Daniel Vella

Daniel Vella is a lecturer at the Institute of Digital Games at the University of Malta. His teaching and research touches upon a number of topics, including ludic subjectivity, the phenomenology of videogame play, games and aesthetic philosophy, and fictionality and narrative in games.

Contact information:
daniel.m.vella at um.edu.mt
Institute of Digital Games
University of Malta
Msida, MSD 2080

No Mastery Without Mystery: Dark Souls and the Ludic Sublime

by Daniel Vella


Prominent critical perspectives on games have adopted ontological framings of the game object, and, linked to this, a privileging of games’ procedural nature, focusing on the game system in itself as the source of meaning. This paper argues that these discourses align with what Jacques Rancière termed the “representative regime” of art, and that, instead, much can be gained by adopting the perspective of the “aesthetic regime”, which considers the artwork not as an objective system or logos, but as an object of thought for its recipient. Such an understanding allows us to align the philosophical aesthetics of Kant, Ingarden and Iser with preliminary work done in the field of game hermeneutics, with Arsenault and Perron’s concept of the “magic cycle” of game play, and with a phenomenological approach to the game object. This will let us theorize games as aesthetic objects, mental constructs developed by the player as she engages with the unseen game system — which, in turn, allows us to suggests that what may be called the “ludic sublime” is a crucial aesthetic moment in the player’s engagement with a game, defined by the player’s drive towards mastery of the game coming face-to-face with the impossibility of obtaining complete, direct knowledge of the underlying system. Finally, the concept of the ludic sublime, and its aesthetic implications, will be framed through an analysis of Dark Souls that will demonstrate the aesthetic mechanisms of the ludic sublime in action.

Keywords: Phenomenology, hermeneutics, aesthetics, sublime, proceduralism, interpretation, Dark Souls.

In the face of discourses that foreground the computational and procedural qualities of the game object, is it possible to clear out an aesthetic space within games for that which resists direct presentation or conceptualization, which slips through the interstices of the system? Can we identify the workings of a ludic sublime, the formal establishment within games of that aesthetic mode which “marks the limits of reason and expression together with a sense of what might lie beyond these limits” (Shaw 2006, p.2)?

The notion of the sublime is not entirely new to game studies. Paul Martin (2011) has employed it to explicate the manner in which the landscape in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (Bethesda 2008) is initially presented to the player as a boundless expanse, suggestive of near-infinite possibilities for exploration and constituting a whole beyond the grasp of the imagination. It is unsurprising that the sublime proves well-suited to the task of outlining Oblivion’s poetics of landscape — we need only recall the late seventeenth and eighteenth-century usage of the term to address the feeling of delight mixed with terror that accompanied the contemplation of Alpine landscapes for British Grand Tourists like John Dennis (1693) and Joseph Addison (1773). Beyond this specific application of the theory of the sublime to an engagement with the player’s experience of gameworld landscapes, however, Martin’s analysis hints at an insight with far-reaching implications for the aesthetics of games as a whole.

My argument in this paper shall be that the feeling of the sublime constitutes a necessary moment in the aesthetic encounter with digital games, and that a consideration of its formal operations can focus our attention on an aspect of the game as an object of experience that has remained under-examined. Accordingly, I shall begin by outlining what I consider to be a blind spot in the analytical and critical approaches which, adhering too strictly to an ontological perspective, obscure the phenomenological and hermeneutical processes by which the game becomes available to the player as an object of thought. An appeal to philosophical aesthetics shall allow me to sketch an outline of these processes as a drive towards mastery that must necessarily take into account its inverse — the mystery that resists this impulse towards total knowledge and understanding of the game system, and that, in doing so, reveals the limits of thought in its striving towards a stable, systemic understanding of its world. I shall offer a theory of the ludic sublime as the aesthetic effect resulting from the foregrounding of this sense of mystery. Finally, I shall engage in a close examination of Dark Souls (From Software 2011) as a demonstration of the ludic sublime in practice.

Proceduralism, the Ontological Perspective and the “Representative Regime”

At first glance, the possibility of an aesthetics of videogames founded on the sublime seems precluded on two fronts: firstly, by virtue of the medium’s computational materiality - inherently founded as it is upon the empirical value, the defined procedure, the rigid binary of true and false, or, on an even more concrete level, “pixels on the screen, memory register allocations, current fluctuations on the motherboard” and so on (Leino 2012) — and, secondly, by the nature of the ludic form to which they adhere, determined, as Roger Caillois informs us, by a “submission to imperative and precise rules” (2001[1958], p.22).

Against a fit of material and form so perfect the distinction itself is almost effaced, how can we argue for a ludic sublime? It is hardly surprising that proceduralism has grown to constitute arguably the dominant discourse within the branch of game studies that concerns itself with the nature of the game object. Finding its foundations in the idea of the game object as “a set of parts that interrelate to form a complex whole” (Salen & Zimmerman 2004, p.55; see also Zagal et al. 2005; Bogost 2006; Järvinen 2008), proceduralism has developed into a discourse according to which the computational, systemic nature of games “is understood not just as an ontological marker of computer games, but as the specific way in which computer games build discourses of ethical, political, social and aesthetic value” (Sicart 2011). The argument takes a turn from description to prescription: games not only are systems, but they also signify as systems — it is in the structure and mechanics of their system that any communicable meaning is to be located. This, in turn, is often linked — as it is by Gonzalo Frasca (2003) and Ian Bogost (2006) — to the notion of simulation, understood as the intent “to model a (source) system through a different system” (Frasca, p.223).

Such theoretical approaches, in their attempt to establish a formal grammar of the medium, have made valuable contributions to our understanding of games, both in the fields of analysis and design. It is not my intention here to question their validity, or to diminish the value of their achievements. However, there is a danger in neglecting to interrogate the implicit assumptions of proceduralism itself from within the point of view of the wider sphere of cultural discourse[1]. The question that should be asked is: if we wish to find a place for games as cultural texts or, as loaded as the term can be, works of art, then what place is determined for them by proceduralism? And what traditions does proceduralist discourse stand alongside, or in opposition to, in the tangle of critical perspectives and theoretical approaches to the artwork?

