Failures of the world, unite!
Planted May 5, 2021
Metal Gear Solid’s (1998) GAME OVER screen has become a gaming icon; “It’s video game’s iconic scream.” wrote Zack Kotzer for Vice. The devastated exclamations of Solid Snake’s team echoing against a black screen overlaid with neon, futuristic lettering is proof of one thing: the player had failed, and Snake had died. Snake had died because the player failed. Considering failure and success as a life-or-death situation seems reductive, an equivocation entirely unrelatable to most people who pick up a game controller. But adhering to these black & white, good & bad definitions of failure is commonplace in videogames. So, I ask: what happens when we begin to look at failure as a state of different degrees? When we question the systems which enable success and failure? Most importantly, what happens when we recontextualise failure as appealing? Jack Halberstam, Professor of Gender Studies and English at Columbia University, writes that “There’s another kind of pleasure in that … You rewrite the game, and in the process you accept what we call failure.” It’s Halberstam’s work that I want to talk about the most here, specifically, The Queer Art of Failure.
It’s only fitting for an essay about failure to begin with a disclaimer: I am cis-gendered, white, and heterosexual. It’s important I mention this now because I’ll be looking at Disco Elysium through a queer lens shaped by my own heteronormative experiences; my experiences are inseparable from the way I understand the game. In her book Queer Phenomenology, Sarah Ahmed speaks of “orientation” as beyond the commonly understood sexual orientation: “Orientations shape not only how we inhabit space, but how we apprehend this world of shared inhabitance, as well as ‘who’ or ‘what’ we direct our energy and attention towards." I am a Polish immigrant to England; my parents and extended family are manual laborers from a post-Communist era. My political orientation sits firmly, firmly left. After an extended conversation with my partner, we both settled on the idea that we identify as male and female, respectively, because that’s what we’re used to. Being referred to as a man doesn’t feel wrong, and so the label stuck for the past 24 years. I am heterosexual so far – my lived experience has been privileged by the lack of fear that feels so common to queer lived experience – but I cannot say this with full certainty. In Queer Game Studies, Adrienne Shaw and Bonnie Ruberg write that “Queerness, as its heart, can be defined as the desire to live life otherwise, by questioning and living outside of normative boundaries.” I feel that. Having lived my entire life happily benefitting from passing as a heterosexual man, it approaches stolen valour to say that I identify with queerness. The queer experience is not, of course, defined by suffering.
Halberstam argues that heteronormative societies (ones where heterosexuality is dominant and the assumed “norm”) equate success with getting better, getting richer, growing a family, buying a house and a car and so on. Queer and “counterhegemonic” modes of thought equate failure with a refusal to conform to those: not seeking riches, not growing a family, critique, and negativity. If you’re a queer person, you have two options: to apologise, change your ways, and say that yes, I will get married, have kids, play the game your way and hope that you see me as a success on your terms. The other, obviously, is to fuck it all off. Halberstam is talking about real life, a philosophy to live your life by. But I want to apply this to video games, too, and there is no better example of a game which supports this than Disco Elysium. By willingly failing, we reject the terms of success established by another and instead we establish our own boundaries, facing a moment of self-actualization: defining our own terms for success. The terms of success in videogames with point-scoring systems or competitive systems are clear. In roleplaying games, these terms are less clear. Kathryn Boyd Stockton refers to an “accumulation of anti-capital” (Shaw and Ruberg, 2017, p.208), with capital being this Marxist understanding of wealth and the power to generate wealth. It is this accumulation that builds up value over time, and it is these failings that feel awful in the moment but yield greater benefits over time. Failing a skill check feels terrible in the moment, but it defines Harry Du Bois. With every failed skill check, we get some glimpse of a man broken by his demons, by his ideology, and by the world around him.
So, what is wrong with success, getting better, having a family, and being an individual? At face value: not much. But Óliver Pérez-Latorre and Mercè Oliva write that “free choice and individualism are at the core of neoliberal governmentality”. They go on to write that “Neoliberalism is based on placing the responsibility on individuals, who must look after themselves, while it also advocates the dismantling of public policies. In other words, in neoliberal societies, individuals are expected to govern themselves according to certain objectives.”. The genre of roleplaying games overlays with neoliberal politics very neatly: both are concerned with self-governance (Bioshock), self-improvement (Path of Exile), and are usually highly individualistic (The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim). The win conditions of these games almost always revolve around a Hero, a singular actor who, through sheer effort and self-determination, faces some challenge and brings some change (mostly good) to the world. These changes aren’t systemic; there’s no Johan Galtung-styled Peace Studies theory to resolving the conflict between Skyrim’s Empire and the Stormcloaks, no regulations, sanctions, or reform inherent in systemic change. Just effort, might, and sheer determination. Defining failure through the lens of neoliberalism leads us to a similar outcome as Halberstam; collectivism becomes a form of failure. You’re not pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, but depending on the systems you exist in and the people around you to help. This neoliberal approach to failure places the player in opposition to the game systems; the player is expected to persevere, grow, improve, and triumph over the game’s challenges. When we look at Disco Elysium, we know that this is not a game requiring dexterity or other forms of player skill; it’s slow and prose heavy. Brendan Keogh, lecturer of videogame studies and culture at Queensland Digital Media Centre, writes: “… videogames produced beyond the confines of the high-budget blockbuster industry are instead phenomenological— explicitly that of situated navigation rather than godlike configuration, a corporeal engagement of the senses rather than an intellectual engagementof systems— and they require an integrated and cooperative relationship between the human and the computer.”
