NUTS: The Aesthetic of the Incomplete

Back in the dark days of 2017, I wrote about Dawn of War: Dark Crusade, a game where players take on the role of a faction from Warhammer 40,000 and battle for control of the planet Kronus. Dark Crusade is a strategy game played on two levels. Players move their armies around on a Risk-style overworld; to conquer a specific territory, they descend into its battle map and play out a typical strategy game skirmish, much in the style of Age of Empires or Starcraft. To eliminate an enemy faction altogether, the player invades their capital territory and completes a so-called stronghold mission, a longer, narrative-heavy mission with unique objectives. When each stronghold mission is complete, and each enemy faction expelled from Kronus, the player wins the game. It’s interesting to note that in playing one campaign of Dark Crusade, the player will not see all the content the game has to offer. The player never lays siege to their own stronghold, and so never sees their stronghold mission. The content accessible on any given playthrough is less than the sum of what the game contains.

This state of affairs is not unusual for video games, which often rely on what we might term an aesthetic of the incomplete. Player experience is fragmented, piecemeal, one path among many. In Dark Crusade, the choice of faction is a faction not battled. Each unit built leaves another unbuilt, each battle another battle unfought. Each choice forecloses another, leaving the player with a permutation of the game and never the full game in its totality. In some ways, this aesthetic is reassuring. We live in the age of surveillance capitalism, where every part of our digital experience is tracked, itemized, and collated into data profiles sold in bulk to advertisers. In the face of this digital panopticon, which strives to be all-seeing, all-knowing, total and absolute, an aesthetic of the incomplete is striking – perhaps not revolutionary, but at least worth investigation.

Most immediately, we might focus on games that adopt the incomplete as a deliberate thematic or mechanical concern. We might begin with NUTS, a 2021 surveillance game where players take on the role of a zoologist in the woods studying the nocturnal habits of squirrels. Each night the squirrels run from their home in a tree towards a stash of nuts somewhere on the map. You, the player, must place cameras around the map to track their journey over time. You might on one night see the squirrel run down from their tree and around the back of some rocks. You can then move a camera behind the rocks to see where they go after that. NUTS is thus a game of incremental tracking. You are never able to see the squirrel’s entire journey at once: you piece it together over time from a series of isolated views. Each camera shows you a part, but the journey as a whole exists as something out there, beyond the scope of any individual lens.

We might hesitate over whether NUTS sees this surveillance gap as a historical accident, as a current but not permanent limit. As the game proceeds, you are able to access additional cameras – surely implying that the squirrel panopticon looms just over the horizon. Further, the game is set in a pre-digital age. You receive instructions via fax; your video cameras use cassette tapes and need to be played back through televisions that you store in your caravan. Have we not overcome these issues? Are they not in some sense made redundant by the advent of digital technology? NUTS’ concern with old-fashioned devices reveals an interest in the material nature of surveillance. Your ability to monitor the squirrels is governed and in many cases impeded by the materiality of your gear. Tapes must be rewound, paused, played back. When you find a squirrel’s stash, you twiddle a dial to link the correct monitor to the printer so that you can print and then fax the image back to home base. At the same time, NUTS is a video game. There is no fax machine except as modelled by the game. There are no cameras except as modelled by the game. The limits of these technologies do not belong to the past: they are modelled and contained within the contemporary computer system. They equally belong to the modern day. The player explores NUTS through a doubled interface, through a screen depicting other screens. NUTS uses that doubling to explore contemporary limits of surveillance, which, it suggests, are of a kind with the issues of the past.

NUTS deepens this link by presenting the results of surveillance as a shock. The squirrels, it transpires, are not hoarding nuts. They are hoarding dynamite. This discovery initiates a tale of corporate greed and nascent squirrel resistance, upending our expectations about the fictional world. Even as surveillance uncovers a hidden secret, there is also an inherent warning (or promise) about surveillance’s inevitable failure. If we’ve missed this, surely there must be other, weirder secrets out there. The fragmented nature of surveillance will always fail to capture the whole. It obtains individual points of data, which do not add up to the sum of their parts. Something escapes the camera’s gaze – something revolutionary, something with the potential to reshape our understanding of the world. The squirrels are stockpiling dynamite. What else could be going on?

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