As a critical perspective on games as artworks, this is an approach that bears strong affinities to what Jacques Rancière terms the “classical order” of the “representative regime of art”, by which the work is perceived as an “ordered arrangement” of forces and actions, revealing the operations of an overarching logos or principle of order (2009a, p.51). As Rancière argues, the representative regime — a conceptualizing of the artwork already firmly in place in Aristotle’s Poetics (2000[c.335BC]) — imposes a mimetic function on the artwork, judging its value on its representation of external reality; but mimesis does not deal in simple imitation. The mimetic artwork engages in an active process of selection and organization, fashioning the raw material of external reality into a complete, satisfying formal unity. The mimetic artwork of the representative regime therefore takes on the mode of a cosmos, “a complete, integrated system of phenomena governed by some coherent scheme of rules” (Nash 1987, p.8).

There is a certain irony in the fact that the theoretical approaches that have most forcefully argued for a formal poetics that addresses the specificities of games are, in fact, essentially a restatement within a new medium of the most firmly-established understanding of art in Western culture — this irony becomes most apparent when we note that Frasca explicitly defines simulation in opposition to representation, thereby losing sight of the common formal ground the two concepts share (2003, p.222). As Rancière observes, the representative regime renders the artwork inextricably dependent upon the logos, or system of thought, upon which it is founded. The artwork can only represent what is thinkable within its parameters: it cannot transcend the limitations of its system and, in doing so, bring those limitations into view, gesturing towards what lies beyond the grasp of its conceptualization and remains, therefore, unthinkable. Compare this to Eric Zimmerman’s polemical “Manifesto for a Ludic Century”, which proclaims that every aspect of the contemporary socio-cultural sphere is “intimately intertwined with complex systems of information”, and that “for such a systemic society, games make a natural fit” (2013). It is not possible, by this understanding, for games to stand outside this cultural zeitgeist in order to critique its foundations: they can only perpetuate it. Couched in the systems of thought that define their socio-cultural context, games can, as Zimmerman says, allow the player to explore and interrogate these systems, but they can only do so in the terms and through the logic of those very same systems.

An even more fundamental issue with the representative regime of art is that, if the artwork under the representative regime constitutes the manifestation of a logos — organizing form visited upon representational content - then the significance of the work lies not so much in the work itself, as in the meaning that can be extracted from it with relation to the domain it represents. This is an approach that commits the hermeneutical fallacy that Wolfgang Iser terms the “single-meaning technique” to interpretation, which “simply took for granted the compilation of meaning, because its sole aim was to convey what it took to be the objective, definable meaning of the text” (1980, p.23).

Of course, the claim that any text bears an “objective, definable meaning” is a problematic one. However, even if we were to set our doubts aside and agree, for the sake of argument, that there is indeed an objective meaning to be abstracted from the text (a formulation which would leave us only with the fixed, closed meaning of Roland Barthes’ texte lisible (1970, p.10)) — we must still account for the fact that, before a coherent, satisfactory interpretation of a particular work’s meaning is reached, it must initially strike us as something which demands interpretation and which does not fit any stable, pre-existing concept.

With this in mind, Iser argues that the text, in the reader’s experience of it, precedes and, as such, is not equal to the interpretation that is reduced from it. To follow up on the implications of this observation upon an ontology of the game object, two points should be highlighted. Firstly, proceduralism would imply that the game can only signify anything to the player once she is able to frame a more-or-less stable, coherent understanding of its system — that is, once she has achieved mastery of the game. Contrary to this understanding, we should adopt a theoretical perspective that brings into view the phenomenological and hermeneutic processes through which the player engages with the game. The drive towards mastery, in other words, is significant in itself — indeed, it is the impulse that structures the act of playing. The second, related point to make is that the game-as-cosmos (now revealed as an object of the player’s thought) is not equal — is, in fact, a reduction and an abstraction of — the game as an object that is given in the player’s experience.

As with all generalizations, it is, of course, hugely reductive to suggest that proceduralist game theorists have entirely ignored the question of what happens when a player encounters the game system. Frasca, for instance, has adapted a term from Peircean semiotics to arrive at the concept of the interpretamen, “the idea, or mental model, that an observer has from the representamen” (2001, p.36) — that is, the player’s interpretation of the game system as a representation of a source system. Taking the idea further, Bogost has suggested the notion of “simulation fever” to refer to the dissociative gap between the player’s own pre-existing understanding of the source domain of a simulation and the simulation’s own ideologically-shaped model of that domain (2006, p. 132). Even here, though, the idea appears to be that the player is reacting, and forming her judgments, based upon a stable understanding of the game system that is unproblematically given, and the phenomenological and hermeneutic processes by which such an understanding might be arrived at are not granted due prominence.

The primary objection to the proceduralist perspective, understood as an application to games of the representative regime of art, can now be more clearly stated. In presenting the logically-constructed cosmos as the objective game system in itself, proceduralist approaches short-circuit the gap between the objective game in itself, as a computational materiality existing independently of the player’s experience of it, and the game-as-cosmos that is the result of the player’s analytical attempt at imposing rule-based, conceptual coherence upon her experience of the game.

Moreover, this approach entirely effaces a third conceptualization of the game object: this is what might be called the phenomenal game object, that is, the game object as it is given in the player’s experience. Given that it is only as such a phenomenal game object that a game is directly available to the player, both the game-as-cosmos and the (assumed) actual game object behind the surface appearances have their foundation in the player’s intuitions of the phenomenal game object: the former as an interpretation of the intuitions given in experience, and the latter as an “implied game object” (Aarseth 2011, p.65) — implied, that is, by the player’s experience, but never directly given in that experience, and hence remaining, by definition ideal. As such, in Kantian terminology, it constitutes the noumenal complement to the phenomenal game object (2004[1781], A256/B312), posited in a transcendental move on the basis of direct experience, but not, in itself, knowable. The player, then, remains aware of an essential, and unbridgeable, gap, between her experience of the game, her understanding of the game as system, and her awareness of an underlying implied game object: as I shall argue, it is in this gap that we can locate the operations of the ludic sublime.

The conclusion to this consideration of proceduralism, then, should be that a change in epistemological perspective is required. Rather than the “formal or descriptive ontologies” concerned with “the functional characteristics and components of game objects, and the relations between them” (Aarseth 2014, p.484)[2], the focus needs to shift towards the “game as played, as referring to the object of study for game studies from the player’s perspective” (Leino 2010, p.6).

