Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus is about the ultimate fragility of two types of bodies that underpin Western values: the male adult and the liberal state. Each is a conceptual object that we expect to function perfectly—right up to the moment that they break down completely when confronted with something they were never built to deal with. The New Colossus is interested in what it would take for either of these to fall apart.
William “BJ” Blazkowicz is the quintessential videogame protagonist: a large, rectangular slab of white man-meat whose very shape belies how he has been a part of videogames since his flesh was square pixels. In the previous game, The New Order, he was an unstoppable hero—right until he was stopped, at the end of the game, by a lone grenade. That game saw this relic of the past of both his own world and videogames, revived after 20 years in a coma, left behind for dead. But sequels do what sequels do, and BJ was rescued, if not salvaged. When The New Colossus starts, his body is still destroyed. The opening stage has you pushing BJ’s heavy body through the level in a wheelchair, shooting Nazi’s with one hand while the other is on the wheel. Stairs are inaccessible and when the wheelchair inevitably gets tipped over, BJ is helpless. For a significant portion of the game, you are stuck with 50 health, instead of the typical 100, in levels that feel like they were balanced for a character with 100. It’s frustrating. It feels like it shouldn’t be this hard. It’s the frustration of a perfect, white male body encountering something unfair that is just a typical day for anyone forced to live in this society with any other form of body. Continue reading
(Minor spoilers for Superhot and Cibele.)
Late last year I had the opportunity to play Eurotruck Simulator 2 with a virtual reality (VR) headset. Generally I am pretty skeptical of the marketing promises of VR and the whole project of immersion-through-escaping-your-own-bodily-senses that it depends on. Partially, this is because we are being told the same things about how VR is just around the corner in 2016 as we were told in 1996. Mostly, though, this is because I reject the very premise of VR, that the player can ever truly have their consciousness and senses detached from the playing and situated body they are sensing with. Sure, I can use a VR headset to explore some alien battlefield, but I am never not sitting in a chair in front of a computer, and on some level my mind is always aware of this because my mind cannot exist separate from that body.
But Eurotruck Simulator 2 with a headset shocked me with its effectiveness. It was disorientating and fully encompassing. I had the stupidest grin on my face as I noticed my own senses being so successfully tricked by the illusion that I was really sitting in this truck. The only other VR experience that I have found nearly as affecting was when I played USC’s The Meadow at Indiecade. This was a VR experience about sitting in a virtual meadow while things happened. The visuals in no way attempted photorealism, but the illusion was, again, incredibly affecting
I remember semi-jokingly calling it a ‘sitting simulator’ at the time. Except this is exactly why both The Meadow and Eurotruck Simulator 2 made such powerful VR experiences: because they each accepted and reinforced the player’s own awareness of their sitting body, rather than stubbornly trying to distract the player away from that body. Players are bodies and that will never not be true. Where other VR experiences work to have you forget “the meat and all that it wants” as Neuromancer’s Case says, these two experiences reinforce the strength of their illusive worlds through the player’s own somatic awareness of being a sitting being.
I’ve played two games in recent weeks that in different ways draw attention to the player’s inescapable existence as a body sitting before a computer screen: Nina Freeman’s Cibele and Superhot Team’s Superhot. I played neither of these games through a virtual reality headset, but like the above virtual reality experiences, each of these games worked to use the player’s tacit awareness of their own body-ness as part of the experience of a virtual world. More specifically: each is explicitly conscious of the player’s context as a body sitting before a computer.
Yesterday I obtained an Avenger Reflex controller skin for my PlayStation 4. I bought it because these things fascinate me, and I want to do some research on them from a phenomenological perspective on how bodies integrate with videogames (I wrote briefly about this here). When I tweeted about my new possession, however, it was a side comment I made about a marketing blurb on the box that got the most attention.
The blurb promised that the controller skin will “Increase your PS4 gaming skill without cheating!” I find that fascinating. This device is confident that it will give its user an advantage over other players, but it is categorically ‘not cheating’. I am not particularly interested in claiming that it either is or isn’t cheating. Rather, I think a lot of fascinating insights can be pulled out of a statement such as this one to better understand videogames generally: why is using this device to improve your chances not cheating? What sort of advantage would be considered cheating? Why? Continue reading