Thinking Out Loud: Games and Montage and Meaning

Soviet montage theory. It’s pretty simple – the idea is that the images in cinema don’t produce meaning on their own. It’s the juxtaposition of images through editing, through montage, that produces meaning.

Or, rather, the viewer who sees those juxtaposed images creates the meaning. In their mind. It makes sense that that’s how our brains work – before film, any two things we saw at the same time would like be related. And it is definitely internal to our brain, it’s not something that is necessarily a part of film. If you’ve seen Silence of the Lambs, you’ve seen this idea played with.

It also fits nicely with how film (like, actual film – with the strips of images on ground up bones and hooves) works. A bunch of still images that only have motion when viewed rapidly one after another. Kind of like editing on a micro level.

So games don’t really have a lot cinematic editing (whether that’s a benefit or a detriment I can’t (won’t) say), at least not during gameplay sections. A dramatic change of camera angle doesn’t really count. And you can’t really do a lot of cutting between different images when the player needs to, you know, be able to control what is going on.

Importance of contrast isn’t limited to cinema. It’s obviously important in music. And the entire point of museum exhibitions is the play of multiple works in the context of other works.

So.

Games. Consequence and choice and agency and blah blah blah-ity blah. The usual line of thinking (which I attribute to Peter Molyneux, totally unfairly ignoring everyone else whose ever espoused an idea ever) is that choices and consequences only matter if you can’t unmake them. Like real life. Which is the embodiment of a philosophy about free will and choice and individual agency that I’m not going into here.

So the Fable series limits you to one save and shouts, “Your choices matter because you cannot unmake them!” and you shout back in frustration and try to game the system.

There are hundreds of tiny little choices and interactions in games – every button you press, every thumbstick twirl, every mouse movement. There’s no filmstrip, there’s just a sequence of interactions and the image responds. Cause and effect.

Thought experiment: a short game with a story that has a single decision point. You choose between two options and the rest of the game plays out along one of those two story paths. Your choice caused those effects. Then you go back again and make the other choice, because that’s how you play games. They’re about trying different things and experimenting, right? So now it’s not just about cause and effect.

Your input into the game is based on the choice of which button to press and you can push every button and different things happen. So why, when you come upon a story choice, a narrative analogue to the kinetic button push, shouldn’t you be able to choose as many times as you want? Because, as per above, that’s not how life works or how stories work (because all stories obviously seek to recreate life (fallacy)). It’s all about cause and effect.

When John Peter Grant writes about ambiguity versus lore he’s pointing out a pretty useful distinction. Discussing the meaning of symbolism is different than discussing fighter formations in the Mass Effect universe. Games are great at providing fodder for the latter type of discussion (actually, it’s not games, it’s stuff that’s ancillary to the ‘game’ part of the game. The Mass Effect codex is not necessarily good storytelling just because you can (thankfully) ignore it.) but, maybe because of their nature (or nurture) as “simulations”, they have to eliminate as much of the ambiguity as possible.

Problem: Interpretation requires ambiguity, and games don’t really get negative space. They’re creating worlds, after all, and there aren’t gaps in the real world (there are), so why should there be gaps in the virtual?

So, negative space in the sense of interpretable space between, say, two images cut together
(or two comic panels, if you’re familiar with Scott McCloud) – that’s where the viewer or the reader makes meaning in these visual media. But in games we don’t have that linear structure filled with gaps. Hell, the Half-Life series has absolutely no gaps from Gordon Freeman’s point of view (which, I guess is realistic, because you’re inhabiting him? Until you start looking at issues of distances and sleep and bathroom breaks and eating and…) We have branches.

So anyway, maybe games aren’t about cause and effect, not exactly. Maybe they’re about comparing multiple effects.

And not just in a “Wow, look at the technical artistry on display here to basically create two different games!” way. And not in an “Oh man, look how different the game turned out because I made this other choice!” way. It doesn’t matter that you, the player made the choice.

Refocusing on the differences between outcomes moves away from the power-fantasy inherent in a single player game (where the player, by virtue of being an actual human being, is the only active agent to which everything in the game responds) and lets a story be about something more, even without sacrificing the thorough world-building that games are arguably great at.

But basically, if replaying a game, making different choices, seeing different outcomes, doesn’t add to the understanding and appreciation of the other series of outcomes, doesn’t increase the weight of the choice no matter the decision, maybe the choices aren’t all that interesting in the first place.

There’s plenty of room for meaning in the montage of branches – the “What Could Have Been…” story is all over the place in other media, and yet this might be the medium most suited to telling it.

Or maybe I’m just reading it wrong.