From the representative regime to the aesthetic regime

To the representative regime of art, Rancière opposed the aesthetic regime (2009a, p. 4). Historically, he argues, the transition from the representative to the aesthetic regime represents a radical philosophical paradigm shift: away from the positivism of the Enlightenment and towards the idealism of Kant and the many developments of Romanticism which were to follow. A telling statement of Kant’s should alert us to how this change in philosophical standpoint can help us reframe our perception of the game object.

In his critique of “metaphysical” systems that make a claim to essential knowledge of things, Kant argues that, with respect to such theories, “the proud name of ontology, which presumes to offer synthetic a priori cognitions of things in general […] must give way to the more modest title of a transcendental analytic” (2004[1781], A247/B304). In other words: systems of thought which claim to provide an account of things-in-the-world as they are in themselves, independently of their appearance against the horizon of our experience, in fact do no such thing: they are ‘merely’ proposing what Kant terms a “transcendental analytic”. We cannot have unmediated access to things-in-themselves: what we have are our sensory intuitions of objects, acted upon by the faculty of the understanding. This means that for any understanding of the world — even those which claim to transcend the domain of appearances — the ground of knowledge is always the appearance, or phenomenon: the object as perceived. Such projects, Kant suggests, make the mistake of confusing the phenomenon with the noumenon: the ideal object that exists independently of its being perceived. Though the latter may be posited, it is only the phenomenon which is available to the perceiving subject as an object-of-thought.

It should be immediately evident how closely this philosophical shift — from ontology towards a form of proto-phenomenology — aligns with our intent to move away from proceduralism into the perspective of the game-as-played. Already we might begin to see our way towards the vocabulary we need to talk about game entities not as computational objects addressed by the game system, but as phenomena. It is against this background that philosophical aesthetics developed, in Rancière’s words, as “a mode of thought that develops with respect to things of art and that is concerned to show them to be things of thought” (2009a, p.4). In this regard, Roman Ingarden theorized a distinction between the objective artwork and the aesthetic object, which is the result of the work’s subjective “concretization” in the mind of the recipient (1973, p.50).

What form does this concretization take? In Kant's formulation, the aesthetic idea is a special case of the faculties of judgment, specifically, “that representation of the Imagination which occasions much thought, without, however, any definite thought, i.e. any concept, being capable of being adequate to it” (2007[1790], §49). Here is revealed the nature of the aesthetic judgment as being a response to that object which, far from embodying the sign of a rational concept, occasions a rupture in the operations of the faculties of reason by presenting us with an image that bears the properties of a formal unity, but for which no concept seems satisfactory[3].

The first implication of this for the field of art is that, though the understanding of the artwork as cosmos remains, it is entirely reframed. Under the representative regime, it is external reality that is reflected in the artwork as a cosmos structured by the strict rules of a logos. With the aesthetic regime in force, it is the formal arrangement of the work in itself that achieves prominence: the artwork comes to be seen as a heterocosm (Abrams 1971, p.272), a self-contained world unto itself, independent of the requirement of reference or meaning as a supplemental quality attached to form.

This is only the first step, however, because — as both Kant’s theoretical framework and Rancière’s explication make clear — the object of aesthetic contemplation is an object-of-thought: it is not to be equated with the actual art object, but with its re-presentation in the imagination. Moreover, the aesthetic idea refers to that object-of-thought which sets in motion a back-and-forth movement between the imagination and the understanding (what Kant calls a “free play of the faculties”) due to the understanding’s inability to find an adequate concept to fit the object represented by the imagination.

As such, when we speak about form — and, hence, about cosmos — in the aesthetic object, what we are speaking of is the form presented by the productions of the imagination: it is the form which occasions thought, but, in finding the understanding wanting, reveals its limitations. What the aesthetic object brings to light is “the presence of non-thought in thought” (Rancière 2009a, p.28) — that is, the awareness of that which lies outside logos, which is not included within the conceptual sphere.

The act of playing

How, then, to bridge the gap between the objective artwork and the aesthetic object as phenomenon? With specific reference to the literary text, Iser, in an echo of Ingarden, makes a distinction between the two polarities of the work: the artistic pole refers to “the author's text”, while the aesthetic pole is “the realization accomplished by the reader” (1980, p.21). Iser, however, goes a step further than Ingarden in his suggestion that the work is not to be identified with either pole: instead, its essence lies in the process that is set in motion between the two polarities, by the mobilization of the reader's faculties of aesthetic judgment in forming, reassessing and reforming an image of the text in the imagination. What is revealed by this understanding of the literary work, then, is “the character of the text as a happening and the experience of the reader that is activated by this happening” (p.22).

We can suggest that precisely such a “happening” also holds sway in games, with the act of playing constituting a bringing-to-being of aesthetic form. Kirkpatrick gestures towards such an understanding when he says that the aesthetic quality of games lies in their determining “shapes and patterns in the experiential order” (2011, p.14), and that the form of a game “is elaborated only when the player finds the rhythmic associations necessary to reveal its possibilities” (p.37). However, for Kirkpatrick, this leads — in an unstated echo of Gadamer’s framing of play as a patterned to-and-fro movement (1989[1960], p.104) — to an analogy between the form of gameplay and that of dance, via the argument that it is in the rhythmic patterns of movement engaged in by the player that the aesthetic form of games is to be identified (Kirkpatrick, p.78). As useful an insight as this is, I cannot follow Kirkpatrick in discounting the importance of the formal system into which the player’s performed movement fits as a part into a whole. The working-out of the play-movement is, certainly, a bringing-forth of its own form; at the same time, inseparably, it constitutes a process through which the formal structure of the game as a whole — of which the player and her play-movement are only one element — is, in a process of conceptual shaping, erasing and redrawing that we might equate with the “free play” of Kant’s aesthetics — gradually developed and brought forth in the form of an ordered cosmos.

