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

Senses of Endings

by Daniel Vella

As is true of the study of any other medium, any work of game studies that adopts a formalist approach will, at the same time as it tackles the question it sets itself, advance (implicitly or explicitly) a particular understanding of the nature of its object of study — that is, a particular understanding of what a game is.

Riccardo Fassone's Every Game is an Island: Endings and Extremities in Video Games (2017) is no exception. The remit Fassone sets himself with this book is an intriguing one. At the heart of the book is the keen observation of an apparent paradox: namely, that, while rhetorical emphasis is often placed on the openness of the possibility space that games allow the player, and the player's related freedom in blazing her own trail through this possibility space, "every game cannot but be closed and finite" (p. 2), defined and given shape by its limits and boundaries. In his own words, "how can a video game be open-ended [...] if it is inevitably constrained by hard-coded boundaries?" (p. 75).

By the author's own admission, this question presupposes a particular framing of the video game object — this is a "theory of video games emerging from their nature as closed, insular artifacts" (p. 3). As an opening move, Fassone steps into the treacherous terrain of game definitions, providing a first chapter in which a pair of operational "non-definitive definitions" of the video game object is established.

The understanding of video games the book operates on, then, is, firstly, one in which they represent a sub-category of games dependent upon, and shaped by, computer mediation. Unlike, for instance, Olli Tapio Leino's focus on the player's encounter with the materiality of the computational object (2012), Fassone's emphasis when considering video games' computational nature is their resultant status as "oppositional state machines" (p. 20). This leads to a communicative understanding of video game play as a dialogue with a machinic authority, albeit one in which this machinic underpinning is disguised "through the projection of a simulated world" (p. 23) — a problematic notion I shall return to.

Secondly, Fassone understands games to be designed procedural experiences (p. 23-38), a three-part definition which is unpacked into a consideration of video games as designed objects, as procedures, and as experiences for the player. These different aspects of the video game object are elaborated upon through brisk forays into, respectively, design theory and the idea of affordances (Gibson 1977; Norman 1988), the proceduralist school of formalist game studies (Murray 1997; Bogost 2006; 2007), and formal models of player experience, in particular Gordon Calleja's player involvement model (2011).

On the basis of this extensively articulated understanding of the video game object, then, Fassone launches into a three-part analysis of the ways in which, on the one hand, a game is formally determined by its boundaries and closure, and, on the other hand, these same boundaries are porous, becoming complex sites of openness, crossing and transaction. Each of the three subsequent chapters, then, address openness and closure with respect to three framings of the video game — as a "diegetic ruled environment with which the player interacts," as "a digital object that needs to be operated through manipulation and metaplay," and as "a media product that exists in an economic and social sphere, alongside other similar objects" (p. 169).

In Chapter 2, "Game ↔ Game," Fassone considers the boundaries and techniques of delimitation at work within what he terms the "the diegesis of the game, the area in which the fictional world of the game is represented and where 'proper' gameplay happens" (p. 5). In Chapter 3, "Game ↔ Metagame," the focus shifts to the borders between the game proper and the "metagame," which, as Fassone uses the term, refers to "the area where various configurative operations take place" (ibid.), where, outside the diegetic game world as the zone of 'proper' play, meta-operations are performed upon the game as a configurable digital object. Finally, in Chapter 4, "Game ↔ Games," attention is paid to the relations between one video game and others, whether structured through rigid boundaries and distinctions, or whether defined through interrelations that blur the boundaries between one game as a distinct unity and another.

Each chapter is structured as a set of interlocking conceptual analyses, tracing a movement within each chapter from closedness to openness at the pertaining level. Chapter 2, for instance, moves from an analysis of closure and caesura — a literary term referring to a momentary break or non-final pause in forward progress, brilliantly invoked here to theorize the peculiar effect of in-game death and the 'game over' state — to considerations of endlessness (in the sense of "infinite games" that have no explicit end state) and openness (referring to discourses that equate digital games to toys to emphasize, and privilege, an experimental unfolding of potentially inexhaustible possibilities). Throughout, Fassone's conceptual arguments are bolstered with close engagements with a rich and varied range of digital games, from triple-A blockbusters such as Dead Space 2 (Visceral Games 2011), through historically influential works such as Super Metroid (Nintendo 1994), to experimental games such as Chain World (Rohrer 2011).

