A Video Game Is An Exploded, Perfect Archive

And All Players are Laboring Historians

Historians, probably
Historians, probably

Becoming a historian is easier than you might think. In the world of Rapture, there’s no need for specialized training, or years of study. Audience questions that are really comments or Reviewer #3’s self-serving criticisms won’t be obstacles in your way. And while there’s no danger of red rot or shelf dust getting all over your hands, there is some legwork involved. But once you’ve found all 122 audio diaries scattered across Bioshock’s battered and leaking Art Deco metropolis – well, then the achievement is yours! Sit back an enjoy your newfound status; tenure and sweet C-SPAN speaking gigs are just around the corner.

Though an influential example of the use of archival materials to tell stories through environmental exploration, Bioshock is not unique. Archival fragments litter video game worlds.  Indeed, the mechanic of scattering snippets of recorded audio across levels in order to narrate key plot points or flesh out characters is common enough to have long been a cliché (sometimes lamented).

The device is not limited to audio-visual media, either. The fantasy dungeons and spiffy space ports spun out in games are curiously alike in their rich deposits of carelessly unsecured correspondence, unlocked personal diaries, and opened-to-just-the-right-page lore-laden tomes. While Bioshock’s designers are unusual in offering the player an official title for rooting around for NPCs’ private cassettes (though they have company in that), the outcome of the mechanic is the same across dozens of games: find a text, learn a plot detail and increase to your understanding of the game world  —  often, while increasing your character’s powers.

nice architecture, sure – but can I take photos in the reading room?
nice architecture, sure – but can I take photos in the reading room?

Considered against the context of real archives – whether institutionally or individually created – what’s striking about the archival fragments in games is how well they all fit together. The game archive that existed before the player began engaging with the software was a perfect one,  conceived and created whole. But unlike the similarly created archive of correspondence one might find in an epistolary novel, where the fragments flow in some kind of linear order, the narrative logic of game archives was detonated when the start button was clicked. Player action results an conscious disordering that layers an investigatory experience on other player actions. This is such a robust activity, that sometimes the investigation of the archive is the whole of the games mechanics, as in the acclaimed HER STORY .

Some games explode the archive with greater force than others. Removing the narrative device of logs or diaries in favor of attaching text to items that can be collected, inventoried, and wielded in other ways makes the collection and analysis of archival material a supplement to other mechanics, rather than a directly experienced text. Even so, the archival material-as-item is often used for the information encoded in the text itself – reading remains important, as text provides answers to a puzzle, or spur to an action. In Pox Hunter, for example, newspapers and broadsides function as both a means and an end of player action. As instances of pro-vaccine propaganda, they are tools for convincing a skeptical public, and therefore changing the game environment to benefit the player’s goals; but when not created by the player, they work as a means of informing different actions, like the mapping of the spread of the virus, or deciding where to place new vaccination clinics.

Other games aim to use archival traces not in direct mechanics, but rather to provide material for players’ extra-game explorations – historiography in a sense. Hidetaka Miyazaki‘s games, for example, attach textual fragments to items as a means of further obfuscating lore in the service of creating a more complex historical task for the player-community; there is no plot to Dark Souls, per se, save what the players are able to pull together out of a close analysis of rare fragments. (Though what the in-narrative explanation of how a magical corpse-person can read a text ascribed (but not inscribed) to a magical sword while simultaneously wielding that sword is…not entirely clear). In Fallout 4, by contrast, collectible comic books and survival manuals harness both these senses of the archive; they are elements of lore and environmental storytelling, but when completely collected, their possession benefits the player by augmenting their stats – one assumes by reading, though perhaps in the Wasteland, skill and the power knowledge bring are transferred osmotically.

Whichever form the player finds archival leavings in the game world, the offscreen imaginary work of the mechanic relies on a cinematic version of historians’ labor. Always finding a relevant text at a relevant time, the collection and analysis of archival material in games is the scholarly equivalent of hacking by typing quickly while illuminated by blue screen glow, or shouting “enhance” at security camera footage to track a shooter in real time. Games imagine that sources need to be found, but once researched, they tell stories sans questions, unmediated by anything more than the literal environmental context of their discovery.

The authors of sources in video games are also more helpful creatures than any non-game researcher has encountered in their waking life — always caring about exactly what the player cares (or should care) about, and offering their thoughts through handwriting or vocalizations that only very rarely need deciphering or translation. Considered as a group, video game sources are always commensurable, easily understood as acting in concert through a kinship in genre or format to provide data that slots easily into the same narrative or meta-narrative.

However, to any experienced researcher, the perfection of games’ exploded archives is belied by their superficial nature. Their extreme legibility makes them uncannily smooth as sets of objects, puncturing verisimilitude – at least among the knowing members of the audience. The ready artifice of a given video game, always literally visible in the form of a screen, is echoed in the sparseness and flatness of the archive of media and texts that forms the investigatory experience of the game.

definitely not flat…

That’s not a complaint, just a critique; all created objects and texts have limits. But the commonplace appearance of exploded archives in contemporary video games also reveals that they labor under a fair weight of irony. Video games themselves are notoriously difficult to archive – doubly fragile because of both storage instability (software by its nature is unstable, degrading on any kind of media) and environmental requirements (as hardware rots and becomes rare, obsolete, or legally unavailable). The collection and archival curation of video games, even when attempted by expert and deep-pocketed institutions, serves as a cautionary case-study of the the transient nature of digital materials and the trade-offs of digital preservation. Brought alive in part by the narrative effect produced by imagined historical labor, games are undone by their own incompatibility to archival practice – however theorized or enacted.

It makes for a paradox: we play in worlds created out of archives, only to have the medium of that play be unarchivable (though the play itself is another story…).

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