Erick Verran

Erick Verran is the author of Obiter Dicta (Punctum Books, 2021) and a PhD candidate at the University of Utah. His research is forthcoming in Press Start and appears in the Journal of Gaming and Virtual Worlds, Postmodern Culture, and the Journal of Sound and Music in Games. He is also a poet and literary critic.

Contact information:
everran9 at gmail.com

In Pursuit of Ourselves: Roleplaying (Self-)Control and the Doppelgänger Trope in Videogames

by Erick Verran

Abstract

Drawing upon twentieth-century literary fiction and cinema as well as the philosophy of Dan Zahavi and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, this article first identifies the doppelgänger trope in videogames as a battle against the self. It does so through close readings of Joseph Conrad’s short story “The Secret Sharer” and an analysis of Part of You, Celeste’s villain; this culminates in the psychoanalytic observation that the protagonist, Madeline, is “learning to ask herself questions.” Between the will to control and controlling an object that presents fictionally as an anthropomorphic subject, this unstable, chiasmic identification with an avatar is drawn out through a consideration of self-recognition, othering and ontological ambiguity. Such tension is implicit in roleplaying: the ebb and flow of engagement which suggests game-players both are and aren’t their avatars. Cases in which masculine, diegetic centrality is upset by the avatar are also considered at length. From this perspective, the identification players have toward player-characters is shown to be dependent upon the quality and context of their (interpretive) control. Not unlike standing before a full-length mirror, a human player, controlling and roleplaying as an anthropomorphic self, is ultimately described as themself a kind of ghostly doppelgänger haunting the avatar.

Keywords: self, other, avatar, doppelgänger, autonomy, control

 

Control and the Uses of Other Selves

Nearly a decade ago, a number of entertainment news websites picked up one YouTuber’s viral comment about racing the ghost of his late father in RalliSport Challenge (Digital Illusions CE, 2002). Prior to his father’s passing, the two would often play against each other, the data for which then remained stored on their Xbox’s hard drive. Thus, when “[h]e booted up the old Microsoft console a decade later and discovered his father had completed a lap the fastest[, h]is ‘ghost’ still lived on in the game, challenging other players to beat its time” (Albert, 2014, n.p.). Like messages left on an answering machine that preserve the voice of a loved one, this spectral vehicle drifting through hairpin turns is a form of recording. Likewise, the son is careful not to surpass his father’s time (“I stopped right in front of the finish line, just to ensure I wouldn't delete it” (Albert, n.p.)). The standard use of this feature in racing games is the opportunity to continuously face an opponent of equal, or nearly equal, skill: oneself. Moreover, registering the fastest lap in the form of a semi-opaque reenactment not only allows players to actively participate in something akin to a stylized replay video, as in older racing games and arcade machines, it also adversarializes an event which simultaneously belongs to the history of the player’s playing (Janik, 2019, pp. 19-20; Vella, 2015b, pp. 337-338). Othered from the player, a past sequence of turn-by-turn decisions is transformed into a challenger -- who both is and is not oneself -- available to race in the present.

The experience of watching a historicized version of ourselves circle a racetrack, featured as early as Super Mario Kart (Nintendo EAD, 1992; see Hanson, 2014, p. 313), can be compared with the basic mental phenomenon of self-reflection. Dan Zahavi (2005) frames this as the perennial question among phenomenologists as to whether “reflection provide[s] us with a reliable and trustworthy access to subjectivity[;] or does it rather objectify and distort that which it makes appear?” (Ibid., p. 7). From inside our bodies (Gregersen & Grodal, 2003, p. 67; Gualeni & Vella, 2020, p. 45) we become an object to our own experience, as Michał Kłosiński subtly illustrates within the context of Cyberpunk 2077 (CD Projekt Red, 2020). This “phenomenological bond,” with the avatar seated at a mirror following the character-creation process, “presents the final result of existential work on the avatar as the representation of oneself[, ...] a double self-recognition” (Kłosiński, 2022, pp. 68-69). Yet isn’t every single-player game already tantamount to entertaining oneself?

For Rune Klevjer, the avatar is a prosthetic that, "allows us to engage in a playful and temporary separation of subjective and objective body, across the material divide. In the moment of being captured by and channelled through the avatar, the body that is here, safely seated on the couch, will be rendered irrelevant in its objective dimension, as an object among other objects" (Klevjer, 2012, p. 28). Justyna Janik (2019) turns to Jacques Derrida’s concept of hauntology [1] in identifying “the dualistic nature of [a player’s] relationship” with spectral game objects and shadowy doubles. I find a great deal of relevance in what Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1968) referred to as chiasm, the flesh-like abutment of self and world, to describe this doubled identity [2]. Merleau-Ponty’s division between the permeable self and the fluid, intruding world -- that not-us of externality -- is notable for its emphasis on the inseparability of these two categories, where in spite of our desire for a hermetic existence, ontology is constantly beset by phenomena. How like the player-avatar relationship this is when, while roleplaying, I watch myself controlling an object which is notionally me. To reiterate, much of what is engrossing in a videogame surely amounts to “the player adopt[ing] the objective relation of self;” in doing so, writes Daniel Vella, “she becomes available to herself (insofar as she grasps the ludic subject as herself) as an object of her own perception” (2015b, p. 253).

As Zahavi observes, “when I watch a movie [...] I am not only intentionally directed at the movie, nor merely aware of the movie being watched, I am also aware that it is being watched by me, that is, that I am watching the movie. In short, there is an object of experience (the movie), there is an experience (the watching), and there is a subject of experience, myself” (2005, p. 99). Adapting Zahavi here would be as simple as swapping the italicized words (his emphasis) in the foregoing passage for “play”/“playing”/“played,” as well as “videogame” for “movie.” Setting aside for the moment the question of how distinct, at times conflicting, subjectivities can be effectively yoked together, I would argue that it is this cinematic self-separation which facilitates the seeming contradiction of besting oneself, wherein “a player [is forced] to constantly negotiate the [other]’s meaning and state of being” (Janik, 2019, p. 6). A feedback loop, with the binary of self and other complicated to become self as other, can be challenge enough.

