Home > Writing Portfolio > Three Modernisms!: 1

I. Modern Visions

I joked that a horrible, inescapable recurring thought that claws around in my brain every so often is that I should write an in-depth take about how Wolfenstein was the first modern videogame. It’s not an article I want to write on many levels, I’ve never played Wolfenstein and it is not particularly interesting to me. But when we talk about how videogames represent we almost exclusively discuss things like characters and narrative, especially in relation to particularly generic and narrative-light videogames steered by upper management marketing consensus. It’s not interesting to me that Tracer is a lesbian, functionally she’s a gun that appears in animated shorts and licensed comic books sometimes.

In terms of how videogames represent objects and spaces more broadly/functionally the gun and the eye are close siblings. So many early videogame describe their rationale in arming the player with something that shoots some sort of projectiles, in addition to the sci fi and military culture that incubated the “first games” privileged in many fan-histories of videogames, as simply being the easiest way for a virtual eye in a space to interact with that space… there’s only two points and a linear trajectory between them, rather than the surprisingly complex systems involved in manually manipulating one’s environment. In early 3D environments, first person perspective is created by the virtual eye literally shooting the world itself via raycasting. This process cuts computing power by only generating the visible world in relation to the eye’s position, shooting out “rays” and calculating how far away things like walls and enemies are.

Wolfenstein was the most well-known videogame to make use of this technology, and in many ways set the tone for first-person games from that point, both how their spaces are represented and what you do in them, as seeing and shooting become indeterminate, fusing into a single method of seeing-traversing a space. Of course, this matches up with Modern conceptions of vision and representation. Prior to the Enlightenment era fascination with mathematically representing perspective through the principles of Euclidean geometry, artists were rarely concerned with “realistic representation” of depth from a particular viewpoint in the way we think of it now. Objects in altarpieces, bas relief carvings, and so on were sized not by their position relative to the imagined viewer, for example, but by importance in a hierarchy that existed outside of the picture, whether it be religious, political or related to the use of the particular image. Essentially: the relative position of an imagined viewer was not yet important in visual representation.

Illusionistic painting which attempted to create an effect of depth within a framed canvas represents a move to a kind of viewer-centric fantasy related to the role painting began to play with the emergence of a merchant class and extractive, colonial networks of trade which gave them surplus wealth to spend patronizing the arts in Europe. It is a fantasy of ownership, a world in miniature that feels real and can be enjoyed at any time from within the home. Along with the new taxonomies and ways of organizing the world which were represented in the private cabinets of curiosities that laid the groundwork for museums, the geometric way of organizing vision was another way of seeing, organizing and knowing; one which now did not rely on an external religious hierarchy or purpose. Geometric perspective starts from the singular eye of the viewer, from the moment the rough lines are drawn to guide the eventual painting anything depicted is not only oriented to him but already his (usually a wealthy patron), and he acquires this quantified, precise representation.

Guns have also emerged alongside these new forms of representation, contributing to the history of Modernity. Hito Steyerl notes in her lecture “I Dreamed a Dream: Politics in the Age of Mass Art Production” that “You pull the trigger, we do the rest” was the motto of the first line of widely available Kodak cameras, and implicitly describes the mass automation of violence the modern firearm also represents. “In the long run this produced a massive democratization of violence, which one could claim ran in parallel with the violence of democratization as such… any idiot could kill anyone else in a very cost‐efficient and effective way.” Killing and visual representation become distributed, technologized, and convinced of their own rationality, the camera is sold as a device that captures the view in front of you with a single "click." From uncanny bodies lobbed to bits by cropped and chopped photos in ads covering every free public surface, all the way down to the distinct unease of being tagged in a photo without permission online, existing as a seen image can invite violence, and being in someone's line of sight can put you under attack. And from here we loop back to how the Enlightenment regime of vision emerges in videogames… that which can be seen from the singular (mono-ocular) objective position of The Viewer of quantifiable Euclidean geometry can be owned, colonized, appropriated, enjoyed, and now even shot at.

So, the question this implies is: “is the difference presented by the “walking simulator” of being a first person shooter that takes away your gun really such a difference?” The term “walking simulator” has an interesting history... The term emerged as a way of dismissing first person games without typical videogame “action” via Steam’s tagging system, and then was embraced by the creators of these games, used to delineate and then sell a new genre. It’s notable to me that of the indie game formats framed as “accessible” to small scale creators in some way or another, walking simulators have proven to be the one that is most recuperable, most amenable to the other mainstream ideas of polish, immersion, empathy, prestige. Interactive Fiction was not really re-energized in the long run by Twine, and there still feels like a schism between very formal, puzzle-oriented IF and more expressive IF, the first too insular to really influence anything else and the latter, like Visual Novels, too associated with women’s subjectivity to have broad appeal. Sorry ladies, but sometimes a western male developer can properly discipline the VN as a degraded form into an appropriately ironic or self-referential project. And do I even need to address RPGMaker, since even deluxe studio JRPGs are generally considered a dead end, obsolete form by western games discourse. Similarly things like klik n play games and Unity horror games, by virtue of their categorization, wear their process too visibly. Maybe you can make the argument that a walking simulator is a Unity horror game or Doom WAD that has sufficiently concealed its process.

Regardless, walking simulators are the most likely genre, maybe alongside retro-style pixel platformers and metroidvanias, to appear on the main pages of console and pc storefronts. I think it’s because they shake things up, but not too much (Of course you see more typical AAA games adopting some of their narrative tactics and reflexive moments of "non-action" too). In their logics they are still primarily extractive, and while they may not be raycasted anymore the environment still “performs” for the imagined viewer as the technological representation of their “eye” enters and exits certain areas of the game space. In many walking simulators, there's actually very little "walking," the player usually acts as a disembodied and sometimes not even explained “viewpoint” which can methodically explore an area, accessing any number of private possessions and correspondences, internal narratives via voiceover narration, and traces of events, becoming a sort of spatial omnipotent narrator of data (or a forthcoming model of Alexa). While some leave dramatic ambiguities even after all of these elements are found and recovered, the general sense is of eventually "having all the parts" of the events that happened in a space that is supposed to feel evocative and “real,” exhausting it.

Alexander Galloway’s description of the extractive nature of computer interaction in The Interface Effect-- “Our intense investment in worlds – our acute fact finding, our scanning and data mining, our spidering and extracting – is the precondition for how worlds are revealed” --seems like even more specifically a description of what a player “does” in the “non-gameplay” of a walking simulator. He goes on to assert “the promise is not one of revealing something as it is, but in simulating a thing so effectively that “what it is” becomes less and less necessary to speak about.” The problem of first person visual representation and simulation's roots in Enlightenment ideas becomes apparent here, the monocular, quantifiable, data and simulation driven perspective is rational and realistic by its own measures. It justifies itself; it does not need to question its own ideology (by its measure, how could it have any?). Increasing “realism” for its own sake, making increasingly “lived in” simulations with more sophisticated voice acting and lighting effects, absorbing more categories of person, place, ephemera, is what will make the walking simulator as theorized more legitimated. To be blunt, the primary feeling I take away from a videogame directed by an adult man where you can access all the artefacts of a teenage girl’s sapphic self-realization is not “feeling represented” as someone who went through similar experiences but “feeling the heebie-jeebies.”