In terms of an epistemic domain, Fassone pitches his tent firmly in the field of media theory, though significant forays are also made into film studies and literary theory. Throughout, Fassone's media-historical approach proves one of the book's most consistent strong points. The foundational awareness of "the notion of video games being historical entities" (p. 8) that change over time and in response to cultural and technological factor presents a necessary counter to a too-often essentialist undercurrent in formalist game studies.

Rather than being taken as a given, contextualizing functional and aesthetic conventions are contextualized within the medium's development in its linked formal and technological dimensions. The pause function, for example — a feature so taken for granted as to be virtually invisible — is foregrounded, in Fassone's account, as a development tied to the domestication of the video game medium in the move from the arcade to the living room, with the possibility of prolonged play sessions allowing the development of mechanics and styles of play that occupied a greater period of time, thereby instantiating the practical necessity of taking breaks (p. 88). The same is true of the historicization of the notion and discourse of immersion, which frames a new perspective upon one of the most-examined concepts in game studies (p. 107), and of Fassone's discussion of the of modding/tweaking understood as a habitus of the game community (p. 127-8).

Relatedly, the book casts a refreshingly critical eye upon many of the discourses that have become so thoroughly incorporated into our commonplace understanding of the medium as to have grown virtually invisible. The "peculiar ideology of openness" (p. 75) according to which less rigidly structured, exploratory play is privileged as being closer to some essential nature of play, for instance, is revealed in its arbitrariness, as is the valorization of "seamlessness" in the player's engagement with the gameworld (p. 88).

All of this coalesces into a critical perspective that proves refreshingly willing to challenge received wisdom and established ways of looking at the video game object. Building his arguments from this perspective, Fassone arrives at a number of intriguing insights. If the pace of the book's eminently readable academic prose feels at times a touch too brisk — if there are points where one could wish Fassone would linger longer on a particular point and travel further down the path of its implications — that is perhaps only on the strength of the interest that Fassone's conceptual observations pique.

For instance, the distinction Fassone delineates between finishing and completing a game, and relatedly of the "constant tension in video games" between "teleological play (playing in order to reach the end screen) and completist play (playing in order to explore fully, both spatially and procedurally, the game's affordances" (p. 55) is not only crucial to investigating the implications of the paradox the book is concerned with, but also a significant observation in its own right.

Likewise, the later distinction between the "ephemerality and transience [...] as a condition found in every play session" (p. 138) and the fixed properties of the video game object represents another novel way of considering the experiential implications of video games' cybertextual nature.

These examples are only the tip of the iceberg: the book is rich in striking conceptual developments and observations into the formal and experiential aspects of the video game object, many of which point the way towards potentially fruitful paths of further investigation. Having said that, the highest praise an academic work can receive is a serious engagement with the arguments it presents. Since Every Game is an Island more than earns this level of respect, it falls upon me to grant it the critical perspective it demands.

One of the main borders Fassone identifies — central, in particular, to the analyses making up Chapter 3 — is that between the diegetic and nondiegetic elements in a game. Fassone theorizes this distinction on the basis of an identical distinction in Alexander R. Galloway's 2006 essay "Gamic Action: Four Moments," where it is drawn in an offhand manner — the reader is simply told "the diegesis of a videogame is the game's total world of narrative action," while "nondiegetic elements are those that are external to the narrative action" (2006, p. 7). The problem here is that notions of narrative, fictionality, worldness — extensively discussed in philosophy and literary theory, and also applied to video game worlds, for instance by Grant Tavinor (2005; 2012) — are entirely omitted.

By not buttressing Galloway's distinction with any more rigorous theory of fictional world reference, Fassone repeats the weaknesses of this distinction. Just as Galloway positions all interface elements on the non-diegetic side of the divide — arguing, for example, that choosing one attack over another on the battle screen menu of a JRPG is a non-diegetic action, despite the choice and the resultant attack clearly constituting an event in the fictional world represented by the game — Fassone equates the game's diegesis with conventional spatiotemporal representation, and places all interface-based interactions with the game object at the non-diegetic level.