Flipping the protagonist as a means of providing a videogame’s antagonist is a design shortcut that goes back to the original Prince of Persia’s (Broderbund, 1989) Shadowman, and almost certainly further. The choice, on its face, is chiefly economical when rendering time and computation are considered. Jordan Mechner, creator of the franchise, says as much in an episode of Ars Technica’s War Stories, that “[o]ut of necessity was born this character who ended up becoming one of the best features of the game. It’s a case of where constraints can sometimes push you to more creative solutions than you would have found in the beginning if they had been available” (Ars Technica, 13:57). At the same time, the storyworld’s hierarchy is maintained through a sort of Spy vs. Spy twinning [3]. To quote Janik, “on the one hand, the shadow can still influence the reality of the game environment and its materiality, but, on the other hand, it is only a recording -- a trace of the player's actions. The player does not have control over it -- she has to comply with its actions that are no longer hers” (2019, p. 16). The nameless Prince retains a degree of primacy, except now there are two of him in minor and major dispositions, a Jungian complementarity that departs from the more archetypal villain for an inherently psychological one.

In such cases, villainy proves to be its own Achilles heel, unless the antagonist is finally unmasked as a mere imposter. For instance, in Super Mario Sunshine (Nintendo EAD, 2002) Shadow Mario, a translucent-blue copy of the title character that has been polluting Isle Delfino, is revealed as a lowly Bowser Jr. intent on sullying the plumber’s good name. More often, however, a dangerous twin running amok is dealt with by teaming up, say after they have been persuaded (or deprogrammed, in the case of cyborg enemies) to renounce loyalty to some Dr. Robotnik-esque mastermind plotting behind the scenes. The threat posed by a double can also be overcome by fusing with the player-character at the physical-ontological level [4], thereby achieving their truer self. Later in the Ars Technica interview, Mechner continues: “[Y]ou run towards Shadowman, he runs towards you, and the two of you merge and are reunited” (Ars Technica, 14:41). The takeaway, here and in the following example from Celeste (Maddy Makes Games, 2018), would seem to be that if you can’t beat them, literally join them. Or how else might like destroy like?

A Plurality of Voices

The Indie platformer Celeste is acclaimed for its foregrounding of mental health. The journey undertaken by Madeline, Celeste’s anxious protagonist, subordinates trials and their nominal rewards to the greater one of feeling good, with the acknowledgement that the physical is, too, about strength of mind. During one interactive cutscene set around a campfire, Madeline and Theo, a mostly incidental character, discuss their separate ascents up a snowy mountain. Because Madeline is the player’s avatar, it comes as a surprise when the player is allowed to choose dialogue options for Theo (see Fig. 1). Given Celeste’s game-length messaging about the transformative effect of knowing and believing in oneself, navigating a fork in this conversation has a solipsistic quality. The player chooses for Theo while identifying as -- not to mention controlling -- Madeline on her climb to the summit.

In a psychotherapeutic manner of speaking, Madeline is learning to ask herself questions, which up to this point in the story has only occurred as doubts shouted by an evil twin [5] referred to as Part of You (and called Badeline during Celeste’s development, in case the parallel wasn’t clear enough). Madeline’s debates with Part of You and inevitable faceoff dramatize self-control as a fight against intrusive thoughts, while her scaling of the mountain -- an obstacle course of thematized biomes -- lays out this same struggle as an interactive metaphor [6]. As such, the stages in Celeste revolve around motifs of health and reflection as well as reflexivity, but widely physiognomized, from a bankrupt hotel clotted with its ghost proprietor’s hoardings to a temple full of mirrors and judging eyeballs. “Celeste creates a new take on the mirror moveset rival type,” says Design Doc, “that adapts it to both work in the game’s specific flavor of platformer and fit perfectly in the themes of its narrative” (2023, 8:31). Symbolically, the player’s goal involves getting Madeline’s personae (a functional not-quite-psychosis (Kłosiński, 2022)) to harmonize. That antagonistic “us,” which is merely insecure, might instead be recruited as an ally [7].

Figure 1: An interactive cutscene in which the player may choose to ask Madeline a question. Note that, along with her facial expression, Madeline’s dialogue option suggests something she could be thinking privately (Maddy Makes Games, 2018). Click image to enlarge.

Compare this to the fifth chapter of Florence (Mountains, 2018), in which Florence Yeoh is recollecting a bit of first-date conversation, represented by a succession of wordless, colored speech bubbles. The actual content of their conversation, forgotten over the intervening years, is substituted with increasingly simple jigsaw puzzle pieces. As the player assembles each jigsaw to move the conversation forward, Florence replies to her then-blossoming love interest, a cellist named Krish. Though this short, lightly interactive videogame lacks the bicamerality of Celeste (the aforementioned exchange between Madeline and Theo), the question, how one assembles out of language just what one wishes to say, is clear enough. Or as Florence’s designer, Ken Wong explains, “this suggests to the player that what’s important is, not what was said, but what it took to say it” (Wong, 2019). As the sweet tête-à-tête continues, Florence and Krish’s responses consist of fewer and fewer pieces -- less is said, or less needs saying -- until they kiss. In later chapters, as the relationship begins to falter and petty arguments emerge while Florence and Krish are shopping for groceries or washing dishes, those blanks and tabs become jagged and snap together with the haste of anger.

Putting together these last two pieces may be understood as something of an alternative to Celeste’s anomalistic dialogue with Theo, as moving one piece has the reciprocally opposite effect on the other [8]. The tension of difference is resolved through holism. Interestingly, the player’s cursor -- a floating hand used to clasp objects, reveal a hidden image, or click through to the next frame -- occasionally changes skin tones depending on whether the story is centered on Florence or Krish. This subtle change serves as a reminder for the player that an in-game cursor typically acts as the virtual extension of their own hand, such that they take on -- empathetically if not quite diegetically -- one half of the relationship. As discussed with regard to Celeste, this device complicates the initial appearance that Florence is a thin sort of avatar. As players, we brush our teeth by dragging the toothbrush side to side or completing a tic-tac-toe of spreadsheets. Just as in literary narratives, roleplaying games can ask their audience to walk in a character’s shoes, even their body.

