlier, the group added a bisecting forward slash between за (“beyond, behind”) and ум (“the mind”) and capitalized the letters. This was done to give the appearance of, according to one of its founders, “something that definitely exists and weighs eight tonnes”—to give the appearance, in other words, of a real, tangible, and sober business and gaming studio.


In 2019, six years after the first printing of Sacred and Terrible Air, ZA/UM released Disco Elysium—“disco” translates from Latin to “I learn”—a video game which puts you in semi-control of an amnesiac, alcoholic detective who wakes up with a hangover in a vast, poverty-stricken ghetto. I say “semi-control” because you do not control the main character like you might control other video game characters or, say, your own body. No, you control him the way a psychoanalyst thinks your subconscious might control your body: vaguely, asynchronously, suggestively, impolitely and through a combination of gesture, hint, bias, false memory, free association, and trauma. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that you influence, rather than semi-control, the detective protagonist (through a digital marionette, with each button a string) in a manner analogous to the way that paranoid or maybe devoutly religious people might think they are being influenced (née semi-controlled) by something distant, arbitrary, and with as-yet-indecipherable morals. In Disco Elysium, you play as that something.


Upon its release, Gamespot awarded Disco Elysium a perfect 10, one of a select handful of games to ever receive that score. It went on to win dozens of Game of the Year awards and global accolades, including four at the industry’s equivalent to the Academy Awards, tied for the most ever by a single game. On Metacritic, a review aggregation website for games, Disco Elysium is currently the highest-rated PC game of all time and is tied for sixth-best game of all time across all consoles, one of only two indie games in the top 50. (The House in Fata Morgana, a “full-length visual novel” about a ghost with amnesia and which “deals in tragedy, human nature, and insanity,” is the other. Yes, coincidence noted.)


But first, because I have to, the Q*bert in the room: Are video games art? Given, or despite, its accolades, is Disco Elysium art or merely artistic? In an infamous essay, film critic Roger Ebert gave the field of video gaming its Turing test, an ontological challenge for anyone daring to elevate the genre’s output:


No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.


The “Is it art?” debate suffuses, if implicitly, every one of the 18 essays in Critical Hits: Writers Playing Video Games (Graywolf Press, 2023), edited by Carmen Machado and J. Robert Lennon. In “This Kind of Animal,” Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah powerfully compares a scene in Disco Elysium—a metaphysical investigation of a rotting corpse—to his own observations of standing over the body of his father (“the first antagonist in my life”) at an open-casket funeral. Disco Elysium made Adjei-Brenyah consider “the pieces and parts that combine into what I and others think of as me. The protagonist screams, ‘I DON’T WANT TO BE THIS KIND OF ANIMAL!’ which begs the question of the player: What kind of animal are you?” Adjei-Brenyah is clear on his answer to the Ebert Test, calling Disco Elysium a “magnificent literary experience” and “one of the most impressive artistic experiences I’ve ever had.” Its themes (“Who are you? Who are your dead?”) are, for him, central to both the creation and reception of art.


In The Beauty of Games (MIT Press, 2023), Frank Lantz at once avoids and aims for the heart of the “Is it art?” debate by considering video games from within “the aesthetic domain,” as an idiopathic, personal space defined by its verbs, not its nouns: a domain “not of a certain kind of objects,” he writes, “but of a certain type of activity.” Lantz’s lane change moves the conversation from the real world (“The world on which we bang our heads and stub our toes”) into the mind of the player; the aesthetic, like color, like beauty, is in the mind of the beholder, existing somewhere between art and nothingness for a broad class of human efforts whose analog categories we don’t quite know what to do with. Other successful entrants in Lantz’s aesthetic domain share qualities of video games in that they can—just like some music can, just like some painting can, just like all artistic mediums can—be difficult, abstruse, profound, simplistic, accessible, or cheaply pleasant: “Games are operas made out of bridges,” writes Lantz. In a recent interview, Lantz, who is also director of the NYU Game Center, called Disco Elysium both “the last great game” and “the end of an era.”


My take on the Ebert Test is philosophically much simpler: Kurvitz’s struggles seem like artistic struggles. And his literary efforts—he wrote half of Disco Elysium, which is one million words, a little more than War and Peace and Anna Karenina combined—make both him and the ZA/UM studio an artistic team by every measure that seems to count in other arts: temperament, dedication, work ethic, creativity, constraint, output, ego, talent. This makes Disco Elysium, therefore, art—and that it is sublime art gives Kurvitz a place, potentially, among the art world’s greats. (Q*ED.)