This leads to questionable conclusions, such as the argument that "playing Battle Chess [Interplay Entertainment 1988; a digital version of chess in which, after the player has chosen her move, this move is executed by 3D animated pieces in an elaboration of chess's representational reference to medieval warfare] means interacting with a world that only exists pre- and post- any of the player's actions" (p. 99). Because the player's choosing of a move takes place at an interface level removed from the 3D representation of the execution of these actions, the former is understood as a non-diegetic act of manipulation of the digital game object, taken once the diegetic world of the game has been put on hold, and entirely separate from this world.

As an extension of this argument, in the middle of an otherwise excellent discussion on "holism" as an approach to effacing what he terms as the border between the game and the metagame, Fassone later makes the claim that the hacking simulator Uplink (Introversion Software 2001), because of its status as a "total interface" game, "completely does away with any form of fictionalized diegesis" (p. 121). Such a claim not only ignores the undisputed presence of a fictional domain of reference in Uplink — a world of near-future corporate warfare — but also appears blind to the fictional reference of the player action Fassone himself highlights, such as sending and receiving emails, connecting to hubs, and so on. An interface, after all, is by definition a means of mediating information, and it is not clear why audiovisual representation is considered an acceptable means of mediating information about a fictional world, while more symbolic interface elements are not.

In this regard, a particular omission in the book's otherwise comprehensive and wide-ranging engagement with existing literature is Kristine Jørgensen's book-length engagement with precisely the question of the relation between the interface and the gameworld in Gameworld Interfaces (2013), which could have provided for a more rigorous and complex foundation than Galloway's cursory and problematic gesture in this direction.

Though certainly the most central and problematic, this lack of engagement with theories of fictional world reference or of the relation between fiction and interface in video games is not the only surprising overlooking of particularly relevant existing work. When expanding upon the criterion of games as "designed" objects that Fassone incorporates into his definition of 'game,' for instance, he introduces the notion of the model player (p. 27), on the basis of Umberto Eco's concept of the model reader (1989) and Wolfgang Iser's notion of the implied reader (1980). However, no mention is made of Espen Aarseth's influential application of both of these concepts in the development of the idea of the implied player (2007) — a concept so similar to Fassone's own it begs the question of why it was necessary to come up with a new term.

Elsewhere, Fassone discusses the difficulty of thinking through the notion of closure with regards to the cybertext's extension beyond the textual production of any one reading (p. 44-46), building his argument upon a close engagement with Aarseth's foundational work in this regard, but not making any references to any more recent developments in cybertext theory. In particular, Markku Eskelinen's revisiting of the key concepts of cybertextuality, and his specific addressing of the question of the textual whole with regards to the cybertext (2012, p. 69-85), would have enriched this discussion.

I hasten to add that these criticisms do little to detract from the fact that Every Game is an Island is an important work in formalist game studies, one which serves to situate the video game object in relation to wider discourses of textuality and the media object. Despite the "digital exceptionalism" that Fassone highlights as underpinning his approach, the paradoxical hesitation between openness and closure that is identified as constitutive of digital games is one that has held sway in perspectives towards textuality in a more general sense. Thus, in literary theory, the structuralist perspective that frames the text as a self-contained system of meaning, gave way in the latter half of the twentieth century to poststructuralist conceptions such as Roland Barthes' texte scriptible (1973) or Umberto Eco's open work, according to which the structural unity of the text is decentred and viewed in all its' open to reinterpretations, reworking

The sharp observation Fassone makes is that, with video games, the inverse is true. On the basis of notion of cybertextuality in particular, the video game has always been perceived as an open work — the radical move is to assert closure, finitude, borders and limits, and, by extension, the fixity of the definite video game object. Fassone's nuanced argumentation both makes this assertion and undercuts it, revealing the video game object in all its complexity.



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Interplay Entertainment. 1988. Battle Chess [PC].

Introversion Software. 2001. Uplink [PC].

Nintendo. 1994. Super Metroid [Super Famicom].

Rohrer, J. 2011. Chain World [PC].

Visceral Games. 2011. Dead Space 2. [Electronic Arts: Playstation 3].

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