So a while back I played QUBE, and didn’t really enjoy it. I wrote a little about it here, and mostly – like I say – sort of pointed out some potential problems with its structure. Now I’ve gone out and played QUBE 2, and, well, yeah. It’s okay. Pretty nice graphics. No alright – I will say this about the game, it’s not great, but it exists in that weird middle ground where even though it’s not good per se it gives me things to think about. Let’s chat about revelation.
So the thing I’m talking about here isn’t so much Revelation, in the biblical sense. It’s much more the simple narrative reveal – you might call it a twist, if you like, although that label is a little too generous for QUBE 2. If you’ve been gaming at all over the last ten years, you’ll probably have noticed an influx of games that all include some sort of big reveal near the climax of the story. Just drawing on games starting with B, we’ve got Batman: Arkham Knight, with its reveal about the identity of Red Hood, The Beginner’s Guide, where we discover that the narrator has wrecked his relationship with Coda, BioShock Infinite, where we find out that Comstock is the protagonist from an alternate reality, and Braid, where we learn that the princess is escaping the main character, rather than needing to be rescued by him. In at least half of those games, we can pull out Big Reveals from other games in the franchise as additional supporting examples: Batman: Arkham City has the reveal about who’s bankrolling Hugo Strange, for instance, and the original BioShock obviously has the famous ‘Would you kindly’ reveal. So it’s all over the place. For reference, these games listed are from as early as 2008, with Braid (or 2007 for the original BioShock), and continue into 2018 with QUBE 2. The Big Reveal seems like a stable narrative element.
And it’s not a bad element either, right, I’ve not suggested anything like that. Arguably it’s inherent to the basic storytelling process. Either way, it’s just something that exists, and it’s dealt with in ways that are sometimes intelligent and sometimes not. BioShock‘s reveal is still a banger. So is Braid’s. In some other instances, it’s maybe less impressive. What struck me about QUBE 2 was just a really lazy instance of reveal-foreshadowing that cropped up quite early in the game. I’m getting sick of games where a character is deliberately withholding information, and the protagonist just goes ‘well I guess I’ll blindly just do what they’re telling me to even though they’re obviously withholding information.’ It’s something that’s been growing for a while, and QUBE 2 really crystallised the hatred for me. You’re stuck in some giant cube that has a bunch of conveniently placed puzzles, and some person over the radio is giving you instructions. They clearly have additional information about what’s happening but they refuse to tell you for literally no good reason. The protagonist explicitly says something like ‘why won’t you tell me what’s happening,’ and the person on the other end just stops responding, and the protagonist goes ‘well I guess I’d better just keep going then.’ And it’s so transparently obvious that information is being deliberately withheld, and the protagonist is just a liiiiittle too overeager to just abandon their sense of curiosity and proceed blindly through the maze. And you know it’s because the developers wanted the reveal to go at the end, but couldn’t think of even the most marginal excuse for keeping the player in the dark. So the protagonist just puts on her stupid boots and goes ‘oh well what can ya do’ and keeps plodding along regardless. It’s before I turned the subtitles on (for screenshots), so I’m a little hazy on the exact wording and location, but it’s somewhere in the first few levels, and it’s aggressively stupid.
But alright, I’m a literature guy, so if there’s no intelligent plot, the next question for me is this: what does this story reveal about the implicit attitudes and beliefs of the developers? And obviously that’s a bit of a dodgy question, because you don’t want to come out and say that you’ve psycho-analysed the developers by playing their video game for two and a half hours. At the same time, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that the stuff we make might be influenced to some degree by the things that are around us and that are valuable to us. In literary studies, we sort of go halfway and suggest that stuff (or ‘art’ if you like) can hold a dominant ideology independent of the creator’s intentions or beliefs or whatever else. It’s possible to portray a character in a sexist way even if you’re not intending to do so. So we say that the text has its own ideological function that’s mostly separate from the author’s peculiar psychology. Maybe that function might be cause for the author to reflect on their own psychology – that is, if you’re writing a sexist stereotype, maybe that reflects something about your own internal attitudes to women – but by and large we leave the creators out of it. So what’s the dominant ideology in QUBE 2? What’s the message put forward by these different parts?
Let’s just start off by listing some of the relevant components. There’s some information, and we know it exists, but it’s hidden from us. The only way to get to that knowledge is by completing a bunch of relatively menial tasks that draw on some basic properties of the universe: gravity, momentum, friction, and so on. And we have to use our analytic reasoning, and do a bunch of logic stuff to figure it all out, but once we’ve configured things in the right way, everything will just snap into focus, and we’ll be able to progress, and we’ll get to the knowledge. It’s sort of sounding a bit like a commentary on science and the pursuit of knowledge. The robo-cube-alien even talks about ‘Enlightenment’ at one point – maybe that’s a thread worth pulling.
One of the big ideas associated with the Enlightenment is the idea of progress – the belief that we can make the world better. There’s just gonna be more science and more technology and things are just gonna get better and better, until boom! – the singularity of human perfection. Obviously that’s not a future that’s manifested. For many people, things seem to be getting worse. Our major industrial advances now mean that global warming’s going to fuck the planet, and we’re also dealing with Brexit, Trump, white nationalists on the rise, the attack back home in Christchurch – incidentally, I’m writing this the day after the attack. I was applying for a job, and the news came on, and I sat and cried. It’s hard to believe that things are getting better. Point is, anyone’s personal beliefs aside, most traditional forms of media have grappled with the Enlightenment and largely moved on. They’ve taken the position that although technology has given us great benefits, it’s also given rise to the horrors of the twentieth century. Medicinal advances sit opposite Mengele. Einstein sits opposite the bomb. Arguably the cyberpunk genre is fundamentally post-Enlightenment too: it’s all set yonks in the future, and technology is wildly more advanced, but things aren’t necessarily better. Technology has not translated into social progress.
I’m drawing out this history around art and the Enlightenment because in many ways, video games are rooted in the past. Video games still believe in progress. They believe in the Enlightenment project. In QUBE 2, you know that there’s information being obscured, and you know that you can get to it by doing a bunch of logic puzzles. Rationality results in knowledge, in betterment. In Enlightenment. John Sharp, in his book Works of Game, suggests that Jason Rohrer’s games “feel more at home in a conversation about nineteenth-century British literature or German painting than they do contemporary aesthetics.” He’s talking about Romanticism, which is later than the Enlightenment-era stuff I’m talking about, but that line really resonated with me. I’ve always felt that for all their newness, video games are in many ways really old. Some would even describe them as outmoded in their aesthetic sensibilities. I don’t think they’re outmoded, necessarily, but it’s possible that our best lens for looking at video games lies in the past, not the future.