¤


Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2012 autobiography, Total Recall, has a perfect title, a rare triple entendre. It references, in triptych, the early 1990s sci-fi film he starred in; the impossible, Proustian dilemma of whether memories and memoir represent truth; and—chef’s kiss—the legislative act by which he became governor of California in 2003. Admirably, Critical Hits also pulls off a titular triple play: it refers to the phenomenon whereby games increasingly are earning appreciation from experts; to Ebert-as-critic’s “hit” job on the entire medium; and to the “critical hit,” a term of art in gaming.


The critical hit originated in tabletop role-playing games and is often abbreviated to “crit.” Crits are pseudorandom multipliers on the effect of an action. Originally, they were meant to simulate a fictional weapon’s hit to a fictional body’s vital organ. In the real world, after all, not every punch or bullet has the same effect; sometimes, through a combination of luck or anatomical happenstance, a few millimeters make the difference between life and death. And so, in order to capture life’s figurative rolls of the dice, an addition was made to the literal rolls: the crit. One way to think about the crit would be if, in real world tennis, every serve had a 10 percent chance of being twice as fast; or if, in real world basketball, three-point shots occasionally were worth double. Eventually, these details would work their way into the fabric and strategy of the game. (Crits are sometimes linguistically softened from their obdurately nerd origin and known as “heroic hits,” “lucky hits,” or “SMAAAASH!!” hits.)


The idea of the crit expanded into video games in 1986’s Dragon Quest, for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), where it functioned as a randomizer that added drama to the otherwise repeated drudgery of battle. This essentially alchemized the concept from a simulated body map into a magical buff, randomly or narrowly applied. It elevated the crit from a mere weapons add-on into an anti-determinist’s story device—a way to create the thrill of heroic action from mundane, nonheroic circumstance. Over time, the crit allowed for high-frequency story forking, which then required video game creators to circle Aristotle’s dramaturgic questions: What is a hero? What is drama? How much mimesis, or imitation of life, is ideal?


Many essays in Critical Hits presume and play with this mimetic yoke between the virtual and the real. In “Status Effect,” Larissa Pham compares real depression to the poison debuff “corrosion” in a mobile game, Genshin Impact (2020): “It was applied when you were hit with an attack by a specific creature […] Purple splotches would shoot out of your body, and for as long as the state was active the lingering poison slowly drained your health.” In another essay, “Cathartic Warfare”—a daring, affecting, and raw piece—Jamil Jan Kochai, an Afghan American immigrant, reflects on playing as an American in a specific moment during Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007). The unsubtitled, untranslated sounds of Pashto (to the author, Pashto means home, childhood: “My mother’s jokes. My father’s stories. My grandmother’s curses”) serve as his sonic madeleine for understanding the hushed pain of his and others’ immigrant experiences: “I am tasked to murder myself, over and over […] I must wait for me in the killing fields of the American imagination.”


As a literary device, the kind of agency on offer in video games, which often requires that someone play as a character with a given and immutable gender, height, sex, or race, can be more experientially intrusive than even the best first- or second-person prose. This leads to an autobiographical double exposure, a theme that motivates many of the anthology’s best essays. In “Mule Milk,” Keith S. Wilson describes the similarities between his experience as a Black child in a mostly white school—he was called an “oreo” by his best friend in middle school—and as an enslaved, half-human, half-spirit creature, forced to wear a “slave crown,” in Final Fantasy VI: “I saw that she was between worlds.” How does one confront, asks Wilson, the concept of the half-breed, the mule, the mulatto, the oreo, when the very word “Nature” translates, from Latin, to “birth, initial character”? In a different essay, Alexander Chee, “queer and chubby, biracial and Korean,” asks a related question about the cultural authenticity of the protagonist of Ninja Gaiden, an amorphous, Japanese American corporate merger: “If Ryu Hayabusa could be a decades-old character across several game systems, popular around the world, who looked nothing like a ninja or a Japanese person, then I could be Korean just as I was.”


Over time, the essays in Critical Hits add up to a pastiche perhaps best described as a travelogue of subjective experience and places (Digital? Real? Who cares?). These are places of pain, wonder, and existential bewilderment. They push so far past the “Is it art?” debate as to render it moot. Two essays, for example, tackle the liminal space of anonymity. In one, nat steele confronts the evolution of their gender identity alongside the ambiguity and evolution of the fully armored and mostly silent—and therefore un- or perhaps omni-gendered—heroes of Halo and Metroid. In another, Charlie Jane Anders analyzes the effect of “portal” fantasies—e.g., Wizard of Oz, eXistenZ, Narnia, Jumanji—across film, literature, and video games, and the differences between being explicitly transported into a new, unfamiliar body versus being, say, born into the wrong one.


