I thought Steerpike’s post about Madness as presented in cinema and in games was asking all the right questions but offering precious little in the way of answers. Since my wife instructed me to do the weekly house cleaning before running off to a beauty parlour, I thought there was nothing more logical than to ignore her wishes and try to analyze what exactly we mean when we say “madness” and how come it almost always comes across as lame in games. Also, I try to offer some titles that can serve as potential grounds for a more serious discussion. As Murphy’s Law would have it, those are mostly old and/ or obscure games, but luckily, two out of three are easily available for online purchase at really low prices. You’re literally a couple of clicks away from tasting the madness in videogames yourself – being able to purchase, download and install these games before you even finish reading the article and see how I right or wrong I was – which clearly is one of the reasons Internet beats printed media.
For the record, I thought Moon, the film, was a pile of arse. Well, not quite arse, but it failed to engage me emotionally even though intellectually it made pretty clear what it was intending to do. There are several reasons for this, most of them technical, I believe, whatwith the film giving false signals to the viewer in the beginning (hallucinations), making us believe this IS a film about madness only to pull the carpet from under us about halfway in and say “hahaha, see, not madness, not madness at all!!!”
Not saying it’s not a likeable film, but for my money, it failed to do what it wanted to do. More importantly, and on topic, it really isn’t a film about madness even though it pretends to be for a while. What it is about is politics and notions of freedom and personal choice, all valid topics of course, but it never once speaks of freedom or personal choice of people whom we (the silent majority) deem insane.
The thing with madness of course is that it’s only an item in literary terms. There is no “madness” outside literature/ pop culture. There are numerous psychological states, ailments and illnesses but they are vastly different in intensity, symptoms, causes, treatments etc. Manic depression, paranoid schizophrenia and Asperger syndrome are worlds apart in terms of symptoms, causes and treatments and yet for an uneducated or simply lazy mind they can all be comfortably described as madness or insanity.
In more precise terms, then, when we speak about madness, particularly in pop-culture, we usually speak about psychotic disorders (various forms of schizophrenia, multiple personality disorders, paranoid delusions etc.) all characterised by a departure from what we call “consensual reality”. In short: the person who is “insane” doesn’t share the same notion of what is “real” (in tangible terms) with the rest of the community, most commonly with the speaker.
The problem with games is of course that they already are a sort of crafted psychosis, giving the player an already distorted reality. Reality in which it is acceptable (therefore “real”) to soak bullets like a sponge, then take a breather and be well again. Reality in which is dying and rewinding time so you can live again is not just possible but common. Reality in which the usual physical limits of human body do not apply and the psychological limits are as a rule non-existent. Gordon Freeman is nothing short of a spree-killer in his first outing, hitting a body count that would make Peter Kurten blush in a mere day and yet no one bats an eyelash. Quite the contrary – he is perceived as a hero. Because, after all, the reality of the game we are playing, the reality of Half-Life – a game championed for its convincing storytelling and realistic characters – is a reality where sociopathic behaviour is accepted and normal, where the protagonist can have a love affair without ever uttering a word to anyone, where the difference between an enemy/ target and a friend/ asset is signalised by their clothes alone.
In other games that emulate reality with realistic humanoid models and simulated social environments your actions and their consequences have a simple binary logic that is again as sociopathic as it gets. This morning, while playing Red Dead Redemption I ran into a law officer who was escorting some convicts to prison. They, however, have managed to kill his partner and were on the run. The game instructed me to stop them, which, not having a lasso, meant killing them both. I did it, because the economy of the game granted me profit for this action and offered no profit for ignoring it. Then, when I came back to the law officer to get my promised prize, I accidentally ran him over with my horse. Immediately, a bounty was put on my head, even though he was barely scratched and it was clearly an accident. I was to be hunted and killed by law enforcers and bounty hunters for a crime that was obviously negligible compared to the assistance I provided mere seconds ago. So I promptly rode to the town of Armadillo and paid 20 dollars to get the bounty taken off my head.
This is an example of pure psychosis at work, not a world of melting walls and flying elephants, but the world where actions and their consequences have simple, clear cut, numerical value and the personality of the player’s avatar has nothing to do with their innermost thoughts, instincts, desires and fears and everything to do with the perception the society imposes on him (well, “him”, John Marston is clearly male).