Upon a first encounter, a game is experienced as a surfeit of visual and aural information, a mystery to be deciphered[4]. As she engages with the game, the player will begin to interpret and organize this information: discrete entities, exhibiting certain behaviours and relating through a network of mechanics, will emerge as distinct figures. Initially ambiguous entities might come to be defined as enemies to be destroyed or avoided, in which case their behaviour will be taxonomized into patterns of movement and vulnerability to various means of dispatch. An entity might be classified as an item to be collected and put to use, in which case the affordance(s) it grants the player will come to the fore. Conversely, an object that initially appears to the player’s perception as a potentially meaningful entity might, upon further examination, be bracketed out of consideration as useless ‘scenery’: think, for instance, of a door that a player might assume to lead to another area before she realizes it is only a decorative texture (Aarseth 2007). Simultaneously, the player attempts to work out the role she is granted in relation to this world, making a trial of patterns of play that might, if they prove successful, be adopted and repeated, or, if not, be adapted or discarded.

At no point are these principles of order stated: it is only in exceptional situations that a game will explicitly inform the player, for instance, that a particular enemy will always move in a straight line between two fixed points a and b at a fixed speed. Instead, the entity the player has identified as an enemy will exhibit certain behaviours, and it is up to the player to observe these behaviours and attempt to arrive at a fixed rule to account for them.

It makes a lot of sense to apply the Kantian framework I have already introduced in order to theorize this. In Kant's account of the faculties of judgment (2007[1790]), the sensory manifold of intuition is synthesized by the faculty of the imagination into representations that are worked upon by the a priori concepts deployed by the faculty of the understanding. Sensation moves through imagination to understanding: the representations of the imagination, shaped by the concepts of the understanding, can then be grasped by the perceiving subject as coherent objects-of-thought, or phenomena.

Here lies the germ from which the discipline of phenomenology would emerge: indeed, in Edmund Husserl’s outline of the phenomenal constitution of the world as the sphere of experience in which the perceiving subject finds herself, we find a development of this: “the World is the totality of objects that can be known through experience (Erfahrung), known in terms of orderly theoretical thought on the basis of direct present (aktueller) experience” (2012[1913], p.10). The World, in the phenomenological sense, is the result of theoretical thought acting upon (shaping) the accumulation of experience — as with Kant, sensory intuition is shaped by the concepts of the understanding, such that it becomes available to thought as an ordered whole.

The aesthetic mechanism by which the player simultaneously enacts the form of her own play-movement while bringing into view her cosmic understanding of the form of the gameworld is captured in Aarseth’s observation that a game “requires analysis practiced as performance, with direct feedback from the system” (2003, p.5). This “real-time hermeneutics” of gameplay frames the act of engaging with a game as a repetitious pattern constructed around a feedback loop — a notion which has been most forcefully articulated by Arsenault and Perron as the heuristic “magic cycle” of gameplay, by which the player engages with the game on the basis of a mental model of its cosmos, which is constantly iterated and adapted to suit the feedback received from the game. The congruence between this conceptualization and the distinction I have traced above between the phenomenal game object, the implied game object and the interpretation of the game-as-cosmos is apparent. On the basis of her experience of the game as a phenomenal object, the player forms an understanding of the game-as-cosmos — an interpretation which strives to be a perfect map of the “implied game object” unseen but presumed to underlie the appearances constituting the first-hand experience of the phenomenal game object.

Moreover, it is interesting to find, in Arsenault and Perron’s conceptualization of the gaming activity which sees “the game and the gamer as two separate entities meeting at a junction point” (2009, p.109), a distinct echo of Iser’s framing of the aesthetic text as a happening that takes place between the novel and the reader. By this understanding, then, the process of ludic engagement can be framed as a drive towards mastery — defined, more specifically, as the capacity to frame a complete understanding of the game system and the possibilities of performance within it. This can be understood as a shift in perspective: to use the terms proposed by Torben Grodal, once the player has achieved mastery, her outlook shifts from that of the “game as an experiential route” to that of the “game as a map or system” (2003, p.144). The former implies a restriction of viewpoint and, as a result, of knowledge, and can be conceived of along the lines of the “moving viewpoint” that Iser identifies as holding sway in the reader’s engagement with the literary work, which “travels along inside that which it has to apprehend,” and which, as a result, is “at one and the same time, caught up in and transcended by the object it is to apprehend” (1980, p.109). The limited, situated, bottom-up perspective from which the game is made available as an experiential route, which determines “the lack of availability of the whole work during the act of comprehension” (p.16), is, in theory, superseded by the total, omniscient perspective achieved through mastery, which acts as a top-down map.

The limitations of perception and the ludic sublime

The drive towards mastery, of course, can only operate as long as the game object offers some form of resistance — some element of mystery that resists incorporation into the cosmic map. We can begin to locate the possibility of such a resistance in the fact that Arsenault and Perron’s magic cycle is inherently open-ended, in that “the gamer never has direct access to the game’s algorithm under the surface” (2009, p.123) — which finds an echo in Aarseth’s observation that “players cannot comprehend the game object directly” (2011, p.65).

Here we catch a hint of a formal property of games that complicates the aesthetic process in a manner that demands attention. A consideration of the ergodic nature of game textuality requires us to work through the aesthetic implications of a work where what is read is not the same as what is read from (Aarseth 1997, p.3). Here, the objective artwork cannot be equated with the shifting, moment-to-moment configurations made available to the player’s perception — instead, these perceptions are understood as being merely the products of the actual text, an underlying “textual engine” of objects in formal relations that can never be glimpsed directly — only extrapolated from the set of configurations that a player perceives.

This differs radically from the aesthetic mechanisms set in motion by artworks in other media. In gazing upon a painting, no matter how drastically the viewer’s conceptions might shift as she puts her cognitive faculties to the task of engaging with the work, and as she shifts her perceptual focus from one element of the whole to the next, at every stage these conceptions will continue to be referred back to the same unchanging sensory manifold. Even in reading a novel, allowing for the operations of Iser’s “moving viewpoint,” the reader can still be reasonably certain, upon finishing a novel, that she has received a phenomenal intuition of the work as a whole.

By contrast, the formal nature of games establishes a rift between the phenomenally-given game object and the supersensible, noumenal game object that the player strives to frame an understanding of. The player is driven onwards by the expectation of the perfectly-ordered, rule-bound cosmos that proceduralism locates in games, but, faced with the impossibility of obtaining direct knowledge of the underlying game system, she is constantly drawn to confront the necessarily tentative nature, not only of her interpretation of her experience of the game into the ordered form of a cosmos, but of her direct phenomenal experience of the game object itself. As Aarseth writes: …the player cannot access a general play session (unlike watching a movie or reading a novel) but only particular ones […] the player is aware of playing the same game object, but never exhaustively, and thus, they cannot claim complete knowledge about an ideal game object, only that such knowledge may in principle exist. (2011, p.65).