The trope in videogames of superficially alike but morally dissimilar foils -- one practically a saint, the other as violent as Cain -- draws in equal parts from Western literary fiction and the twentieth century’s fraught embrace of technology and irrationality. While twinhood is normally chalked up to biology, the clone is science’s doing. What should form the twin and clone’s composite, then, but the figure of the doppelgänger? Like a supernatural clone, the doppelgänger in Joseph Conrad’s short story “The Secret Sharer,” a man named Leggatt, is brought aboard by a ship captain socially estranged to his crew. Leggatt is described as almost an emotional figment, a phantasm of the fog when a sailor has been too long at sea: “an irresistible doubt of his bodily existence flitted through my mind. Can it be, I asked myself, that he is not visible to other eyes than mine? It was like being haunted” (Conrad, 1910/1981, p. 137). For the ship’s captain, Leggatt symbolizes a dubious spiritual affinity -- a brother, whom the captain clothes [9] and stows away in his private quarters. With the arrival of this companion, however, comes an air of the unheimlich, the eerily uncanny (Kłosiński, 2022, p. 69; Janik, 2019, p. 3). The ghostly Leggatt stowed aboard an otherwise unremarkable ship fits Mark Fisher’s definition of the uncanny as the experience of locating the “strange within the familiar” (2016, p. 6), whereas eeriness, “something present where there should be nothing” (2016, p. 27), readily describes Celeste’s extrinsic Part of You, lending players a sense of uncertainty as to the doppelgänger’s loyalty and origins.

Mirror, Mirror

The uncanniness of doppelgängers may be as readily chalked up to an indeterminacy surrounding their ontology. I would point out, however, that ambiguity changes depending on its object. With twins, ambiguity lies in the nature of kinship seeming to exceed what is conventionally understood about human development, while a clone does the same in a futurist context, upending relatively conservative ideas about what science is capable of. Science-fictional clones are the rationalization of the doppelgänger. This archetype principally has its source in the Gothic literature of nineteenth-century Europe and its romantic fascination with the nascent field of psychology. Consider, for example, Matthew Lewis’s The Monk or Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Double. The tropes featured in these two stories, respectively the devil in human form and a covetous spirit threatening to usurp the life of its victim [10], provide a secondary distinction within the concept of a doppelgänger. In superficial terms, one is a Biblical entity that disguises itself [11], the other a horrific allegory for middle-class socioeconomic anxiety about loss of status.

Cloning’s secular take on the doppelgänger preserves the incomprehensibility of the doppelgänger while updating its source as the fruit of exponential human achievement. Twins, doppelgängers and clones might thus be categorized as three personifications of ambiguity -- the natural, the supernatural and the artificial -- equally alike in their inexplicability. The mysterious sharer [12] at the heart of Conrad’s tale, for instance, functions both as the unnamed narrator’s likeness (“It was, in the night, as though I had been faced by my own reflection in the depths of a sombre and immense mirror” (p. 116)) and negation. Although Kłosiński’s focus is not avatars, one passage in his paper on othered identity in Cyberpunk 2077, drawn from Michel Foucault's extended meditation on mirrors, can be productively adapted to the thorny issue of identity in digital games (Kłosiński, 2022; Foucault, 1967/1984). Like with Zahavi on watching movies, Foucault’s understanding of his reflection as paradoxically him and not him [13] foregrounds this article’s preoccupation with players’ unstable identification with player-characters. Foucault’s words might just as much apply to an avatar as they do his reflection:

I see myself there where I am not, in an unreal, virtual space that opens up behind the surface; I am over there, there where I am not, a sort of shadow that gives my own visibility to myself, that enables me to see myself there where I am absent. (1967/1984, p. 4)

In L. P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between, the disenchanted Leo Colston surmises about his host’s daughter, “Only she could perform the miracle; it was no good my saying to myself: ‘This is how Marian sees me.’ The portrait wouldn’t come to life unless she herself held the mirror” (1953, p. 231). With its desperation for the rewards of maturity, Leo’s burgeoning self-objectification calls to mind both the irrepressible imagined self of Celeste -- cooly nihilistic, an attempt to match the world’s awfulness with blithe certitude -- and what Conrad refers to as “that ideal conception of one’s own personality every man sets up for himself secretly” (1910/1981, p. 111). If they aren’t brought about through science-fictional means, such as Jekyll’s creation of Hyde (Killen, 2011, p. 52) or when Outer Wilds players jump into the Ash Twin project’s black hole (Mobius Digital, 2019), inadvertently leaving behind an equally freaked out Self, these other selves may all be regarded as the products of unchecked solipsism.

Sociologists and philosophers attribute the paranoia of modern life to everything from a stranger’s othering gaze to the fantasy of unlived lives. In the language of literary fiction, cinema and videogames, these phenomena have a shallower valence, wherein an individual may be estranged to their very character. “[I]f all the truth must be told,” admits the lonesome captain, “I was some what of a stranger to myself” (Conrad, 1910/1981, p. 111). In life, this split enables us to amuse, challenge, or frustrate ourselves on behalf of the not-us, an alienation that is also familiar; “[o]n the other hand,” writes Nele Van de Mosselaer, “gameplay is characterised by a self-division of players which allows them, at any moment, to take on the perspective of external observer towards their own game activities” (2022, p. 41). Game-playing slams together these identifying modes to the extent that players recognize an avatar as partially other [14]. Yet, as this other, players are also ludo-existentially compelled to defend it from threats. Avatars in roleplaying games are similarly understood to be replenishable as well as makeshift. In open-world games, manual control also means taking the interpretive reigns of an anthropomorphic object; this object is treated as an agentive subject, both within the diegesis and with regard to the player’s suspension of disbelief. That agency has simply been outsourced, in short, to us.

