Features Essays Published 29 January 2014

The Console is All Eyes

Lacan, video-gaming and the rise of the interactive text.

A. E. Dobson

Interactivity in theatre has a long history, but its adoption as a selling point for a glut of new works can be explained in more recent terms: the influence and ubiquity of technology. Multimedia has not only expanded creative possibilities but colonised our language. Our expectations have been coloured by the freedoms we enjoy online and the culture industry has adapted to meet this  demand.

Filmmakers in Germany and Holland have recently experimented with sending text messages and images to viewers in synchrony with events onscreen, forcing cinemas to drop their no-phones policy; similarly, Disney offered an app for use during a special screening of The Little Mermaid. Books became eBooks and TVs got smart; on the underground, commuters are as likely to be rearranging coloured jewels on their iPhone as they are to be buried behind a newspaper or weighty hardback. We now expect our entertainment to respond to us in some manner and relish the pleasure this affords.

But what is this pleasure and how does it work? In general, interactive drama gives rise to two classes of effect that mix pleasure with pain. The first of these – the friendly one – is a heightened feeling of immersion in a performance: we are drawn-in and consumed, granted that joy of self-erasure known as escapism. As subjects we become textualised and constitute part of the artwork.

The second effect, counterintuitively and paradoxically, is a radical distancing of the subject; those moments of communion with the text are punctuated by a raised sense of self-consciousness – an awareness that demands are being made of us, and that a response is awaited. We may even feel pressurised to be participating ‘well’. This differs significantly from the usual critical position where the observer seeks first to understand and then articulate a work’s affects; unlike more traditional modes of performance, the interactive text is itself active. The interactive text is bearer of a look.

We may be familiar with what Laura Mulvey identified as the three gazes of cinema: that of the characters, the spectator, and the camera. To these, the interactive text adds a fourth: its own. The idea of the returned gaze is of course nothing new. The most famous example is Manet’s Olympia, the portrait of a prostitute whose challenge to male voyeurism outraged Paris in 1863. Similarly, the shock of our surreptitious looking being discovered is familiar to viewers of Brecht’s plays, or of the confrontational stare of Godard’s heroines. But unlike these examples, here is an intelligent gaze –one that not only requires and responds to our actions but by extension judges us. It rewards or punishes our choices according to some unseen rationale.

The awareness or perception that our behaviour is being measured against a standard serves to stress the programmatic nature of the interactive text. Digital or otherwise, an underlying system is acting as guarantor of the exchange. There are rules. Like a game, the parameters of our freedom are circumscribed and policed, and our experience of the encounter is one that treads a line between obeying these rules and probing their limits.

Little wonder then that videogame terminology is seeping into the debate surrounding productions such as Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man and Elmgreen and Dragset’s filmic installation at the V&A, Tomorrow. The videogame is an interactive text par excellence. The paucity of work dedicated to understanding how they function can be explained two-fold. The first reason is their perceived childishness. Often littered with the iconography of preadolescence, they may be too saccharine for academics to take (or to be seen to take) seriously. On the other hand, contrarily, games are associated with addiction, degeneracy and violence. They even stand accused of training a new generation of terrorists. The contradiction between these attitudes is clear, but meaningful; whatever lay behind it may help explain the strange fascination games exert on their users, and what production companies stand to gain by bringing this power into their theatres. The answer perhaps lies in the videogame’s bridging of these poles. In them, we may find an ambivalence or tension arising between innocence and its loss; childhood and the sullied adult world.

Elmgreen & Dragset's Tomorrow. Photo: Anders Sune Berg

Elmgreen & Dragset’s Tomorrow. Photo: Anders Sune Berg

Influential though the writing of Jacques Lacan has been on the study of stage and screen, his description of the Mirror Stage could find no application more apt than the videogame. Players are not only confronted by their ego-ideal but subject it to their control. If not literally, the image virtually reflects the observer through his or her actions – and indeed, in many 2D games this image is inverted: a gesture to our right moves the character to its left. This reflection permits the player the thrill of inhabiting an idealised form who is suped-up, hyper-masculine, or otherwise invested with some quality or significance that elevates it above the homogeny of the masses. The act of playing therefore becomes a performance, an expression of this singularity and autonomy over which the player claims ownership. The user is witness to a display of his or her own virtuosity: an audience of one. To the initiated, the intricate patterns of inputs required to execute a string of special moves in Street Fighter achieve a grace akin to dance; there is beauty in the execution of controlled, economical, timely movements in the face of an opponent who seeks precisely to thwart them. The Guitar Hero series takes this dynamic a step further by staging it in a virtual auditorium, complete with an impatient, baying crowd of automatons waiting to be won-over.

