Framing Meaning through Play – or – Everybody’s Gone to Film School

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*Minor spoilers for Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture to follow, I think.*

The perfect shot is a powerful thing ­– not only in communicating pleasure and meaning to a viewer, but also in the feelings it can engender within its composer. I’ve never gotten along well with cameras, whether I was behind or in front of them. My hands are too shaky to get smooth shots, not quick enough to move a frame with grace nor deft enough to hold my object in the center of a screen.

When I came to videogames in graduate school, I figured out that I could create those smooth pans with the controller a lot easier. I wasn’t filming; instead, the footage being created was solely for my own consumption and instantly vanished. This isn’t a new thing – screenshot artists have been working for a while and let’s players have been creating their own film styles for years. However, it is a practice that I have found helpful whenever I need to take a step back and think about the game.

 

At the Society for Cinema and Media Studies meeting this April I gave a talk about the various ways games create frames for players that can be controlled, allowing the player to act as cinematographer through play. Players can compose the visual presentation of games in a multitude of ways, either by moving the elements contained within a static frame (Tetris, Bejewled), moving a body or view through three-dimensional space (DOOM, Call of Duty) or switching the available point of view (GTAV, Super Mario 64), among other strategies. I proposed that we had to view the visual presentation of games as the byproduct of negotiation between player actions, designer intentions, and technological constraints. I argued that players could shift the meanings of games through their own framing techniques, altering the composition of shots in ways unintended by developers (like looking behind away from the action during an action sequence in Modern Warfare).

I think it is important for all players to realize their abilities in creating new and different visual compositions out of the games that they play, but I haven’t played that many games where I would say it is possible to significantly alter the meaning of a sequence by altering the camera angle or the frame’s contents. Turning your head around during a Call of Duty non-interactive sequence required me to picture what the scene as a whole would look like with one soldier obviously not paying attention instead of being able to directly grab a different meaning out of my play. I was sure that there were games out there that did this, but I had not played them – or had not played through the while paying attention to changing camera angles and shot composition.

However, playing through Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture has got me thinking that I’ve finally found the example that I’ve been looking for. Developed by The Chinese Room, Gone to the Rapture places the character in a rural English valley where everyone has mysteriously vanished. The player roams the countryside, investigates houses, picking up bits of the narrative through radio messages, floating orbs of light, and genuinely startling dialogue sequences. During these sequences, we are left to our own devices, allowed to walk around, move the camera, and compose whatever shot we’d like from an incredibly beautiful set.

It is unclear who we are as the player-character, which made it a lot easier to see myself as distant from the world the avatar inhabited. I saw myself as a director and the limited vertical motion created when moving made me feel like a suspended camera, or even a little like Emerson’s transparent eyeball. I had no commitments to the people that inhabited these places, no obligation to understand their viewpoints and to portray them with intention. I had free reign over how these elements would be presented to me. So I decided to experiment with them, taking screenshots from two angles during the same scene.

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DrinkTalk1-1

The game is softly structured into chapters, where in one area we will see the stories of only a handful of characters within the world. In this scene we overhear a discussion between two women at the picnic table. They are talking about a man, one trying to get the other to get a drink with him. The first shot I took (above) creates a sense of hope: a bridge to something new, a bright and fantastic night sky in the background (that sky is one of the most stunning consistencies of this game). The light that represents the remainders of these characters blends into the background, creating a coherent whole. However, when we switch angles (below) we are presented with a dark background, an empty abyss really that doesn’t evoke any hope for this potential relationship. The light and the dark crash into each other, which sets the person outside of their environment.

DrinkTalk1-2

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JeremyWendy2-1In this scene the village’s priest and an older woman discuss the absence of her son and how the relationship between the mother and her son has evolved during and prior to the crisis. From one side (above) we can easily see a derailed train in the background, behind the mother. Industry and science have gone off their rails within the narrative, reflected through this shot. However moving the camera (below) allows us to see that the priest is flanked by a large stone cross. It echoes a tumultuous steadfastness of faith that is a regular point of conversation throughout the game. Like the disjointed conversation, we are never able to compose a shot that combines these symbols and their meanings. Players can experience them both, but are ultimately unable to do so simultaneously.

JeremyWendy2-2 ***

Tower53-1

The last set of screenshots I took came from the game’s last chapter. The laboratory is a constant source of mystery in Gone to the Rapture, with everyone having an opinion on it or understanding it in a different way. Players move from tower to tower getting little bits of explanation with the light growing in intensity and variety as we climb. When we come to Tower 5, we listen to a discussion that goes between subjects like nature, light, existence, and so on. Above we see a shot of suspended televisions, which paired with a line about light could be read as some McLuhanist discussion of media or possibly just some cool installation art. However, when we turn our camera (below), we are presented with a view of the entire valley at night, overlaid with the mysterious light we have seen during our play. Light and dark play together with only the earth seeming to fade away even though we are assured it will continue.

Tower53-2***

There is a symmetry between our ability to create these visuals and the game. The game splits the narrative up into loose chapters based on the experiences of individuals throughout the crisis. Players are forced to look at people’s lives and actions from several different angles. We have to see them in different places and contexts to fill in the gap and to understand their desires, motivations, and fears. Likewise, there are many places where we are able to literally take different viewpoints on a singular conversation, allowing us to subtly alter the meanings that the text presents to us. Our ability to play in this way creates a cycle that reinforces itself.

Lately I’ve been thinking about how we might be able to establish and teach different forms of play that don’t rely on the game itself or on our own readings of it. While I applaud those who work within serious games and the writing that has been done to critique games and educate players, I think we have been missing something within the kind of discourse that has emerged from the criticism and study of games. These approaches are the remedies of film and television, where either production must be changed to create alternative media or minds must be educated to build resistant readings of the culture industry.

What is also required are approaches that flow directly from games that see the interaction as an important space of subversion. We could take on what Alan Meade (2015) terms counterplay, defined as:

It is this application of playful dispositions and intellectual capacities within the context of video-game development and consumption that constitutes counterplay, a way of playing that works against the video-game production, video-game consumption, and therefore ways of playing that interrupt, fracture, or subvert the experience of play or the process of becoming a player. (3)

While I have only read a chapter or so of Meade’s book, it seems that this concept is directed primarily at strategies that run counter to a particular game’s reward structure or social environment. Meade has chapters on glitching and griefing, and I’m sure speedrunning would work well within his definition too. That being said, we require concepts that open up the game text as being more than rule sets or social norms, but simply as objects of meaning production. Subverting the meanings of Halo through play should look very differently than subverting its checkpoint system.

Everybody Gone to the Rapture is an example of a game that gives us the possibility of changing its meanings through the play and resulting scenes of the game. I hope it is possible for us to create frameworks for alternative play styles that can be generalized and moved from game to game. Can we subvert the violence of FPSs by stopping and contemplating NPC deaths when the game doesn’t require it? Can we create different worlds by sharing resources in the Civilization series? I’m sure these have been contemplated before, but ensuring that we are able to offer alternative forms of play through criticism is a requirement for furthering engagement with this medium.

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About Nick Hanford

Graduate student at RPI and editor-in-chief at Journal at Games Criticism. Reach me at https://twitter.com/nicholashanford .
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