Obstruction & Affect in In the Shadow of No Towers #3

The use of obstructed objects in #3 of In The Shadow of No Towers has been discussed in terms of the smoke obstructing words in Taylor’s post, but I wanted to expand the discussion to the panels that are covered by the Mars Attacks card and the “Don’t Breathe!” poster (which I am guessing is the poster to which mouse-Spiegelman is referring at the bottom of the page). There are three panels that are significantly obstructed by these items. In the first, speech and thought bubbles are visible and complete, but the characters to whom those bubbles are attached are covered (though it is fairly easy to determine which bubble belongs to which character). In the second, only two words in a text block are decipherable: “It was”. In the third, a single corner of the panel just barely peeks out from behind the poster.

The obstruction of these panels–the second one in particular–frustrated me to a certain extent, because I kept feeling that I was being deprived of an important component of the narrative, but the more I think about that feeling, the more I realize that it is a productive kind of frustration, an intentional affect created by the careful placement of the items on the page. The page itself is about the panic and uncertainty experienced by Spiegelman and his wife while trying to find their daughter, and the frustration is an effective recreation of at least a small part of that sense of uncertainty.

While, for this particular work, I do think that the comix format was particularly useful to communicate the narrative, especially given the motif of smoke that accompanies the story on #3, but I have encountered other media that create a similar affect by withholding or obstructing information. One example that comes to mind is the novel House of Leaves. The novel takes the form of a lengthy film critique of a nonexistent (even in the world of the novel) documentary about a family that discovers that their house is infinitely large on the inside. This film critique is discovered by the character Johnny Truant, who adds his own footnotes and commentary. In one section of the novel, the author of the film critique is about to reveal a particularly revelatory piece of analysis about the film–only to have Johnny admit that the pages in which the author discusses that particular piece of analysis are missing. While the motives for the novel’s author withholding that information may be different and have different thematic implications, the general affect is similar: it produces a feeling of frustration and a sense of incompleteness in the reader.

Player Choices in Galatea and Gone Home

One of the interesting parallels that I noticed between our discussions of Galatea and Gone Home was on the topic of choices–not the choices that the player makes, but the sum total of choices available to the player, or, in other words, the amount of interactivity available to the player. In Galatea, for example, Eric expressed frustration at the fact that he could not ask Galatea about certain topics that seemed logical to ask about, yet the player was able to touch every wall in the room, to (seemingly?) no effect. In Gone Home, there was a multitude of (seemingly?) innocuous objects with which the player could interact (e.g. soda cans, pens), whereas with other objects (e.g. Terry’s porn), Kaitlin would actively refuse to interact with the object despite the player’s requests to do so.

In some of these cases, the choices or limitations seem to make sense, whereas in other cases, they might seem like arbitrary or artificial choices made by the creator(s) of the game. I briefly mentioned this point in our class discussions, but I think that these issues inform an interesting dilemma that game creators (and interactive fiction writers) face: striking a balance between telling a cohesive narrative that explores the themes that the creator considers important, and giving the player enough choice that they do not become frustrated. This dilemma is by no means restricted to these two works. The producer of Final Fantasy XIII, Yoshinori Kitase, responded to criticisms that the game was too linear by saying, “[…]we’ve got a story to tell, and it’s important the player can engage with the characters and the world they inhabit before letting them loose.” Roger Ebert’s notorious claim that video games could never be art was based, in part, on the interactivity of the medium.

Furthermore, the examples of Gone Home and Galatea exemplify the issue of not only how many choices the player should be given, but what specific choices the player should be given. Should the player be allowed to touch the walls? To talk about certain topics? To push past the playable character’s discomfort and look at her father’s porn? To pick up every single soda can in the house? What does the ability, or inability, to complete a given action communicate to the player, and how effective is that communication? Is there value in making the player frustrated at not being able to complete an action they believe they should be able to complete?

These questions are probably more valuable to game creators than they are to gamers, and their answers most likely vary from game to game, but I still think the issue is worth pondering for “readers” of games and of interactive fiction, because they may help us better understand our frustration and bewilderment at being able to complete certain actions and being unable to complete others, and perhaps sympathize a bit with the creator. Personally, I’m still on the fence as to how well these works struck the right balance between narrative and interactivity. What are your thoughts?

The Princess As Metaphor vs. The Princess As Character

Before we discussed Braid in class, I had actually read about the atom bomb interpretation, and I admit, I was resistant to that interpretation at first. By now, I’ve seen enough evidence (the Oppenheimer quote, the Princess exploding in the alternate ending, etc.) to begrudgingly accept that the bomb metaphor is a significant component of the game, but the metaphor still pushes my feminist buttons–not because of what the Princess represents, but rather because the Princess represents an object or idea at all.

I am admittedly drawing upon my limited personal experiences to make this observation, but this particular instance seems distinct from instances in which characters serve as analogs for historical or mythological figures (e.g. Aslan as Jesus), and from large-scale allegories for large events (e.g. District 9 and South African apartheid). In the case of Braid, a person is a metaphor for a thing. The only comparable example in my memory is The Great Gatsby. While I have not personally studied the novel in any formal context or even read the book on my own, I have heard from others that the character of Daisy represents the American Dream. Daisy is also similar to the Princess in that she is a woman. So, while I can point to multiple examples of female characters being used as metaphors for objects or abstract concepts, I have yet to remember a male character being used for similar purposes.

