I recently watched Rodney Ascher’s fascinating Room 237, which is a compendium of multiple interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. In it, the viewer is given video evidence of many different theories regarding Kubrick’s film, with the explanation dubbed in over the top of the video.
All of the theories are kooky, to be sure. One involves the film being a huge apology by Kubrick for faking the moon landing, while another concerns itself with the apparent presence of Minotaur imagery throughout the film. The theories are almost beside the point, actually. It feels like the real point of the film is the extent to which people will obsess over a film, to the point of inventing theories surrounding their subtext, which are actually somewhat bolstered by the film itself. I imagine each of the people featured in the film have seen The Shining at least 100 times each, and many of those views were of the nonlinear variety, with constant pauses, rewinds, and step-by-step frame advancement being the norm at a certain point. The obsession becomes less about the content of the film than about minute details in the background, be it a rug texture, a typewriter, or a window.
This kind of “immersion criticism” (as Chuck Klosterman labeled it in this piece about the film) would seem to lend itself to videogames. Players spend hundreds of hours immersed in the worlds offered to them by games, exploring every nook and cranny until there’s no pixel left untouched.
Why then, is there so little immersion criticism available regarding games?
One possible reason is probably the most obvious: playing games is an active experience. It’s possible to watch The Shining 100 times and focus on a different aspect of the film each time: the physical geography of the space might be the focus of one viewing, or the impossibility of certain windows might be another. In essence, the text of the film fades into the background, and the subtext rises to the forefront, with a different piece of the subtext being subjected to a full, two-hour critique on the part of the viewer. Eventually, when these disparate parts are put together, one might find that there are a lot of Native American symbols in the film, and this might add up to a conviction that the film is about the horror of the slaughter of Native Americans.
In a game, the textual experience is the actual playing of the game. It’s almost impossible to remove the gameplay from the game itself in order to focus on background details. Gameplay is designed to be arresting from the outset (it’s ostensibly the reason why one is playing a game) and failing to pay attention to gameplay may actually hinder progress in the narrative, locking away text and subtext behind a task that demands attention.
There’s also the issue of length. It’s possible to watch The Shining two or three times per day every day for a month and really be immersed in the film. With most games taking anywhere from 12-15 hours to complete, it makes repeated playthroughs over a short timeframe exceedingly difficult. Additionally, the nature of games as an active experience make the experience of taking multiple tours through a game boring for most players. Games just aren’t emergent enough to hold a player’s attention for more than a couple of playthroughs (with some notable exceptions), so eventually those gameplay barriers become impassible, as the textual elements (nevermind the subtextual) of most games is scant compared to the actual time spent playing them.
Additionally, how many games truly have a subtext to even explore? Most games wear their concepts on their sleeve, removing most of the mystery of plotting (to say nothing of an exploration of the theme) in favor of making sure to point out all of the cool set pieces to the player. Even a game like 2012′s The Walking Dead, which had a tremendous narrative and wonderful characterization, doesn’t have much to say about the human experience. Sure, it has an emotional throughline that most genre fiction can’t hold a candle to, but the emotional core of the game is all it really has to say. There are themes of sacrifice and community woven throughout, but all of this is inherently the point of playing the game. There’s very little to wonder about when the credits roll, and it’s pretty apparent that the game said all it had to say in the form of the primary text.
There’s also the issue of control. Kubrick was a notorious control freak, and this reputation lends itself to coming up with crazy theories about his work. There simply wasn’t any part of The Shining that Kubrick didn’t touch, from the smallest details (like a typewriter that is German in origin). 2008′s Kubrick’s Boxes cemented this reputation in stone, as filmmaker Jon Ronson explored Stanley Kubrick’s research for his films and found thousands of pictures of red doors, as one example.
There simply isn’t that level of control for any one person in the production of most videogames. There are certainly some exceptions to this rule (Ken Levine apparently being but one example), but by and large games are collaborative endeavors, with narrative designers answering to gameplay designers who answer to art designers and vice versa.
It’s no wonder then that if there is any place immersion criticism exists in gaming, it’s with small, independent titles. The first one to really catch on, by my memory, is Jonathan Blow’s Braid, which has a multitude of different interpretations, including one centered around the atomic bomb. Later, games like Limbo and Fez offered their own meta-narratives that gave way to interpretations.
Of course, when dealing with a small, focused team led by a small number (one or two) of creative forces driving the game forward, it’s more possible to include personal details or feelings in a story, which feels like the place where most subtext derives from. Theorists of The Shining argue that Kubrick placed himself into the film in different ways because of his own personal motivations (in most cases, guilt), something only possible when one or two people with a shared vision place themselves into their art. This type of thing is rare with big-budget gaming, simply due to the amount of hands that touch the different aspects of the game.
However, one famous example of immersion criticism on the level of what exists in The Shining surrounded Mass Effect 3 in the form of the “Indoctrination Theory,” but the intent here feels different. Fans of The Shining enjoyed it as a film that included a mystery, and in working to unravel that mystery some of them came to different conclusions about the film that went beyond the plotting. The development of the Indoctrination Theory is different, as it is an attempt to put a meaning on the plotting itself, a way to resolve what many felt was an unresolved narrative. It’s a theory born out of desperation, not wonder.
There’s a place for immersion criticism in gaming, and I do sincerely hope one day that more personal games are created in the big-budget space. The duplicitous nature of art is something that consumers of other types of media have been able to experience and enjoy, and it’s time that gamers were treated to the same joy. Perhaps as the medium matures and comes into its own as a storytelling form, we will see more personal games that reflect their creators’ beliefs. This is seeping into mainstream gaming (the BioShock series is a fantastic example), but we still have a way to go.