This grants the game object a sense of fundamental unknowability, with the boundaries of the cosmos that the player’s understanding has formed as an interpretation of her phenomenal experience of the game being surrounded by the implied shapes of that which has still not been explored or accounted for. In this, the player’s engagement with the game reflects, in a crucial sense, the individual’s phenomenal relation to the world. That there is a necessary coefficient of the unknown and the occluded to any cosmic process — to any act of worldmaking in the phenomenological sense — was something that Husserl understood. He argues that “a certain inadequacy belongs […] to the perception of things,” and that this is the necessary result of perception of the world always occupying a limited perspective which the world necessarily exceeds: “in principle a things can be given only “in one of its aspects,” and that only means incompletely, in some sense or other imperfectly, but precisely that which presentation through perspectives prescribes” (2012[1913], p.82).

This means, firstly, that any given phenomenal experience of a thing is not grasped in isolation: instead, each sensory intuition — though it is only in such discrete, concrete intuitions that a thing is ever directly available to consciousness — is intended in the context of the unity of the set of intuitions relating to a given object: “no concrete experience can pass as independent in the full sense of the term. Each “stands in need of completion” in respect of some connected whole” (p.169). This also means that, for Husserl, objects are, in Kant’s sense, transcendent — an object “cannot be given with complete determinacy and with similarly complete intuitability in any limited finite consciousness […] but as ‘Idea’ (in the Kantian sense), the complete givenness is nevertheless prescribed — as a connexion of endless processes of continuous appearing” (p.299). An object, in the world, is always more than any given, necessarily limited perception of it, retaining a transcendental ideal form (the positing of an ideal object uniting each discrete perception as perceptions of the same object) unfolding in a “continuous appearing,” an openness to new sensory intuitions that resists final closure.

For this reason, Husserl argues, “what is actually perceived […] is partly pervaded, partly girt about with a dimly apprehended depth or fringe of indeterminate reality” (p.52). It is only through the bracketing-out of everything that is not addressed by the rules of a logos that that same logos can serve as the principle by which coherence is granted to a cosmos. In grasping an object and saying, “This is a teaspoon,” we understand it through one specific quality — its teaspoonness — and its place in the cosmos is determined by the relations this quality positions it in with regards to the other objects in the cosmos: the teaspoon can be picked up and used to stir coffee. At the same time, any other qualities that are equally valid aspects of the object, such as its metallic texture or its reflective quality, are obscured. Moreover, in focusing our attention on the spoon, the saucer on which it rests, if we are aware of it at all, is relegated to background in our perception. All of this, Husserl argues, is necessary: and yet it also means that our awareness of the world is constantly shadowed by our subliminal consciousness of its boundaries and the darkness beyond, containing everything for which the cosmos does not account. This abyss can be pierced, to some degree, by “the illuminating focus of attention”, but the sense of the unknown, and of the limited bounds of our knowledge, necessarily remains: “the misty horizon that can never be completely outlined remains necessarily there” (ibid.).

This sense of a totality that cannot be perceived, that can, in fact, hardly even be conceived in its entirety, finds an echo in the category of aesthetic judgment that Kant identifies as the sublime. The distinction between aesthetic judgments of the beautiful and judgments of the sublime is drawn by Kant in the following terms: “the Beautiful in nature is connected with the form of the object, which consists in having boundaries. The Sublime, on the other hand, is to be found in the formless object, so far as in it or by occasion of it boundlessness is represented, and yet its totality is also present to thought” (2007[1790], §23). An object that excites an aesthetic feeling of beauty in the viewer, as we have seen, does so through presenting an ordered form to perception, albeit a form that seems to fit no concept of the understanding; but an object that evokes the sublime does so because it appears “to be unsuited to our presentative faculty, and, as it were, to do violence to the Imagination” (ibid.). In other words — and Kant provides the sight of the Pyramids of Giza and of St.Peter’s Basilica in Rome as examples (§26) - its totality extends beyond the limits of perception, tied as it is to a narrow, situated viewpoint, leaving the faculty of the imagination struggling to represent it as a coherent object of thought determined by a formal order.

For Kant, this momentary check in the faculties of judgment serves, through reason’s capacity to think through that which the imagination cannot grasp, to demonstrate the superiority of reason over the imagination — “the imagination thrown into disarray leads the mind to its supersensible vocation” (Rancière 2009b, p.93). In the Romanticism of S.T. Coleridge and William Wordsworth, this is developed into a sublime aesthetics of failure, in which language strives towards that which cannot be contained within it, calling “upon the mind to grasp at something towards which it can make approaches but which it is yet incapable of attaining” (Wordsworth 1974, ii.354), framed as an intimation of the divine. By contrast, for Jean-François Lyotard, “the feeling of powerlessness in the experience of the sublime, is endured by reason” (Rancière 2009b, p.93), as it is drawn into the “passion” of a direct encounter with the alterity of the material other. In the aesthetics of the beautiful, “the privileging of form protects thinking from any interest in the “material” of the object and consequently from any interest in its real presence” (Lyotard 1994, p.78) — however, when the appeal to form breaks down in the sublime aesthetic feeling, reason finds itself forced to account for the sheer, undeniable alterity of the material object standing before it, “approaching presence without recourse to the means of presentation” (Lyotard 1991, p.139).

The mark of a more troubled sublime aesthetics can be identified in works which explore the fragility of the cosmic understandings on which we depend: witness H.P. Lovecraft’s elaboration of “cosmic horror” as that which hints at “a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguards against the assaults of chaos” (1973). More subtly, we can identify a similar notion at work in the notion of the fantastic as framed by Tzvetan Todorov, as the intrusion into the ordered textual cosmos of that which “cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world” (1975).

Throughout these divergent elaborations, at its core, the sublime has continued to refer to the same aesthetic feeling attendant upon the contemplation of an object that exceeds both the field of perception and the grasp of the mind’s faculties, and that opens up, in its various developments, to feelings of awe or terror. The question that remains is, how does the operation of the sublime in games relate to these ways of thinking (and of playing out) the sublime? In other words: it is time to move from a theorization of a ludic sublime aesthetic to an examination of its poetics.