The player in Red Dead Redemption has the option to be as famous or as infamous as they want – but this is only an outside measure of their personality. The game makes no provisions for personal moral dilemmas, or at least for opinions – the only way the player is defined in the game is through action with binary logic to it – which is as sociopathic as it gets. The player/ John Marston is either universally respected with people giving John Marston mad props in the street and shops offering generous discounts, or he is universally feared with women evacuating the premises on sight and shops refusing service. All this, depending on the player actions that may even take place so far from any civilization that the nearest witness is still asleep in their bed, two time zones away. Red Dead Redemption is clearly showing us a mind so deranged that any action the player takes is immediately measured against an absurd, crudely approximated Judaeo-Christian moral code and then turned into tangible values that assist the psychopathic protagonist in navigating the social structure of the game. That’s a bit like Robert Bloch, innit?
Other games follow suit. Portal’s protagonist engages herself in a sick game with a deranged AI, learning to use futuristic technology to go through a series of spatial puzzles, rather than looking for a nearest telephone to call for help or, you know, a window to break and get away. Mass Effect’s crew is on the move to save the galaxy again, yet they will take their time to run errands for two bit criminals who spend their time in suspiciously 90’s-looking discos. Yakuza’s Kazuma Kiryu will fight to save his family’s lives, his adopted daughter’s life and his love interest’s life when Kamurocho is invaded by a covert Korean gang, yet he will happily spend hours running a luxurious host club, buying new furniture, giving the girls a raise and encouraging them to do better, even though he was instructed that it was literally a matter of minutes before all is lost. And, sure enough, the time just stops and waits for him!!! While time will run for the residents of the club, the employees and the companies that sell furniture to Kazuma, it will stand still for all the protagonists of the main game’s plot, for as long as the player desires. There are at least two time streams in this game, running in parallel, at different speeds with completely separated causes and effects, all pretending to work in the same universe. That, my friends, is madness.
And we’re talking only games that actually make an effort to be lifelike, to emulate our consensual reality to a believable degree. Yet, as demonstrated, all of them are batshit insane.
So, in a medium that is so clearly about crafting psychosis for the player, how do you present insanity?
Damn if I know, but perhaps playing something along the lines Eternal Darkness is a start? After al, that game went to great lengths to simulate hallucinations and make the player worried about their perception failing them (rather than the avatar’s).
Then there is Sanitarium. The game is available from GoG and is to date one of the only titles in the whole medium trying to actually engage the issues of mental illness, diagnosis, treatment and the underlying politics of power that exist in modern societies.
The third title that springs to mind is, surprisingly, Second Sight, a game (also available from GoG) that, on the surface wants merely to be an action thriller thematically based on the notion of psionic powers. The protagonist wakes up in a secure medical facility, bruised and battered, yet left without memories. Soon, he discovers he is in possession of amazing psychic talents, such as telekinesis, invisibility etc. and starts unravelling the plot that brought him to where he is.
And yet, as the plot comes to the conclusion, following two separate timestreams, the player realises that if one of the timestreams is true, the other can not exist. But if one of them ceases to exist, the other, inseparably linked to it, can not exist any more either. Second Sight was a very moderate hit all over the place, mostly being compared to Psi-Ops and cited as the weaker game, and yet, its plot and the way player’s actions lead to its conclusion is one of the most memorable experiences I have had in gaming. Because through my actions I managed to not merely destroy (at least one) reality – I made it impossible. I didn’t step out of it and looked at it from an objective vantage point, I literally dismembered the logic that allowed it to exist and after my actions took place even a memory of that reality looked fake.
This, my dear cousins and neighbours is exactly what your “insanity” does. Everyone can be a sociopath and, as demonstrated, most games require you to be one. Yet, the divine glimpse of realities, of logics so alien that they short-circuit one’s mind when it tries to process them, that glimpse is still so preciously rare in gaming that I can not but conclude by asking a question: if the game was really and truly insane, offering unknown, otherworldly rules around which the reality revolves, would we even be able to recognise it as a game? Would we even want to play it?
Email the author of this post at email@example.com.
Great piece, Meho. And good points. I’m not sure we would want to play a game that was completely insane, at least, as insane as you describe in your final paragraph. Games like Korsakovia tried and (arguably) failed to some degree. But just as so many of our popular entertainments seek out the most horrible things (murders, wars, brutality) because humans have a strange fascination with experiencing them from a safe distance, so do could games really get a leg up on madness if they so chose.