One mission in Red Dead Redemption 2 (Rockstar Games, 2018), for instance, offers players the choice (as Arthur Morgan) of getting drunk with Lenny Summers, a fellow gang member. Then, while stumbling around the bar calling out for Lenny, players will discover that the other NPCs all have his face. This change of faces literally occurs, while of course fictionally the effect is limited to Morgan's own perceptual hallucination. Or consider Miss Cubberly’s encounter with the ghost of Bly Manor’s deceased valet in Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961), a film adaptation of The Turn of the Screw. When the hearers of Cubberly’s report of a ghost sighting are incredulous, the audience’s job is subsequently to believe her in a kind of silent corroboration. However, this is not a matter of deduction, of the audience’s willingness to affirm the on-screen fact of the ghost and that the genre of The Innocents is supernatural horror. The audience observes just what is shown, such that no one watching could suspect themself, like Henry James’s governess, to have imagined things. In other words, we must be able to see clearly that which, from Cubberly’s perspective, may have been no more than a waking dream. Matters only compound in videogames. The properly aesthetic question, according to Justyna Janik, becomes “whether we are talking about the ghosts that, in the fictional world, actually appear before the protagonist[...]’s eyes, or about digital anthropomorphic objects placed in the game environment by the game designers” (2019, p. 9).

An identical scenario is frequently staged in horror videogames, a terrifying vision the reality of which cannot be determined by the protagonist. During the first minutes of Nightmare of Decay (Checkmaty, 2022), following the sudden appearance of a corpse-like man holding up a decapitated head, the player-character observes, “You must be more tired than you thought if you're starting to hallucinate." Half witness, half taskmaster, a game-player has twice the burden of a film viewer. For the film viewer, coming to Cubberly’s defense is complicated by the one-way disclosure that is fundamental to spectatorship, whereas, for a game-player, virtuality requires belief in one’s senses, in the storyworld as seen and heard. This works to substantiate actual engagement. In her classic examination of the Freudian double in videogames, Diane Carr suggests that the extreme physicality of avatars [15] stems from the way that “[e]ach serves you and operates for you. [...] As players we need their acrobatics or their violence in order to expiate our anxiety around the doubling” (2003, n.p.). Daniel Vella makes a similar point, that a player’s subjective experience while enjoying a videogame is also inclusive, in most cases, of an avatar’s simulated experience of subjectivity, “by which the player’s subjectivity, externalized in the shape of a figure within the ludic heterocosm, can itself become an object of aesthetic perception” (2015b, p. 20). Yet some of the most peculiar difficulties arise when considering the potential for an (ostensibly rational) player-character to behave contrary to their own well-being.

Nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western literary fiction repeatedly positions the doppelgänger as a watchful, inside-out figure, one that has an almost isometric viewpoint against a protagonist who is forced to trudge on under the privileged gaze of this semi-present other. Is this not reminiscent of the experience a reader has watching over a book’s characters? Ralph Waldo Emerson, for instance, found it “remarkable that involuntarily we always read as superior beings” (1841/2012, p. 140). One finds nearly the same dynamic in the vast majority of digital games, where control see-saws phenomenologically between the will to control and the control of an object [16] that presents fictionally as a living subject, who may be forced to jump off a cliff (yet they’ll still scream) or run in circles. All the while, such player-characters never quite cease to be what they diegetically already are: uniquely determined heroes vying to fulfill their destinies. Supposing the typical gamer is like a “haunting” spirit animating an avatar, or treating it like their stunt double, what then if, in the grandest of metatheatrical gestures, that same avatar asked to be dispossessed?

Inside (Playdead, 2016), an atmospheric platformer that follows an anonymous Boy’s escape through a dystopian landscape and cloning factory, contains a much-discussed alternative ending, wherein a cellar door in a cornfield can be lifted to reveal an industrial sub-basement. Exploring this underground area leads to a low passageway and, after pulling away a metal grate, a thick electrical plug. Upon yanking out the plug (see Fig. 2) a lot of disused equipment sparks, the lights dim, and the Boy slumps to his knees, the connotation being that doing so severs his symbiotic dependence on the player. Figuratively, this frees the Boy, but it also kills him. This radically anti-ludic fourth-wall break [17] draws a discomforting parallel between the player, who exists at an ontological remove from the diegesis, and the factory’s unseen overlords. Several puzzles, in fact, involve mind-controlling one or more clones into lifting a gate or standing on a pressure plate. Inside raises an ethical question about whether player-characters in videogames should be thought of as haunted, or ontologically compromised, by players. As Carr observes, “[a]vatars are our emissaries and, at least to a degree, our doubles” (n.p.). Now, the player-avatar relationship takes on a doppelgängerist appearance, with the player sharing the avatar’s headspace or peering over one shoulder.

Figure 2: In the hazy light of discarded and glowing terminals, the Boy pulls away an electrical plug before the factory powers down and the scene fades to darkness (Illustration by author). Click image to enlarge.

It is worth noting that “this self-division[...] allows players to reflect on their in-game actions from a distanced, third-person perspective” (Van de Mosselaer, 2022, p. 48; see Janik, 2019, p. 13); this perspective, commonly associated with action roleplaying videogames, has also taken form in the thoughts of an anxious literary protagonist. Compare what Conrad’s narrator calls “the confused sensation of being in two places at once” (1910/1981, p. 124) with the following passage from The Go-Between: “I had a curious experience, almost an illusion, as though a part of me was stationed far away, behind me, perhaps in the belt of trees beyond the river; and from there I could see myself, a bent figure, no bigger than a beetle, weaving to and fro across the ribbon of road” (Hartley, 1953, pp. 200-201). Or another, from Frank Norris’s McTeague, which begins in San Francisco and comes to a desperate end in Death Valley: “McTeague saw himself as another man, striding along over the sand and sagebrush. At once he saw himself stop and wheel sharply about, peering back suspiciously. There was something behind him; something was following him. He looked, as it were, over the shoulder of this other McTeague” (1964, p. 328). While it seems that Hartley and Norris are referring, ominously, to the heightened awareness that attends an individual’s emplacement within a wide-open space, another possibility is that the reader’s constant surveillance has at last been felt.