Dark Souls: the ludic sublime foregrounded

Both when it comes to its ludic form (adopting the tropes of the action role-playing game) and in its cultural generic milieu (medieval high fantasy), Dark Souls pigeonholes itself within some of the most established videogame traditions. At first glance, then, it would appear to be a poorly-chosen example of the ludic sublime, proffering familiarity and a pre-established, conventionalized mastery that would seem to leave little room for mystery. In practice, however, Dark Souls sets out with the express purpose of unsettling these preconceptions, deploying a range of formal techniques and mechanisms designed to arrest the player’s judgment and prevent her from arriving at a stable cosmic understanding, preserving a sense of mystery and gesturing towards a whole that escapes the player’s conceptualizing grasp. In various ways, Dark Souls works to actively remind the player of the limits and the inadequacy of her perceptual opening onto the milieu of the gameworld, the computational systems underlying it, and the space of possibilities they structure.

This is not to suggest that Dark Souls presents us with a special case, in the sense that it establishes a sublime aesthetic mechanism that other games do not. What sets Dark Souls apart is arguably a matter of degree, not of kind: it simply foregrounds a sublime quality of mystery that, I have argued, is integral to the formal structure of digital games. A consideration of the ways in which Dark Souls achieves its sense of the ludic sublime, then, can perhaps begin to point us towards a poetics for this aesthetic mode. For this reason, I shall now proceed to outline a set of formal techniques - indistinct boundaries, unclear causes and/or effects, undefined entities and ergodic irony — by which Dark Souls suggests to the player an ineffable whole that extends beyond her necessarily limited perception and cosmic understanding of the game at any given moment.

Indistinct boundaries

It is a feature of most gameworlds that they aim to give the impression of a represented world that is much greater than the frequently narrow confines of the domain that is actually modelled by the game system. Aarseth has discussed the co-presence of what he terms represented and representational aspects within gameworlds (2007), but the centrality of this dual nature needs to be stressed as a fundamental aspect of the nature of gameworlds, which inherently consists of a modelled core surrounded by a represented backdrop extending outwards in all directions: “a game can contain two types of space, the ludic and the extra-ludic, the arena of gameplay, and the surrounding non- playable space” (Aarseth 2012, p.3). We can think of the multiple layers of parallax-scrolling background in Super Mario World (Nintendo, 1991) and similar two-dimensional platform games, aiming to give the illusion of a third dimension that is not actually present in the gameworld, or of the skybox in first-person shooter games such as Half-Life (Valve, 1998), serving to wallpaper over the boundaries of the game space.

A direct result of this is that, from the player's perspective, the potential exists for the functional boundaries of the gameworld to grow blurred. The apocryphal tale about the volcano in Battlezone (Atari 1980) is the archetypal illustration to this point: upon the game's release, rumours abounded that this volcano, visible on the horizon, could be reached if the player was willing to travel long enough in its direction - and, moreover, that its crater concealed a castle that the player could enter. None of this was true - the volcano is 'merely' a background image - but the confusion is indicative of the manner in which a halo of perceived possibility can come to surround even the most constricted of game spaces.

It is easy to see how this erasure of the fixity of boundaries results in the gameworld, as a formal, aesthetic object, bearing affinities with Kant’s examples of the object which, in being too great to be perceived from any one perspective, engenders a feeling of the sublime — and it is surely not a step too far to link this to Iser’s stressing “the lack of availability of the whole work” that results from a limited, moving viewpoint.

Dark Souls takes this suggestive playing with boundaries to an extreme. After the initial, linear opening sequence in the Undead Asylum, the player enters Lordran, the game's proper milieu, at Firelink Shrine. A number of paths diverge in different directions, leaving it up to the player to choose where to go. This opening area is located on a small outcrop of rock jutting out over a gorge whose bottom is shrouded in mist. Above the player's head, mountains reach upwards, their peaks out of sight. The unusually vertical organization of the gameworld's topography is on full display here, with the gameworld suggesting an indefinite extent, all the way to Husserl’s “misty horizon”, not only along the typical axis, but also upwards and downwards - literally in every direction, with the player being thrown precisely in the middle of things.

It is not just in terms of extent that the gameworld proves impossible to determine in an ordered form. The gameworld of Dark Souls adopts the structure of the multicursal labyrinth, defined by “branching paths and dead ends, which encourage players […] to mentally map the pathways of the environment” (Calleja, 2011, p.80). However, the gameworld actively resists mapping, its densely intertwined paths often doubling back and intersecting unexpectedly. A hidden shortcut found in a catacomb will open a previously-locked door seen in a temple perched in a canyon wall hours earlier, momentarily causing an almost vertiginous sense of disorientation that forces the player to reconsider the topographical relation between places she had imagined to be miles apart.

Finally, the topography of Lordran is structured in such a way as to constantly reveal to the player’s gaze areas for possible exploration that she cannot yet reach, promising more to the world that remains unknown tempered by the frustration of its remaining out of reach. A tantalizing collectible item glimpsed at the top of a collapsed staircase in the game’s tutorial stage, for instance, can only be reached if, much later in her progress through the game, the player locates an extremely well-hidden secret that allows her to return to the tutorial stage in possession of a key that unlocks a passage to the top of the broken staircase (see Fig. 1). For a considerable proportion — possibly a majority — of players who do not manage to find this secret, the alluring glow of the item (whose nature is concealed until it is picked up) will stand as an emblem of the unattainable and the unknown beyond the borders of what has been explored.

Figure 1. The seemingly unreachable treasure at the top of the collapsed staircase [5].

Unclear causes and/or effects

The blurring of boundaries, resulting in at least a momentary intimation of boundlessness, might constitute the most obvious opening into the ludic sublime, but it is far from the only one. The presentation of the unbounded might occur, in a less literal but no less powerful manner, through the establishment of the feeling that the game system contains many more entities, mechanics and moving parts than the player’s cosmic understanding of the game, at that point in her engagement with it, can account for.

Dark Souls only offers a minimal tutorial. Many of the game's nuances and interlocking mechanical systems — particularly those through which the game diverges from the generic conventions it adopts — are left to the player to discover and decipher. The sheer number of mechanics at play, combined with the gnomic lack of indication that certain mechanics are even present in the game, means that it would take a considerable investment of time and effort for the player to make herself passingly familiar with every aspect of the game system: it is more likely that, for the majority of time she spends engaging with Dark Souls, the player will be acutely aware of the limits of her knowledge in the face of elements or behaviours in the game that the cosmos she has established cannot account for — an awareness that can tantalize with hinted possibility, or darken into apprehension and anxiety.

