A Post Mortem On Post-Modernism In Video Games
How game narratives went post-modern and the shift towards nuanced takes on cultural classics. Published on Fri, Feb 07, 2020. Written by Michael Bassili.
Spoilers Ahead Proceed with caution! To talk about post-modernism in media, we have to dissect and examine narratives from the past. This means spoiling the following:
- Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)
- Metal Gear Solid (1998)
- Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (2001)
- Spec Ops: The Line (2012)
If you’re worried about spoilers, I’d avoid this piece outright. If you’re still with us, welcome! I hope you enjoy reading the pretentious scribblings of a lunatic!
“This is the postmodern desert inhabited by people who are, in effect, consuming themselves in the form of images and abstractions through which their desires, sense of identity, and memories are replicated and then sold back to them as products.” —Larry McCaffrey
Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins are credited for introducing the Watchmen to the greater consciousness of 1980s society. Before Watchmen’s initial run, comic books were colourful, happy, cheerful, and most importantly, very heroic. Batman, Spider-Man, and Superman were known for being good. Truly good. Those in need could rest easy because the super-pals were on their way! Games and game narratives had a similar sounding backbone up until the 2000s, with your typical video game protagonist serving to do good in the world. You’d fight invaders from space, and terrorists. You’d play a jumping plumber saving the girl. Expectations were set and execution was typical. Games and game narratives had reached the “modern.” Then, just as Watchmen’s presence altered comic book sensibilities, so too did the release of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty.
In literature, the “modern” is described as the typical, popular narrative shared across a large amount of published media. The “hero’s journey” is a classic example of modernity in literature. You could probably reach your hand into a bookshelf and pull out a book that follows the “hero’s journey.” You’ve read it before; an unsuspecting hero is set on an adventure, travelling far and wide. Just before reaching their goal, they’re knocked back down. They’re desolate and desperate. Finally, they learn to overcome their obstacles, eventually reaching their goal. These stories usually have some sort of mentor character that guides them along. This mentor usually dies by the end of the first act.
There are countless examples of hero’s journey-style narratives in both print and digital media. Here are two examples that might ring a bell:
- Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
- Luke sets out on a journey to destroy the Death Star. His mentor dies almost immediately. He is beaten down near the end but triumphs.
- Metal Gear Solid
- Solid Snake infiltrates Shadow Moses Island to stop terrorists. He’s captured and tortured before he can complete his mission. He then defeats the evil terrorists and destroys the dangerous Metal Gear.
If you’ve read anything about a protagonist who sets out to do something, gets close, fails, then rises back up to save the day, then you’ve read the “hero’s journey.” With that in mind, it’s time to talk about one of the most pretentious topics I can put to print: post-modernism in narrative media.
“Postmodernity is said to be a culture of fragmentary sensations, eclectic nostalgia, disposable simulacra, and promiscuous superficiality, in which the traditionally valued qualities of depth, coherence, meaning, originality, and authenticity are evacuated or dissolved amid the random swirl of empty signals.” —Jean Baudrillard
When talking about post-modern video games, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more culturally significant example than 2001’s Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. For those unfamiliar, MGS2 was the much-anticipated sequel to the instant-classic that was MGS1. The world held their breath; what would Solid Snake do after defeating his clone brother? Would Otacon do now that he wasn’t building nuclear weapons? And more importantly, what will that wild and whacky Kojima do next? Trailers were released showcasing an HQ Solid Snake running around, being sneaky. The lighting, water, and textures were all amazing. The gameplay looked tight. People of all ages sprung to life when the game was eventually released, clamouring game retailers. All were anticipating the return of the macho, sneaky, and heroic Solid Snake. What they got instead was one of the best game narratives ever released.
If you’ve played MGS2 before, you’ll be well aware that Solid Snake is but a supportive side character in this sequel. The true protagonist is Raiden: a thin, blonde lad who pirouettes around Big Shell. He takes orders from people more seriously than him, and he’s never told enough to rebel. He’s also a big BIG fan of the mythical Solid Snake, just like the player. This subversion is one of countless others throughout the game. There are dozens of quality pieces written about MGS2’s post-modernism, and they’re all worth a read.123
Lately, there’s been a trend towards hyper-ironic, self-aware media. Think the Deadpool movies, South Park, and Family Guy. These are examples of media that knows it’s media. And instead of using the opportunity to lampshade the old and push the new, these pieces of media choose to poke fun at their very existence. The South Park: The Fractured But Whole (2017) is a game that is steeped in jokes about video game tropes and grand narratives. Loading screens jokes about how the game doesn’t have a “jump” button and enemies in-game lampshade uses of decision trees. While South Park: TFBH is still a great game, it’s a shame it only mocks. Real post-post-modernism has one key element that’s rarely observed by its post-modern parents.
The TV show Community (2009-2015) is the perfect microcosm of post-modern storytelling. While Community doesn’t shy away from poking fun at common TV tropes, it doesn’t surrender to them. Characters share empathetic, personal moments with one another. This is a stark contrast with many Family Guy (1999-) episodes, which laugh away any semblance of interpersonal connection between characters for the sake of a self-referential joke. So, I’d argue the obvious path forward isn’t to continue to mock and lampshade common tropes in games, but to use the trope as a jumping-off point for empathetic storytelling. Acknowledge tropes but don’t dwell on them. Move past to find newer avenues of storytelling and gameplay.
Gameplay can also be post-modern! All it takes is for common conventions to be adopted followed by one or two renegades who publish tweaks to the formula. Spec Ops: The Line (2012) is a serviceable shooter which stars a soldier who’s racked with guilt and PTSD from fighting all the damn time. This comes to a head when you’re forced to fire white phosphorus onto civilian targets. The same gameplay was showcased in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007) with a drastically different context and resolution. In 2007, you were praised! In 2012, you realize you’ve become the very monster you’ve been fighting. More subtly, these games took to moving past tropes in their respective genres. Games such as:
- Dragon Quest XI (2017)
- You can tell the designers were aware that their series is the template for many other JRPGs. They use this to tell highly personal and subversive stories instead of poking fun at the genre’s many many tropes.
- The Legend Of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017)
- While the game rarely pokes fun at itself, it’s apparent the designers of BotW were well aware of the tropes and tribulations of open-world games. One common trope is climbing towers to reveal your map, often while populating it with busywork. BotW keeps the towers but ditches the map markers. The player gets to decide where to go and what to see, not the quest designers. That’s neat stuff!
The future of the medium is going to be dictated by new and impressive (and profitable) games that try different things with their gameplay and narrative. In another ten years, this article will be out-dated and I’ll be forced to add a preface saying as much.
“Tv’s “real” agenda is to be “liked,” because if you like what you’re seeing, you’ll stay tuned. tv is completely unabashed about this; it’s its sole raison.” —David Foster Wallace
Thanks for bearing with me through this pretentious romp. I’ve had post-modernism on the mind since I played MGS2, so it’s highly cathartic to vent outwardly like this. MGT will return to less-pretentious topics soon!
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