One aspect of the pleasure of gaming is therefore rooted in narcissism: it flatters the sense of our own uniqueness. By contrast, the characters controlled by the machine, whilst perhaps sharing our motivation within the narrative or competing for the same goals are utterly unremarkable – they can be readily generalised, reduced to simple, repetitive patterns of behaviour. This makes them expendable. Most exist only to be mown-down.

But our navel-gazing doesn’t go unchallenged. The videogame is an unstable site of narcissism. Unlike the cinematic image, which recreates and prolongs the Mirror Stage, the interactive image represents its redoubling; we oscillate between a position of continuity with and separateness from the text. There are two strategies by which the machine systematically seeks to interrupt our looking by reasserting its own. The first of this is through the gameplay mechanic itself, where the player is compelled to live according to Beckett’s adage: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Many lives will be shed in the pursuit of our objective. The success upon which the continuity of our experience is secured is immersive only up to the point of critical mass: the instant we become cognisant of and alarmed by this success. Caught in the act of self-love we panic, our clumsy fingers causing us to drift into the path of an oncoming bullet or to become cornered by marauding ghosts.

Another disruptive strategy is found in the game’s regulation of the pace. Periods of action are halted by narrative cut-scenes that either progress the story or afford a brief breather between levels. Tellingly, here games employing a first-person perspective will often shift to third-person, or otherwise a camera that had been hitherto fixed or directed by the player will revert to cinematic tropes. This brings the primacy of our looking into question. We become aware that our experience is mediated – that in some sense, it is we who are being played; alongside this realisation comes a heightened sense of the machine’s scrutiny.

For the console is all eyes. Aquiver with pulsating current, its peripherals anticipate our touch. And because it so closely monitors our position within its virtual spaces, the picture on the screen is very much its dominion. It is here that the early Resident Evil games derive much of their power to shock. Their in-game space is fragmented, presented via a series of fixed camera angles. Blurry and lowly-resolved, these have the appearance of CCTV footage; above and beyond the encroaching undead, they quietly evoke some dissolute, malevolent force watching us. It’s in the walls as they flicker; it fills hazy, empty space. This makes us all the more anxious when moving into new rooms, where zombies may be lurking just out of shot and we don’t know how the unpredictable viewpoints will situate us onscreen. But continued play fosters familiarity – we regain control of our character and mastery of space, and in doing so wrest ownership of the onscreen image from the machine generating it.

Neon Genesis Evangelion

Neon Genesis Evangelion

In other words, the experience of traversing the interactive text is one that oscillates between being subject to and appropriating the structural position of Big Other. This is seen over and over in sandbox games such as Grand Theft Auto, where the rules of the game become synonymous with the rules governing society – with both the ostensible law and the subliminal Law of the Father.  And if we look to the gaming output of Japan, we find strong stylistic and thematic ties between the arcade and coming-of-age narratives of anime. There is no better exemplar of this link than the series (and now film trilogy) Neon Genesis Evangelion. Struggling with the burden of his nascent adulthood, an insecure teenager is required to defend Tokyo using a giant, ungainly robot. Overtly phallic and other, this clearly externalises the character’s fears about the changes his body is undergoing and the role he is expected to assume, as a Man, in protecting the doomed city.

The problems Shinji encounters synchronising with the machine pretty much sums up the experience of playing a manic Japanese shooter such as Radiant Silvergun or DoDonPachi; for him, as for us, the interface serves as an intermediary – a surrogate body or membrane across which the force of our will is converted into action. The task is to overcome this gap, to render control instinctive and spontaneous. Ultimately, of course, the characters achieve this mastery – they mature, pass through the Mirror Stage and secure the conditions for the continuation of civilisation. Likewise, the player, after hours of dedicated practice, learns to resist textual-uncoupling and beats the game.

But theatre doesn’t give much scope for practice. We leave the performance space evaluating the choices we made and ruing missed chances – wondering if we made the most of the opportunities presented to us and how we measured-up as participants. For some, this alone may be reason to plan a second visit. This is good news for the impresarios among us, though in truth the economic benefit conferred by ‘replay value’ is slight in comparison to interactivity’s reaffirmation of the authenticity of the theatrical experience.

If, like a videogame, participatory theatre is a dream over which we exercise the illusion of control, then it must be experienced to be fully understood. Nothing bores more than the reported dreams of others. In this regard, interactive drama is a caricature of orthodox theatre writ large – it exaggerates the games we were already playing when second-guessing plot twists or speculating on authorial intent; it exaggerates the way that performances already seek to manipulate us, to lead us on. This makes sense in the current cultural and economic climate. The film industry countered the threat of Blu-ray, streaming and widescreen LCDs by projecting 3D imagery onto screens big enough to be housed in barns. In the face of a society where everything is available at all times, the theatre has responded by becoming more theatrical than the theatre.


A. E. Dobson is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine



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