One of the primary mechanisms by which this aesthetic effect is set in motion can be identified in the breakdown of the direct and manifest relation between player action and feedback as to its intended result. Dark Souls offers us many such cases of actions that are offered to the player without any indication of their (immediate or eventual) effects, but a single example will suffice. Relatively early in the game, the player will start coming across items — usually looted from the corpses of defeated enemies, or found as treasure within the game's levels — called ‘Humanity’. Selecting and using these items from the inventory screen causes the player’s Humanity stat — a number that the game's interface presents prominently in the top left corner of the screen — to increase by one, which consumes the item. This prominence at the interface level suggests Humanity is meant to be recognized as a primary mechanic; however, the game offers no indication as to how this mechanic operates.

My first discovery came at a bonfire - locations that function as rare moments of rest from the gameworld's relentless assault of challenges, allowing the player to level up her avatar, refill her supply of health-restoring estus flasks and perform a number of other useful tasks to prepare herself for the next adventure. One of these tasks - offered with no explanation - is “reverse hollowing”, a reference to “hollow”, the game’s term for the undead state in which the avatar starts the game. Spending one humanity point to reverse your avatar's hollowing returns her to human form (see Fig. 2) - still, while this is clearly an improvement, in visual terms, the game gives no immediate indication of how this change in the avatar's state affects the game - if at all.

Figure 2. “Reverse hollowing” causes the avatar to “revive to human”.

It is only by continuing to engage with the game with the avatar in human form that the consequences of this change in form become apparent. In practice, being in human form activates a number of mechanics that are not available to the player while hollowed, mostly centering around Dark Souls’ idiosyncratic multiplayer options: for instance, it is only when in human form that the player can see and respond to the glowing ‘summon signs’ that are left by other players who wish to be summoned into the player’s world to offer aid, and it is only when in human form that the player’s world can be invaded by hostile players in phantom form.

This still does not explain, however, the benefits of maintaining a higher humanity stat - that is, consuming more humanity items when one is already in human form. This is a highly risky endeavor, given that any humanity that is ‘held’ rather than being kept as unused items in the player's inventory is lost upon death, and it is not very easy to come by again. After further play, I learnt that one's humanity rating affects a number of variables relating to the avatar: namely, the item discovery rate (which determines how likely enemies are to drop loot when killed) and resistances to various forms of damage, such as fire, poison and bleeding.

If Dark Souls’ humanity system is an example of a game mechanic where a clearly-defined game action is attached to an (at least initially) unclear outcome, the game also contains a number of examples of the opposite approach: that is, clear and readily-identifiable changes in the game state that are not linked to any apparent cause. Again, an example can illustrate this: seemingly at random, the player's store of estus flasks will increase by one. At the time of writing, I have not been able to determine what factors might influence this, or what actions (if any) I should or should not perform in order to increase the likelihood of its happening.

Undefined entities

Yet another mode of ambiguity that Dark Souls employs can be identified in its tendency to present the player with entities whose function within the game system is never explained or hinted at. One of the starting ‘gifts’ the player can choose when creating a new character, for instance, is the Pendant (see Fig.3 ), which is only described, in its inventory entry, as an “old-looking item with no obvious value”. Of course, what such a description tantalizingly suggests is that the pendant might have some value which is not obvious and which it is up to the player to discover. It is likely, then, that the player might decide that there is a good chance the Pendant might actually offer more valuable rewards than any of the straightforward bonuses provided by the other starting gifts (the Tiny Being’s Ring, to give an example, “grants a small increase in HP [hit points]”).

Figure 3. The Pendant as it is described on the character creation screen.

Other similarly undefined entities in the game reveal their purpose at the right juncture: the Peculiar Doll, a seemingly useless item found in a secret location, is accompanied by text that gives no indication of any purpose: “A strange doll in strange dress. There once was an abomination who had no place in this world. She clutched this doll tightly, and eventually was drawn into a cold and lonely painted world” (see Fig. 4). Its ludic function — essentially, that of a key — becomes clear when, later in the game, possessing the doll allows the player to enter the Painted World of Ariamis, an optional ‘secret’ level accessed through a painting. Such eventual revelations lead to a sense of expectation surrounding entities, such as the Pendant, that remain without any apparent use. The promise of concealed affordances and mechanics drives the player forward in engaging and experimenting with the possible uses of the object, in a localized instance of the heuristic magic cycle and of the essentially ungraspable, noumenal game object at its centre.

Figure 4. The inventory screen description for the Peculiar Doll.

Ergodic irony

I have already stressed the fact that the ergodic textuality of digital games means that the player always has a sense of the contingency of her own experience of a game, which necessarily constitutes only one of a possibly infinite number of divergent ‘playings-out’ of the same implied game object — or, in Aarseth’s words, that “players are aware of the partial nature of their experience, the numerous strategies and paths not taken, and the fact that the game may contain mysteries they will never encounter, solutions outside their reach, tactics beyond their skill level” (2011, p.66). This observation lies at the core of Aarseth’s invocation of the image of the labyrinth to discuss the formal nature of the ergodic text, where, at every intersection, a path is chosen, but, equally importantly, another path is not chosen, and “you may never know the exact results of your choices; that is, exactly what you missed” (1997, p.3).

While playing Dark Souls, the player frequently encounters fleeting spectral presences (see Fig. 5). Ghostly fellow travellers keeping her company as she rests at a bonfire, adventurers engaging in combat against unseen enemies, warriors dying in battle: all appear momentarily before fading away from view. A diegetic justification is offered for this — early in the game, a non-player-character tells the player that, in Lordran, “the flow of time itself is convoluted, with heroes centuries old phasing in and out. The very fabric wavers, and relations shift and obscure.”

However, the full aesthetic effect of these presences is achieved once the player realizes the identity of these spectral presences: that is, that they are in fact other players, captured and re-presented in real-time as they engage in their own simultaneous playing of Dark Souls wherever (and whoever) they might be in the world. The ghostly figures travel paths different to the ones the player takes; they wear armour and wield weapons the player might not yet have discovered; they deploy techniques the player might not yet have learnt, or even known were possible. In short, they shadow the player’s own playing of Dark Souls with an intimation of all the “paths not taken,” revealing the vast space of possibility that is both hinted at and, simultaneously, closed off by the player’s activation of a single playing-out of the game.