¤


According to Albert Einstein (or maybe it was Al-Anon), the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Perhaps the most compelling counterargument is the totalizing commercial success of the global video game industry, where reward is often achieved by doing the same thing over and over until the results are different. As of 2023, games are more valuable than the global movie, music, and publishing industries combined. (Nintendo’s Pokémon, which began as a video game in 1996, is the highest-grossing media franchise ever, raking in more than Mickey Mouse and Harry Potter combined.)


Why do people play so many games? Do they shape, or merely reflect, society? In “In the Shadow of the Wolf,” Vanessa Villarreal traces the recent “reemergence of the Viking” in popular American media—many of its genres steeped in Nordic mythology and race- or species-based class systems—alongside the harrowing rise of ethnonationalism. She has a point: the four Avengers films, starring various Norse gods, have earned more than seven billion dollars; Game of Thrones, which borrows heavily from Norse lore, is HBO’s most-viewed show of all time; Sony’s 2018 God of War and its 2022 sequel, God of War: Ragnarök, have sold at least 34 million copies. In “Clash Rules Everything Around Me,” Tony Tulathimutte claims that the “true currency” of Clash of Clans (2012)—a mobile video game with “Viking pillage mechanics,” which, as of 2018, had earned $6.4 billion dollars and the number one spot in Apple’s App Store, by revenue—is not virtual gold but, instead, time: “Time is life is work is play is death is money is property is time.” To play Clash is, then, a tautology: time eating its own tail, time spent on the resurrection and replay of failed efforts.


In “No Traces,” Stephen Sexton, an Irish poet, argues instead that the anhedonic warp zone he enters in video games is much like the one he experiences when he writes poetry; both, he says, should be considered for what they are: forms of play. I agree with Sexton. Once, on a languid road trip along California’s Highway 49 with a friend, also a poet, I stopped near a sideshow carnival. One of the carnival games involved trying to toss a quarter onto a small, slick table 10 feet away, almost certainly inclined with a convex surface so the quarters would be far likelier to roll off than stay on. The task, of course, was tantalizingly simple: land a quarter on the table, win a prize. The ceiling was low and cluttered, which made the likeliest of my imagined strategies, a high arc with a lucky/crit bounce, near impossible.


To Poet’s horror, I spent the next half hour and around 40 dollars in quarters trying—again, again, again—until I ran out of cash. I knew, of course, the odds were wildly against success. But I grew up on these streets. I have wasted many arcade quarters on spendthrift, Sisyphean thrills. The urge, I’m quite sure, represents a particular mode of interacting with games, an urge best expressed by the nihilistic declaration that if money and time are to be used for anything in life, their value appreciates the quickest when converted directly and rapidly into hope against impossible but well-defined odds. One of the essential frauds of real life, after all, compared to the Fabergé thrills of fiction, is how few actual chances there are to be heroic. But by layering a set of arbitrary constraints and rewards atop mundane glass tabletops, the light of drama can peek through even the dreariest of days.


Over the last decade, in an attempt to convert Poet to games—note: he also hates board, party, card, and bar games—and to make him understand that for a certain genre of video game, the struggle is the point, I have kept a running syllabus of indie titles and essayists. Maybe, my hope goes, academic theorists could convert even a hardened, skeptical artist? Mature criticism abounds: Tom Bissell, who writes about games and Las Vegas the way Hunter S. Thompson writes about drugs and Las Vegas; Jonathan Blow, video gaming’s George Orwell, which is to say its first ur-author/essayist; Jacob Geller, who is to the video game essay what Annie Dillard is to the literary essay; Marie Brennan, the medium’s Ursula Le Guin, with both an anthropologist and author’s noticing; Martin Amis, its Martin Amis, who wrote the 1982 classic Invasion of the Space Invaders: An Addict’s Guide to Battle Tactics, Big Scores and the Best Machines about, in part, his addiction to wasting quarters at arcades with the digital equivalent to convex tabletops. My list does not include many of what I consider to be video gaming’s highest aesthetic achievements (The Witness, Antichamber, Undertale, Stephen’s Sausage Roll, MyHouse.wad, Immortality, Outer Wilds, Everything) for approximately the reason that Poet would not include Ezra Pound or James Joyce in intro poetry or lit either:


I: 8-Bit
Game: Baba Is You
Game: Papers, Please
Essay: “Games That Aren’t Games” by Jacob Geller
Game: DEVICE 6