The reason this trend (if it is indeed a trend) is so troublesome to me is that it reinforces the position of women as objects that exist for the development of men. As the protagonist of the story and the counterpart to the scientist, Tim is given an engaging existential dilemma surrounding the destructive consequences of his actions, but the Princess is afforded no significant perspective on the situation that would enrich her as a character, apart from, “Help! The bad man is after me! Save me, big muscular hero!” (This particular aspect of the game carries its own sexist implications, but they seemed more obvious and less interesting than the metaphor component.) In order to effectively communicate the atomic bomb metaphor, the Princess’s place in the story must be kept simple and ambiguous enough that she can functionally be replaced with an object.

Again, I admit that I haven’t examined enough literature to identify this aspect of the game as representative of a larger trend, but I would be interested to know if any of you have encountered either additional examples of the trend or counterexamples (i.e. male characters that serve as metaphors for objects/ideas).

Slavery Is F***ing Nuts: On Chapter 7 and God

In our discussion of the seventh chapter of The Known World on Thursday, Patrick neatly summed up the work that the chapter might be doing in presenting such strange events: “Slavery is f***ing nuts.” That quote stuck with me, as did the chapter, and I have been attempting to tease apart the insanity of the chapter in relation to the insanity of slavery. Ultimately, I’ve inferred that the craziness must have some relation to the novel’s treatment of God.

The Known World‘s perspective on God seems to be that he is unknowable and confusing; some characters, such as Moses, are frustrated by this prospect, whereas others, such as Elias, readily accept it. The text even makes reference to God’s sanity, or lack thereof: “Elias had never believed in a sane God” (p. 9). Such discussions of God are prevalent in chapter seven as well; when Counsel repeatedly falls ill and recovers, he implores God to make up his mind about whether Counsel will live or die (p. 228), and at the end of the chapter, Counsel demands to know what God wants of him (p. 243). To these characters, God does not make sense. His actions may have reasons, but those reasons are impossible to understand.

So, how does this crazy God connect to the magic realism in chapter seven? When Counsel is taken in by the family with the house that is bigger on the inside, their behavior is strange and nonsensical to him, but that does not necessarily mean that such behavior does not carry its own internal logic for the family itself. The family seems quite comfortable with their lives, and in fact, Counsel is strange and discomforting to the boy in particular.

I must be careful here, because I have no intention of making any kind of apologist argument about how slavery might not make sense to us, but it did in the Antebellum South. Instead, my point is that chapter seven seems to be about systems in which an entity in a position of power (e.g. God, the family) creates and maintains that power through an internal logic that is bizarre and confusing to the characters and the audience. These systems therefore serve as analogs for slavery, and The Known World includes them to talk about not only what slavery was like, but how it maintained itself for so long.

These thoughts are admittedly still not complete, and a closer reading of other passages in the novel may reveal more about precisely what Jones was attempting to say about how slavery was able to last for so long.

In Treatment and Distribution Experimentation

While curiously Googling In Treatment, I happened upon these two posters advertising the show, one for season one and one for season three. They indicate that, unlike the typical trend of airing one episode a week used by most television shows, when In Treatment originally aired, HBO aired several episodes a week. For season one, the episodes were aired on the same day of the week as their respective sessions took place, whereas for season three, two episodes a night were aired for two nights a week. Airing multiple episodes a week in this manner could have served up to three distinct purposes. First, particularly for season one, airing one episode per weeknight provides a connection to the show’s content and makes the audience feel as if they are watching the show in real time (though admittedly it’s not exact, given that some of the sessions occur in the morning or afternoon). Second, airing multiple episodes a week allows the show’s creators to more easily get away with fitting more content into a single season, which is helpful for a show in which each narrative is only explored in one fifth of the episodes. Third, the distribution pattern allows audiences to more easily recall previous sessions with a given patient and thus follow the narratives.

In our presentation on the Netflix distribution model, Lindsey and I discussed Netflix’s acceptance of the binge-watching trend in the distribution of original content, as well as the fact that the precedent for Netflix’s subscription-based revenue and subsequent ability to target niche markets was previously set by subscription channels like HBO and Showtime. In Treatment may provide a link between the two concepts. If HBO’s subscription model allows for greater experimentation and innovation than advertising, as we suggested in our presentation might be the case, then that model may be what allowed HBO to risk airing In Treatment five episodes a week and attempt to break its audience’s viewing habits–and then change the distribution pattern again for a new season.

Another factor that may have contributed to HBO’s ability to experiment with airing patterns is the variety of viewing options at the audience’s disposal. The bottom of the season one poster advertises that, if watching one episode every weeknight does not fit into their schedule, they can “catch up with back-to-back episodes every Sunday,” record episodes on demand, stream them online, or download them from iTunes. While many of these options are available for most TV shows, it is curious that HBO would specifically advertise the availability of such options, and suggests their acute awareness that either they were taking a big risk by experimenting with distribution patterns, or their audience needed a variety of viewing options regardless of the format and distribution of the show (or both).

Thus, In Treatment provides an interesting parallel to the discussion about the Netflix distribution model of releasing an entire season all at once, and contributes a valuable case study to the questions that such discussion raises: At what pace are different television shows best viewed, and how might that pace be informed by the content of the narrative itself? Is there such a thing as a best pace at which to view a particular television show, or is it entirely dependent on the individual viewer and their own choices and viewing habits? What business models best allow for distribution experimentation and risk-taking?