Figure 5. A ghostly encounter with another player.


There is much more that could be said regarding the aesthetics of the sublime in Dark Souls. I have not had the space, for instance, to discuss the role played by the game’s elevated kinaesthetic difficulty in preventing the player from obtaining complete knowledge of its cosmos, or the manner in which the mechanical properties I have described interact with the game’s thematic preoccupations, reflecting its concern with the mythical motif of the cursed Waste Land where sense and order has broken down (Weston 2011[1920]). With this analysis, it has not been my intention to offer an analysis of the value of Dark Souls as an aesthetic work, but to begin to sketch out an illustration as to the formal mechanisms by which the ludic sublime may be established.

In considering the aesthetics of the sublime at work in Oblivion, Martin suggests that “the centrality of action to games means that while the landscape may be initially presented to the player as sublime […] the player is also equipped with the means of encountering the landscape in such a way as to make it familiar and banal”. What is initially encountered as a boundless spatial extension harbouring a dizzying range of possibilities is reduced into a network of locations, paths and possibilities for action, such that it can, eventually, be easily grasped as a bounded, orderly cosmos. The landscape of Oblivion is therefore only grasped as sublime for as long as it takes for the last vestiges of mystery to succumb to mastery: “the reductions necessary in the creation of Tamriel as a game space are discovered over the course of the game in a way that undermines the sublime mode in which the landscape is initially presented”.

It is certainly possible to argue that the feeling of the sublime is transient, and will subside as soon as the player achieves a reasonably stable cosmic understanding of the game — in other words, as soon as mastery gains dominance over mystery. And yet it is also possible to state a counter-argument. I have argued that the ‘black box’ nature of the computer’s upholding of the game system precludes the player from direct knowledge of the game system. In practical terms, what this means is that at no point can the player assert with complete certainty that the phenomenal cosmos she has arrived at is a perfect reflection of the game system. Even after extended play has resulted in mastery of the game, there remains at least an opening for the possibility of surprise and further revelation — and the result of this is that the player’s cosmic understanding of the game, which serves as the basis for action and as the ground for the continuing feedback loop of the magic cycle of play — can never be finally closed, and must, by the very formal nature of digital game play, retain the status of a hypothesis. The hermeneutic cycle maintains an asymptotic relation to the noumenal game object, spiraling forever in ever-decreasing circles around a centre it can never reach.


I wish to thank Vanessa Psaila and Paul Martin, who read early drafts of this paper and offered indispensable feedback and suggestions. A version of this paper was presented at the Games and Literary Theory Conference 2013 at the University of Malta, and I am grateful for the invaluable insights gained through the discussions I was able to participate in there.


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[1] In this tendency, perhaps, we can locate a remnant of the battle-lines drawn circa 2001, marking game studies’ move to assert itself as “a clearly self-sustained academic field” (Aarseth 2001), in order to claim its academic turf in the face of other disciplines, such as narratology, literature, cultural, film and media studies, that had also staked a claim on games as an object of study. As much as this may have been both a necessary political move and a vital corrective to approaches that sought to uncritically subsume the study of games under existing theoretical frames of reference — and, in these terms, being analogous to early film theory’s focus on the specificity of the cinematic medium (cf. Arnheim 2006[1932]; Balázs 1952) — it is arguable that, at the present date, game studies as a discipline stands to lose more than it can gain through maintaining an isolationism that, at the same time as it allows the discipline to develop its own methods and discourses, also risks rendering it peripheral to wider academic and cultural discussions.

[2] Aarseth argues that this is one of the two distinct senses in which the term ”ontology” has been deployed within game studies: the other brand of game ontology is that which he describes as “existential ontologies asking what are games and what kind of existence does a game have” (2014, p.484). These projects are conceptually distinct, and it is necessary to clearly demarcate them as separate domains of analysis. This might be done by means of a recourse to Heidegger’s distinction between the ontic and the ontological modes of analysis. In Heidegger’s terminology, ontic analysis is focused on the cataloguing of entities and the facts about them as things “within-the-world”; ontological analysis, on the other hand, concerns itself with the question of Being, that is, of what it means for a thing to be, and of how we can say that a thing is (2003[1927], p.31). Ontology, in Heidegger’s sense, thereby opens onto an existential perspective: ontological analysis can take as its matter the givenness of entities within the sphere of human existential being, within which a thing can be ready-to-hand, present-at-hand, and so on. By these terms, the approaches gathered under the label of proceduralism can be termed an ontic approach to the game object, while a focus on the phenomenology of experience of the game object from the perspective of the “game as played” would correspond to an ontological analysis. However, Heidegger’s idiosyncratic usage of the term “ontology” differs fundamentally from Kant’s deployment of the term, which I shall be drawing upon in this paper. In the interest of clarity, then, I shall specify that the term “ontology” is used in this paper in a Kantian, rather than a Heideggerean, sense.

[3] A clarification needs to be made here regarding a central difficulty in Kant’s usage of the term ”aesthetic” — namely, the fact that the sense with which he uses the term shifts radically between the Critique of Pure Reason (2004[1781]) and the Critique of Judgment (2007[1790]). In the first Critique, the term is deployed to account for what Kant terms the ”transcendental aesthetic,” the a priori categories of space and time which render sensation possible. It is only in the third Critique that Kant comes to use the term to refer to a specific category of judgment — that is, to the aesthetic sensation as a special case. It is in this latter sense that the notion of the aesthetic is used in this paper.

[4] Of course, as Arsenault and Perron (2009, p.118) note, the player never goes into a game completely blind: there is always some degree of knowledge that the player brings to her first encounter with a game — whether this is in the form of experience with games of the same genre, presuppositions established by the game’s ”primordial speech,” and so on. As a result, there is always an initial schema or mental model upon which the process of interpretation can be founded. Nonetheless, the fact remains that this horizon of pre-existing knowledge is brought to bear upon a domain that, at the initial stage of the player’s engagement, is to a great extent an unknown quantity.

[5] Images have been edited to make writings readable on the Game Study interface.

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