Autonomy, or the Avatar as Haunted

“The uncanniness of a game specter,” writes Janik, “can sometimes also stem from our sense that we, as players, do not have control over them” (2019, p. 6); that is, as opposed to when a player-character effectively commits suicide. With the so-called “Genocide Ending” in Undertale (Toby Fox, 2015), a Miltonic spirit named Chara
-- short for Character? -- addresses the player as their “human soul” and “determination” before presenting them with a choice between global annihilation and abstaining from further violence. If the player opts for the latter, Chara “kills” them with a curling, red slash (see Fig. 3) [18]. In this ending, beyond the campy shock factor, it is suddenly unclear whom the player has been roleplaying as all along [19]. The Genocide Ending’s murderous turn suggests that the avatar’s actions on-screen were only ever coincident with the player’s input (Black, 2017, pp. 186-187). Perhaps, from the player-character and Chara’s point of view, the player was merely humored, a ghost along for the ride.

There is a profound sense of betrayal here, as though the player were a soul abandoned by its own body (the inverse of Jacque Lacan’s concept of the “lamella,” as I will discuss shortly). The betrayal is less so in Nier (Cavia, 2010), where Kainé, the game’s scantily clad companion, will lethally kick the player’s screen if they repeatedly angle the camera a little too low. Given the normalcy of inhabiting a player-character’s point of view, or being locked to their coordinates (Black, 2017, p. 181), anything else would seem to exploit the player’s identification with the avatar, subverting their expectations for dramatic effect (Conway, 2009). For Zahavi, summarizing Edmund Husserl, “[i]t is only when I apprehend the other as apprehending me and take myself as other to the other that I apprehend myself in the same way that I apprehend them and become aware of the same entity that they are aware of, namely, myself as a person” (2005, p. 95). These games, perhaps no more so than from the rare second-person perspective [20], toy with our sense of “being in the driver’s seat,” enjoying the privileged affordances of techno-masculine control. After all, what could be more shocking to a consumer than the realization that ownership does not necessarily equate to authority? From a capitalistic standpoint, “avatars [...] invite us to participate in game worlds by saving us a spot in them” (Liboriussen, 2014, p. 4) -- no differently than a sportscar. “SINCE WHEN WERE YOU THE ONE IN CONTROL?” asks Chara, Undertale’s rosy-cheeked possessor, before the screen fills with a mock-crash checkered pattern of bloody 9s. Is the solution simply not to play? [21]

In a GDC talk, Meg Jayanth counters the idea that a videogame must allow for a high level of interactivity and domination, flattering the player as the storyworld’s all-powerful moral center: “Player agency doesn’t have to translate into action in a traditional sense. Even if a player can’t directly affect something, if they can have an opinion or an emotional response or a reaction, for a game to allow them the space to have an opinion can be as powerful as allowing them to do something” (2017, 8:52). Certainly, the sight of the Boy unplugging himself, with the suggestion that he finds death preferable to compromising on his autonomy, adds further emotional depth to Inside’s powerful storytelling. On first glance, a videogame exists in an apparent state of ubiquitous affectivity, where, until its limitations are fully understood, all but the shallowest piece of scenery might be assumed to be a ludic artifact [22] with a degree of interactivity. Particularly at the dead end of a passageway, the presentation of such a familiar object as Inside’s industrial-size plug, ringed with light (and functionally akin, moreover, to a circuit), is a false gift. Broadly speaking, the license to make use of anything that isn’t nailed down [23] has always been implicit in videogame storyworlds.

Figure 3: A demonic Chara, having turned to address the player, attacks (Illustration by the author). Click images to enlarge.

Semiotically, while a plug has a certain iconic immediacy for the binary opposition of on/off, there is also its tactile quality, the possibility of a plug’s insertion into or removal from an outlet; hence why electrical plugs frequently appear in modern visual culture as a shorthand for connection and things working. Partway through Thomas Mackinnon’s The Corridor (2020), a videogame ostensibly about pressing a large, orange button at the far end of a corridor, an omnipotent -- and increasingly annoyed -- voice-over confronts the player with a room full of dangling two-prong plugs. In the spirit of Inside’s alternative ending, Mackinnon’s narrator berates the player as an inference of sorts: “You see, that’s the thing about you, you ruin things just by observing. [...] Your very existence here is the thing that spoils it” (Mackinnon, 2020) [24]. As the game devolves into a series of irreverent variations on button-pressing, the titular corridor will usually include a Kafkaesque locked door, the knob to which may be tried unsuccessfully again and again. “Yes, I noticed you trying to open the door,” says the snarky voice-over. “Not everything needs a response.” The accusation is that the player cannot keep their virtual hands to themselves.

The contradiction of a playerless player-character, over which one exerts less control than a pachinko ball, echoes Lacan’s lamella. As Slavoj Žižek summarizes, the lamella is “a weird organ which is magically autonomized, surviving without a body whose organ it should have been, like a hand that wanders around alone in early Surrealist films” (2007, p. 62). Cyberpunk 2077’s cybernetically augmented protagonist, V, is resurrected after being shot in the head following a botched mission. Their implanted “biochip,” argues Kłosiński, makes V “de facto an undead, a technological zombie” (2022, p. 80). The main ending to Inside sees the Boy absorbed into a huge, flesh-colored mass of limbs, the Huddle, which (as the player) then proceeds to break free of its confines, smashing through obstacles and walls until it careens down a hillside of fir trees before rolling to a stop in a patch of sunlight. Once again independence, in the abstract, is paid for with the subject’s death.