Phenomenology is a philosophical school of thought, widely agreed to have been founded in the late 20th century by Edmund Husserl. A succinct definition can be found in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy from David Smith: “phenomenology is the study of “phenomena”: appearances of things, or things as they appear in our experience, or the ways we experience things, thus the meanings things have in our experience. Phenomenology studies conscious experience as experienced from the subjective or first person point of view.” (Smith, 2018)
This is a key concept for considering videogames, especially roleplaying games, where the player is tasked with inserting themselves, or a character of their making, into the game’s world. Roleplaying games, above all, are concerned with the idea of “immersion” or “flow”, with the two terms often used interchangeably. And what Keogh writes is largely true: it only takes a quick look at the receptions to games like Gone Home, Dear Esther to see that those smaller games often concern themselves with the feeling and affects of inhabiting a space. It takes another quick look to see that anything dubbed a “walking simulator” is given a sideways glance because it doesn’t meet some arbitrary standard of capital or development quality. Taken in the context of Disco Elysium especially, the game presents the player with a breakdown of every aspect of Harry’s personality.These 24 aspects break down the barrier between Harry’s phenomenological experience and the player’s. Some of these aspects, like “Endurance”, “Pain Threshold”, “Encyclopaedia”, “Rhetoric”, and “Empathy” are self-explanatory. Others, like “Inland Empire” and “Electro-chemistry” are more abstract and instead make a statement about the kind of person Harry is/was. “Inland Empire” is described in-game as: “Hunches and gut feelings. Dreams in waking life.” (ZA/UM, 2019)
To bring this back to Keogh’s initial point, I’d like to make a connection to Donna Haraway’s idea of the “cyborg” as “creatures simultaneously animal and machine, who populate worlds ambiguously natural and crafted.” (Haraway and Wolfe, 2016, p.6) If the neoliberal approach is to dominate the system and the game then, conversely, I want to apply the idea of the cyborg to a gamer who integrates with the game systems.
This “cyborg-gamer” Keogh outlines is a more apt lens for me to approach Disco Elysium with. Disco makes clear the factors which affect the player’s rolls. If the player, for example, maintains an amicable relationship with Kim Kitsuragi, the interface indicating a dice roll during a pivotal narrative beat will display the following disclaimer: “+1 – Kim trusts you”. If the player develops a friendship with Lt. Kitsuragi, the game will also show: “+1 – Kim really trusts you”. While the game relies on dice and chance to randomise outcomes, it also offers the player assistance. To turn down the game’s assistance and instead “savescum” is “to abolish chance by holding it in the grip of causality and finality, to count on the repetition of throws rather than affirming chance, to anticipate a result instead of affirming necessity.” writes French philosopher Gilles Delezue. So, the cyborg-player is one who denies the hegemonic dominance required of neoliberal approaches to failure, and one who aims to integrate with the game’s systems. So, to integrate with the game’s systems is one thing but lacks purpose independently. Why should the player integrate with the game’s system and stop trying to dominate it?
Well… this takes us back to Halberstam’s writing: we should embrace this queer art of failure when playing roleplaying games. Indeed, outside of them too, but I don’t think I can convince you to live your life differently with this word limit. There’s a character in Disco Elysium who seems to embody this. Someone who rejected success.
Deep within the Doomed Commercial Area, past its offices and maintenance tunnels, by a window overlooking Revachol and next to a now-defunct chimney stack sits a Novelty Dicemaker. She doesn’t have a name; the Novelty Dicemaker is one of the few characters defined by their labour. She runs, right now, the only successful business operating out of the Doomed Commercial Area. She laughs the “curse” off as mere superstition but acknowledges that the chimney stack is technically outside of the building. The Novelty Dicemaker is the only one who seems to have staved off labour alienation, using Marx’s definition of a worker who has been separated from the product of their labour, and instead works independently, creating a product which she herself sells to a local community she is part of. The Dicemaker is, by capitalist definitions, a failure. She lives by herself, in a property which doesn’t belong to her, and she does not accumulate wealth. Nonetheless, this highlights that the neoliberal use of “self-improvement” isn’t an inherent negative and shouldn’t be looked at as such. Growing one’s skills isn’t a malicious scheme to extract profit and alienate workers from their labour. At least… not always. The difference here is between self-actualisation and labour alienation; the Dicemaker has reached a point of equilibrium. Her skills provide for her lifestyle, and nothing more.
By applying queer readings to games, we can form other, non-hegemonic definitions of play itself. Playing not to finish the game, but to spend time in its space, to score the lowest score, or to play in ways unsupported by the game’s systems are all means of queer play which would be treated as “failure” by the society we live in. But it’s a start; exploring what it means to play, fail, and succeed through videogames can be a safe start to exploring our own worlds and lives, and what our society values.