One of the points that I was trying clumsily to make is that the concept of “madness” or “insanity” is to a large degree political. It is a relation of power. You are only insane in relation to a community and its consensus on values (e.g. “reality”). People tagged as “insane” usually see their otherwise granted human rights suspended to a degree. Which, most of us will say, is fine if we’re dealing with a violent sociopath who wants to rape out children and eat our cats. But then, you have such a vast spectrum of what is called “mental ilness” that the ultimate political subtext of it all becomes visible. Homosexuality was until recently “officially” considered an illness, a treatable condition even. People’s freedoms of movement, voting, handling their own property etc. are often suspended because the community views them as unable to manage these freedoms. Foucault’s “A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason” is a terribly interesting book if one wants to get a true grasp of just how thin the line between insanity and sanity can be.
As for the games, a lot of them play around with the idea of madness – out of the top of my head, Manhunt 2 featured a person who was under treatment – but very few of them deal in politics of madness, which, of course is expected since very few games deal with politics of anything even when they actually feature political elements in their storylines…
Well, as you say, there’s no clinical “insanity.” People are schizophrenic, or suffer from dissociative personality or memory disorder, or depression, or autism, or bipolar disorder, or what have you. It’s all grouped under mental illness or – in extreme cases – insanity. What really bothers me is how many people view mental illness as something not real. If you can’t see it, it’s weakness, not illness, say those people. For them Diabetes, sucking chest wounds, or the flu are real but Asperger’s Syndrome is something amusing to poke fun of on TV or even aspire to because only the positives are shown.
It’s like the people who say “everyone could probably use antidepressants from time to time.” If those people knew what true depression – the mental illness, not the state of mind – was like, they’d STFU. /rant
I really like the idea of a game that messes with what you see and hear in keeping with the tenets of mental illness. It seems like it’d be a very effective way to create emotion in games.
Aside from the obligatory comment I left in Steerpike’s article I’m going to consolidate my thoughts on both here.
Interesting points Meho and I touched on the subject of artifice in virtual worlds in my Suspending Disbelief and Roleplaying article, most notably in GTA IV. There was another example I was intending to use in that article but totally forgot and you’ve just reminded me of it, seriously I’m here all day.
It was really early on in the game before Niko had killed anybody within the story arc and you were required to teach some Bad Men a lesson after beating up your cousin Roman. After a brief car chase and some running through various dock buildings you’re confronted with one of the aforementioned Bad Men who’s wielding a knife. The game teaches you how to use your fists and how to disarm an armed aggressor and eventually you end up with the knife. I put the knife away and tried knocking the guy out by repeatedly punching him in the face, but no, the game wasn’t having any of it. He was unknockoutable. So I stabbed him to death because it was the only option and straight afterward their was a video of Niko lamenting how he hadn’t wanted to kill anybody in Liberty City. Yeah, thanks Rockstar for giving me the choice, and thanks Niko for not reacting to the 53 INNOCENT CIVILIANS you mowed down during the car chase! Or the 100s before that for shits and giggles. Christ.
I think the problem with scrutinising the abstract gaming conventions that we veterans take for granted, like paused time and bullet sponging is that the alternatives are pretty grim from a fun/entertainment point of view; providing that’s what the game is aiming for. If a game aims to provoke then by all mean dispense with the pleasantries and get to the grit. I’m thinking of Pathologic here.
I’m not with you on the Portal thing though because what you do in Portal is usually all you can do short of sitting there with arms folded like a stroppy child. It’s only when you gain access to the offices that your argument holds any water but even then it wouldn’t be difficult to argue that GLaDOS has locked down the entire facility. I think a game has to have some sort of foundation and sacrifice certain player choices in order to deliver some sort of focused experience, if one at all. I mean, if I could choose to burn the documents that Philip’s father leaves him in the opening cinematic of Overture then the entire Penumbra series would cease to exist!
I’m glad you mentioned Eternal Darkness and Sanitarium as well because although I haven’t played them, despite owning them, I know they’re well respected.
One of the greatest things about Moon was that for a good chunk of the film you didn’t know which way things were going to go and in truth neither did Sam Bell and that’s one of the reasons why I found it so compelling and Rockwell’s performance to be so good. I agree with regards to the hallucinations but they were small fries to me.
Great read Meho.