Commentators (Matulef, 2016; Mithaiwala, 2023) have speculated that, in keeping with the Inside storyworld’s futuristic technologies, the Huddle was mind-controlling the Boy all along as a means of breaking free of the factory. While the alternate ending’s implications may be ethically fraught, its ultimate centrality to Inside’s plot leads to a subtler insight: if for the length of the game the Boy is being controlled by the Huddle -- that is, with respect to a diegetic reading of the gameplay -- then it is not the case that players actually change characters during Inside’s chaotic last act. At that point, our avatar is exchanged for another, while the character we play was always already the Huddle. Prior to its escape, the Huddle presumably remained hooked to the factory’s mind-altering technology (the lighted domes attached to the Huddle are nearly identical to those worn by the factory’s obedient clones), leading the Boy deeper and deeper into the factory. In turn, it might be argued that the alternative ending doesn’t show the Boy unplugging himself from the player but rather shutting down the factory at its source [25]. Accordingly, these mutually exclusive scenarios dramatize an overwhelming desire -- whose? -- to thwart the factory’s cruel aims, either through subterfuge or total destruction. Both, sadly, are destined to result in the loss of self.

More straightforward is the ending of BioShock (2K Boston & 2K Australia, 2007), with its famous revelation that the protagonist, Jack, is really a Manchurian-style assassin sent to kill the utopian city of Rapture’s leader, Andrew Ryan (Killen, 2011). Ryan’s eventual death at the player’s hands betrays the latter’s willingness to suspend their disbelief in order to be properly engaged. Like with Undertale and Inside’s player-characters, Bioshock’s Jack is mind-controlled when subjected to the trigger phrase “Would you kindly.” This isn’t so much a plot twist as unfunny teasing that mocks players for accepting the game’s limited affordances, or diegetic inelasticity [26], in the first place, since BioShock’s developers offer no alternative storyline in which the player might have refused. I am in agreement with Janik, who believes that this end-game moment “uncovers the fact that most of the player’s actions and important decisions were determined long before she has entered the gameworld” (2019, p. 14): Ryan is only obeyed because the player can do nothing else [27]. Like when The Innocents’ dead valet makes a brief, creepy appearance, acting out one’s own hypnosis is flatly paradoxical. A further issue arises with unlikeable protagonists, and whether there is something contradictory about disliking “my” behavior when the character I am stuck with is a real jerk. Take, for instance, Major Sergey Nechaev in Atomic Heart (Mundfish, 2023), whom one reviewer dismissed as “stubbornly bone-headed and annoyingly naive” (Ramée, n.p.; see Walker, 2023) shortly after the game’s launch.

Another sort of mismatch between players and their characters, but with a proprioceptive element, can be found in interactive representations of altered states. For example, in the Elder Scrolls universe, imbibing the recreational drug Skooma results in a loss of bodily control, whereby the player-character’s instability is communicated through the player’s input temporarily becoming less responsive. Another researcher interested in the mapping of player and player-character subjectivities is Olli Tapio Leino. Following Verbeek (2002), Leino describes the link between player input and avatar action as “hybrid intentionality,” or “the ways in which intentionality is not only mediated, but also transformed for the purpose of gameplay” (2010, p. 172). As with the Skooma example, one too many lagers in Deep Rock Galactic (Ghost Ship Games, 2020), the mise-en-scène blurs and it becomes a finicky thing to walk in a straight line. Depending on the brew, the player’s dwarf character might even faint or begin to dance. This is the game’s doing, a temporary, scripted relinquishment of control.

The software, as it were, is drunk, which is to say that the variables governing the manipulation of the avatar have changed against the player’s will. Similarly, once the “sanity meter” is depleted in Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem (Silicon Knights, 2002) the controller can become unresponsive, or a message may ask if the player wishes to delete their save file. Meanwhile, in Luigi’s Mansion 3 (Next Level Games, 2019) Luigi is likely to be spooked by a ghost during gameplay, which has the effect of partially decoupling him from the player. These are examples of what Ewan Kirkland refers to as “the reciprocation between player and avatar movement, and [...] the ways in which heightened emotional states are expressed through erratic uncontrollable avatar movements combined with joypad vibration” (2008, p. 3). Another can be seen in Before Your Eyes (GoodbyeWorld Games, 2021). Assuming the player keeps to the default settings, Before Your Eyes utilizes an alternative control scheme where the player’s eyes are tracked by their webcam (Verran, 2023). With each physical blink, the game skips ahead to the next scene, limiting players’ control over how rapidly the story advances. As Benjamin Brynn, the game’s terminally ill protagonist, players experience his gradual decline firsthand through a combination of screen blur and audio-muffling effects, along with a certain motor-coordination handicap. The disease itself is symbolized by a humming, glowing-red mass and can be fought off with an infusion of morphine from the handheld button on Brynn’s bed -- that is, if the player can reach it. In a sense, Before Your Eyes relies on the player being normatively bodied, capable of steering the cursor toward the onscreen elements, so that that agreeable sense of involved control can then be wrested away.

An avatar is a shapeshifting, deeply metaphorical entertainment product, one that promises mastery of an ontologically complex virtual object and which can take many forms, from sportscars to gun-toting cowboys, even the wind. Avatars “double [the] phenomenology of ludic experience, resulting from the fact that the player simultaneously inhabits two subjective standpoints in relation to the game” (Vella, 2015b, p. 20). But an avatar must also yield to the game-player while simultaneously challenging the very basis of that affordance. Controllability of an avatar would seem to be key to any player’s identification with it, and this alone constitutes a sizeable portion of the initial learning curve in many games. While the use of avatars in videogames can feel ludo-mechanically ambivalent, between an ease of handling that leads to uncomplicated bonding with the player and gameplay that manages to build in a satisfactory challenge, the lessening difficulty of attaining mastery (Vella, 2015a) in a game means that one increasingly identifies with an avatar, not all at once, but as that learning curve gradually flattens out [28].