II: 16-Bit
Game: Disco Elysium (Monday)
Game: Inside
Essay: “Games That Don’t Fake the Space” by Jacob Geller
Game: That Dragon, Cancer
Film: Indie Game: The Movie
Essay: “Truth in Game Design” by Jonathan Blow


III: 32-Bit
Game: Braid (Worlds 1–3)
Essay: “MyHouse.wad — Inside Doom’s Most Terrifying Mod” by Power Pak
Book: Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter (Chapters 5–6) by Tom Bissell
Game: Disco Elysium (Tuesday)
Essay: “Returnal Is a Hell of Our Own Creation” by Jacob Geller
Game: Thumper
Essay: “The Best Moment in a Game This Year” by Jacob Geller


IV: 64-Bit
Game: Minit
Essay: “A Thousand Ways of Seeing a Forest” by Jacob Geller
Game: Braid (Worlds 4–5)
Essay: “This Is What a ‘Second-Person’ Video Game Would Look Like” by Nick Robinson
Game: Disco Elysium (Wednesday–Sunday)


To this day, I have achieved neither. The quarter is not at rest on the table, and the Poet, alas, remains unconvinced.


¤


Calum Marsh, in a review of 2016’s The Witness for The Guardian, described the game as a “brain-ravaging, mind-spraining epic that has more in common with Finnegans Wake than Grand Theft Auto V.” I once spoke with The Witness’s creator, Jonathan Blow, who told me that he designs some puzzles with the hope that they will be solved by the player outside of the game, in those moments when the brain rehearses and replays life’s counterfactuals—in the shower, say, or the next day over morning coffee. In a lecture Blow gave the year before the release of The Witness, he read a passage from a speech, titled “The Secret of Psalm 46,” by another game designer, Brian Moriarty, describing the concept of “awe” as it relates to Shakespeare, art, and video gaming:


That sweet, sweet fusion of wonder and fear, irresistible attraction and soul-numbing dread known as awe. Awe is the Grail of artistic achievement. No other human emotion possesses such raw transformative power, and none is more difficult to evoke. Few and far between are the works of man that qualify as truly awesome.


If I ranked all the video games I have played, over more than three decades of gaming, by units of awe-per-minute, then 2019’s time-loop, sci-fi puzzler Outer Wilds is far in the lead. In it, you investigate a solar system as an astronaut-detective—not a profession yet, but one which surely will exist—for forensic clues as to why time keeps resetting every 20-odd minutes. I was struggling mightily with one of its puzzles, involving a small space station orbiting the game’s central star, which I couldn’t seem to land on. Every time I approached, I would get pulled in by the star’s gravity and proceed to violently crash and burn, only to wake up—again, again, again—at the start of the time loop. I hadn’t played the game for a few days when, while walking the Venice Beach Boardwalk in Los Angeles, I paused to watch the end of the setting of our Sun, the Sun. In those brief moments I perceived our star, filtered through the hazy, low-poly draw distance of L.A. air, as instead the star at the center of the planetary system of Outer Wilds. This perceptual slip is a species of what is sometimes called “game transfer phenomenon,” an aftereffect experienced by some gamers where the perceptual or cognitive rules of the game start to bleed into real life. I think of game transfer as akin to “sea legs”—the wobbly vestibular imbalance we experience when we first step on land after a long time at sea—but for the mind.


While staring at our Sun, the Sun, I was led in my mind to a quiet revelation about how one was supposed to get to the space station in Outer Wilds: not directly, of course, but obliquely, via that one place, which I had read about—a clue—in a different part of the game. It was a lovely feeling, one of life’s better ones, similar to the joy of discovery, the pursuit of the eureka moment, which I used to get as a scientist working in a laboratory: the joy of peeling back the universe around you and discovering a tiny piece of its machinations, of fixing randomness in your favor just long enough to be able to observe and explain something. (I am convinced that, were Isaac Newton alive today, he would be a video game speedrunner.) In The Beauty of Games, Lantz describes these moments perfectly: “So often in games, what players are doing is a kind of science, a version of the scientific process as play.”


Of course, not all film is art. Not all athletics are art. Not all video games are art. But need we continue to question the place of those aesthetic experiences that can induce moments of awe so profound that they can change the way you see the Sun? Or of those that can make writers question their relationship to their family, depression, gender, self, or nature? What higher burden could be asked of an art form?

LARB Contributor

Patrick House is a neuroscientist and writer. He is the author of Nineteen Ways of Looking at Consciousness (Macmillan Press, 2022).

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