Tuesday, September 29, 2015

[Bort Sept. 2015] The Impossible Scaffold

M.C. Escher: Ascending-and-Descending
Maps make no sense. Many people know this, yet we keep making them to organize our sense of space. Jorge Luis Borges’ flash fiction reminds us that the perfect map is useless and instead cartographers must find balance between abstraction and representation to produce maps that can guide us from location to location. A discussion about maps within digital games threatens to fall into the same analogy of a “real” landscape being turned into textual and symbolic representation. This comparison seems flawed since all digital architecture is first and foremost an abstract map-state before ever being realized as a two or three-dimensional terrain filled with visual landmarks. Unlike an explorer who wants sails to uncharted coasts then meticulously sketches what she sees a as video game designer first writes “Here be monsters,” and them the artists and programmers make the dragon appears.
What we might call the “reverse construction” of digital maps means that all digital space has a narrative foundation to its architecture. From the lowliest iPhone app interface to the campaign of the next Call of Duty game, there is always a way the designers want us to navigate the spaces they create. The 2008 game, Gravity Bone, shows us how the subjective experience of narrative can complicate our traditional understanding of maps and literal space. As a short spy-adventure game that requires fewer than fifteen minutes, Blendo Studio’s experimental storytelling stands at the threshold of the post-WASD generation of indie titles. (It can be downloaded here and I recommend a quick playthrough if you want to avoid the spoilers below). Heralded by many as a novel and witty arts game, Gravity Bone plays on the tropes of adventure games only to cut short and kill the player in the second level.
I still remember the surprising gunshot, theft, and broken window that diverted the game’s narrative into a blurred and frantic first-person chase sequence. The jump from the hotel window led me into a neon noir where layers of highways, tramways, and catwalks cling to a concrete canyon while below a glowing and polluted river threatens on the verge of coagulation. The woman jumped down a hole and I followed and flowed effortlessly through chute after chute until we landed upon a table surrounded with masquerading diners. The party goers watched as we unexpected guests dodge and double back through the room only to leave a cloud of shattered champagne flutes in their wake. The door led the woman back into the smoggy darkness where her feet pattered over the metal grating of a dangling catwalk. When I finally caught up to her around the corner she drew her weapon and fired until my body toppled over the railing. My first person view falls slowly like an elevator stopping at each floor to welcome forgotten memories. The flashbacks of past heists and danger inter cut on the screen as I gaze out on the cityscape. Finally, moments before my body lands on the highway, my visions settle on the image of a woman winning a footrace.
The falling death sequence mirrors the first image of the game where the player begins by descending in an elevator. This visual cues point us to an idea of “verticality” which has often been ignored by the game’s commentators. Much of the progress through the earlier portions of the game subsists on descending into the “furnace rooms” where the player find useful items and then emerges back into the hotel sequences to solve minor puzzles. These chthonic spaces promise at some seedy mechanical dystopia that lurks under the cocktail party elegance. Ultimately, the protagonist, Citizen Abel, fails to be a successful spy who can rise and fall between these two spaces and instead falls one last time to his death. What we have in this narrative is an acute awareness of the z-axis, a space that is often ignored for the more popular length and width, “x,y” coordinates, of cartographic space.
Not surprisingly, Gravity Bone is also the kind of action game where maps seem unnecessary. Unlike a sandbox game or RPG, adventure games assume linearity and are often celebrated for elegantly designing a world that guides the player the way a backlot studio tour might lead movie-goers from set piece to set piece of their favorite summer blockbusters. We don’t want a map because we never need to back track or find alternate routes to these locations. Once we experience a specific location we move on forever. In light of this illusion, I propose that action games deserve the most critical cartographic examination. Their mesmerizing, blockbuster pacing too often persuades us to forget the journey and instead revel in the chain of destinations. The notion of “gravity” in Gravity Bone promises this sense of natural acceleration towards the final contact with asphalt but, the moment I take a step back and analyze the passage through space, the illusion collapses.
When I reached the final catwalk and the woman shot me my vertical elevation was actually above the hotel window where the chase began. You can see it in the picture below; it’s the little window in the bottom left. 
This is physically impossible since throughout the entire chase both characters only moved downward. The chutes streamlined the entire chase sequence and forced me to move only one direction. The M.C. Escher lithograph gracing the top of my post provides a visual depiction of Gravity Bone’s vertical chicanery. Known as the penrose stair illusion, this image depicts the physically impossible yet visually conceivable infinite staircase. Gravity Bone’s chase is a virtual realization of the penrose star. What’s curious about this realization is that it did not disorient my experience during my first playthrough. I only noticed the discrepancy in height after several replays-- the narrative actually masks the architectural impossibility of the situation.

Gravity Bone’s narrative arc and ultimate catharsis demanded that the city rearrange itself to let the protagonist fall farther than what ought to be possible. The discrepancy between altitude offers an example of architectural metaphor unique to videogames. What other spatial inconsistencies have I walked right by in video games? What steps do designers take to hide space and distance from our digital eyes? More importantly, how can we add these fantastic virtual leaps to our growing arsenal of hyperlinks and Twine games to build a more powerful nexus for self-expression and storytelling? I suspect Borges and Escher still have much more to tell us about the rules and rule-breaking potentials of those atlases that arrange our world.