Conrad indirectly offers an appropriable description of how players’ selves are extended into a fictional storyworld. Alluding to the direct, hierarchic bond between a ship’s captain and its chief officer, he writes fondly of “the way of silent knowledge and mute affection, the perfect communion of a seaman with his first command” (1910/1981, p. 146). Compared with an individual manipulating a digital, body-shaped prosthesis, like the towering mechas of Japanese science fiction, there is something flattering about seeing one’s commands, mapped to a gamepad and dexterously inputted, amplified on-screen -- at least, until the prosthesis is forgotten as separate from oneself (see what Klevjer calls “prosthetic agency” in 2012, p. 19). The irreconcilability of a character to their deathly reflection is a motif that can be found in works like Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure:

Jude began to be impressed with the isolation of his own personality, as with a self-spectre, the sensation being that of one who walked, but could not make himself seen or heard. He drew his breath pensively, and, seeming thus almost his own ghost, gave his thoughts to the other ghostly presences with which the nooks were haunted. (1895/2002, p. 73)

Such self-alienation achieves stability, in the context of a digital game, principally through the incorporation of control “across two standpoints” (Vella, 2015b, p. 209). “What is vital to observe,” notes Vella, “is that firstly, the ludic subject and the implied player are played out as different subjectivities, and, secondly, they belong to the same person” (2015b, p. 209). Like a dog chasing its tail, albeit at a televisual distance, every game-player both perpetually lags behind and leads themself.

As the American philosopher Thomas Nagel claims in an essay on the supposed absurdity of all human endeavor, the truth is that “we pursue our lives” (1971, p. 719). It took videogames, which first gained commercial success during the same decade in which Nagel published his essay, to literalize this observation [29]. But to contemplate oneself in an act of introspection as one looks to the future -- even this denotes a split. In the hand of an experienced mountaineer, a hiking pole, far from constituting a matter-of-fact adaptation to that which nonetheless remains ontically foreign, is ultimately a bit of the world become oneself, as Merleau-Ponty permits us to say; it is “an intimacy as close as between the sea and the strand” (1968, pp. 130-131). From nearly the same phenomenological standpoint, the fiction of an anthropomorphic, subjectivity-having virtual self amounts to a similar intimacy. While there is hardly a game that doesn’t rely on the player identifying with their avatar, at the same time “the experience of gameworlds [...] always entails the possibility for the actual, playing self to take a step back” (Van de Mosselaer, 2022, p. 41). This somatic ebb and flow is the knowledge that we aren’t our avatars continuously interrupted by re-immersion into a game’s fiction. Though even the most likable player-character will seem a mere sentimental object the instant one lets go, in the heat of belief this other, hybridized self can also offer the greatest challenge of all.

 

Endnotes

[1] For additional applications of hauntology to videogames, see Kłosiński (2022, p. 79-80), Janik (2019) and Verran (2022, p. 5).

[2] Introduced in his posthumous collection The Visible and the Invisible (1968).

[3] Less often, however, the shadowy twin in a videogame may be no more than a mechanical novelty rather than any significant narrative foil. The fifth world of Braid (Number None, 2008), for instance, includes “a figure that duplicates the player’s previous movement and actions after time is rewound, thus enabling him or her to perform two sets of actions and effectively be in two places at the same time” (Stamenković & Jaćević, 2015, p. 192; see Janik, 2019, p. 14).

[4] See TVTropes, s.v. “Fusion Dance / Video Games” for additional examples. https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/FusionDance/VideoGames

[5] Disco Elysium (ZA/UM, 2019), which centers on an amnesiac detective questioning his own sanity, avoids Celeste’s corporeal split by way of a voiceover mechanic that, as the player-character’s subconscious, will routinely butt in with encyclopedic trivia, enticements to bad behavior and psychedelic intuitions.

[6] Similarly, in Adam Robinson-Yu’s (2019) A Short Hike, Claire, an adolescent bird and one of the game’s many chatty anthropomorphs, tries to reach the end of Hawk Peak Trail. While Claire wants to check in with her mother, her cellphone only gets reception at the summit. Once there, Claire’s mother praises her tenacity for seeing the climb through, then encourages a startled Claire to ride a powerful updraft of air to the parkland below.

[7] Some games, however, feature clones as a plot twist or otherwise existential threat. BioShock Infinite (Irrational Games, 2013) and Mass Effect 3 (BioWare, 2012), for instance, set the player up to kill their other selves in order to advance the story. BioShock Infinite eventually discloses that the ultra-nationalist Zachary Hale Comstock is in fact the protagonist, Booker DeWitt, from an alternate timeline. Meanwhile, Mass Effect introduces an evil genetic copy of its protagonist, Commander Shephard. Unavoidably, in both games the story culminates in the death of the protagonist’s doppelgänger.

[8] I am reminded of the behavior of Shy Guy enemies in The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (Nintendo EAD, 2013), which mimic the player’s movements, as well as the Mirror Shield, which is used by Link to deflect fire and magical beams; this item would seem to extend the idea of mirrors to their metaphorical limit.

[9] In Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, Dickie Greenleaf's fatal surrogation begins with lending Tom Ripley his clothing (1955/2008).

[10] See Kłosiński, 2022, p. 70, where he identifies fear of cognitive-ontological usurpation as a significant motif in Cyberpunk 2077.

[11] For a naturalistic example, there’s Nosk, an arachnoid secret boss in Hollow Knight (Team Cherry, 2017) who resembles the sinister Matilda in Lewis’s novel but from a pseudo-evolutionary standpoint. Nosk draws the player into its lair using the Knight’s exact likeness, which is revealed to be a bodily appendage.

[12] Incidentally, spy novelist John le Carré described Kim Philby, the former British MI6 agent turned KGB informer (that is, a double agent), using this very phrasing: “Philby was my secret sharer whom I never met” (cited in Bruccoli & Baughman, 2004, p. 154).

[13] It is worth noting Foucault’s concession that “the mirror does exist in reality” (1967/1984, p. 4). The question as to whether virtuality should in fact be classified oppositely, being a product of the real world, is given serious credence by David Chalmers in his book Reality+ (2022, p. 119; Chalmers’s adherence is to a thesis known as “virtual realism”) and rejected by Jonathan Erhardt as “trivially false” (2013, p. 3). The error in this case ultimately lies with the question’s semantic ambiguity (Erhardt, 2013, p. 2). See also Coppock (2012).

[14] See de Wildt et al. (2020) for a postcolonial account of how “avatar” was appropriated from Eastern culture for its perceived alterity.

[15] Conversely, horror games frighten us, argues Carr, through their unwillingness to provide a suitably heroic protagonist, such that “[t]he doubling between player and avatar... is not channeled and purged” (2003, n.p.).

[16] Bjarke Liboriussen, however, encourages researchers to “challenge subject/object thinking in avatar scholarship [...] by replacing ‘object’ with ‘thing’” (2014, p. 2). The thingness of digital game artifacts, Liboriussen argues, is their ontic independence, like in the example of an upright jug holding water on its own (2014, p. 3), while an object is that which is determined to be such in the mind of an observer. It seems to me little relevant that basically all avatars remain upright on their own, perhaps notwithstanding Bennett Foddy’s QWOP (2010), with its infuriating ragdoll physics (Van de Mosselaer, 2022, p. 49n)). Given this article’s focus, the extent to which players’ identification with avatars is dependent upon the quality and context of their (interpretive) control, I have chosen not to incorporate Liboriussen’s terminological recommendations. But see Liboriussen on the Heideggerian concept of “mirror-play” (2014, p. 5) and the being-toward-death shared by players with their avatars.

[17] See Steven Conway’s distinction between a genuine fourth-wall break and the expansion or contraction of the magic circle. Respectively, the latter is a gesture intended to either include the player within the jurisdiction of the diegesis, say as the protagonists’ guiding spirit (Conway, 2009, n.p.), or further exclude them. For example, in the Heart of Darkness-inspired Spec Ops: The Line (Yager Development, 2012), the player is afforded the option of fictionally killing either themself or Konrad, the game's antagonist.

[18] See the discussion of this Undertale ending in Daryl Talks Games’ (2021) YouTube video, What If You Met... You?

[19] When players instead name their character Chara, the message “The true name” will appear briefly. Other clues throughout Undertale, including Chara and the player-character’s nearly identical outfits, suggest that their relationship is doppelgängerist in nature.

[20] See 28 Pixels Later (Potboiler, 2023), a parodic, Resident Evil-style action title set in the second person, where the player must inhabit the perspective of zombies pursuing the player-character. Instead of occupying the protagonist's headspace, the second-person view “allows us to see the inside from the perspective of the outside” (Fisher, 2016, pp. 6-7).

[21] See Sonia Fizek’s (2018) “Interpassivity and the Joy of Delegated Play in Idle Games,” which is concerned with self-play and the seeming paradox of idle games. “[O]utsourcing gameplay onto the game itself,” Fizek writes, “leads to a momentary escape from the responsibility of active play and, as a result, a disidentification with the player’s primary role as an active agent” (2018, p. 142). See also what de Fault (2023) calls the “in your own time” structure of certain nonlinear videogames.

[22] See Verran (2022) for a consideration of this phrase from an aesthetics standpoint.

[23] Florence contains a brief, less dramatic version of this in its Letting Go chapter. This chapter can only be completed if the player abstains from clicking around for hidden on-screen elements, as doing so causes Florence to stand in place. The ghostly form of Krish can then catch up to her. “None of the mechanics are what you would call ‘deep’ from a systemic point of view,” explains Wong, “but that’s not the point. In vignette games, mechanics are often about evoking a feeling or an idea, or perhaps bringing up similar memories that the player has and thereby creating an empathetic connection with the player” (Wong, 2019). The logical expectation that something must be affected in order for progress to occur is quietly adapted, namely through the player letting go of their ingrained notions of what a videogame is.

[24] Andrew Reinhard connects this -- the possibility that a player’s existence within a game space might be affective by its very nature -- with assemblage theory, as put forth in Manuel DeLanda’s book of the same name: “The player-as-agent can set things in motion in a game merely by being present in a space, and can also trigger coded events through both action and inaction” (Reinhard, 2017, n.p.). See also Verran (2023).

[25] The alternate ending is accessible after the player has destroyed fourteen glowing orbs throughout the game, each of which attaches to a yellow cable. My interpretation of the orbs, based on the player-as-Huddle theory, is that they are nodes -- wireless routers, as it were -- for the factory’s long-range transmissions.

[26] Van de Mosselaer’s comments on the self-reflexivity of humorous games is fully applicable here:

When a game then suddenly self-reflexively reveals its own fictionality or the inelasticity of its mechanics, the butt of the joke is thus often not the inelastic or incongruous game itself, but rather the player, who is revealed to have been blindingly following game logic while caught up in play. [...] Once again, gameplay then reveals itself as a comic object, and the player, now distanced and able to perceive the game objectively, is simultaneously the one who is laughing and the one who is mocked. (2022, p. 47)

[27] Or as Janik acknowledges in her discussion of a ghostly encounter in one of the Assassin Creed games, “[players] cannot rebel if [they] still want to progress with the game” (2019, p. 17).

[28] Something like the possibility of forgetting the inherent materiality of game-playing, say while holding a controller or once the avatar begins to feel like an extension of one’s will, can be found in characterizations of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy, insofar as he “signals that a moment of vision includes an implicit reference to the invisible. That is to say, he makes ‘invisibility’ a condition of perception” (Muller, 2017, p. 185). This is what Piotr Kubiński refers to as “[a]n impression of a non-mediated participation in a digital world generated by the machine, a sensation of a direct presence, which makes players lose sight of the physical world surrounding them” (Kubiński cited in Van de Mosselaer, 2022, p. 40).

[29] Black (2017), who carefully disentangles perspective, viewpoint and point of view, attributes the metaphor of avatars as pilotable vehicles (rather than tools) to James Newman’s (2002) article “The Myth of the Ergodic Videogame.” See also Klevjer (2012, p. 18), where he discusses Mary Fuller and Henry Jenkins’s devaluation of avatars as no more than vehicles for players’ agency, as well as Carr (2003).

 

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